She had already been thinking about creating a Web site to help the former employees of Roberto Donna recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages. She had, in fact, started to build the site, without much sense of urgency. But last week, when Esquire magazine named Donna “chef of the year,” she had had enough. She finally decided to make the Roberto Donna Bail Out site live on the Web.
“What it boils down to is that we need to get paid,” said the former employee, who requested anonymity because she still works in the hospitality industry and is concerned about backlash from Donna’s supporters.
“You don’t have a right to tell everyone that you’re the greatest chef in the world when you can’t even take care of the people who worked for you the last 20 years,” she said.
Technically, Donna wasn’t labeled the “greatest chef in the world.” Esquire critic John Mariani merely named Donna chef of the year in the magazine’s Best New Restaurants issue. Mariani never mentions any of Donna’s considerable legal troubles, nor the $1 million-plus he owes in back pay, unpaid taxes, legal fees, penalties, interest and damages.
As previously reported, Arlington County has received a steady stream of small checks to repay the $156,330 that Donna owes for unpaid meals taxes. (All We Can Eat couldn’t immediately reach county treasurer Francis X. O’Leary for an update.) But Donna has paid only $4,000 of the $527,000 that a federal judge ordered the chef to pay in 2010, according Denise Clark, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in that case. The money is supposed to be divided among 12 former employees who sued Donna, claiming he had violated labor laws for nearly two decades at Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City and his flagship Galileo on 21st Street NW, both long shuttered.
The Web site creator was one of those plaintiffs. She’s owed $20,000 from the lawsuit. She says she’s received only $200 so far.
“If you love him enough to eat at his restaurant,” she says about Donna’s chef gig at Al Dente, “you should love him enough to pay his debts off.”
The former employee says she won’t be collecting the money herself. Instead, she has set up a PayPal account that she hopes attorney Clark will administer for the 12 plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
“It will not be my personal bank account,” the former employee says. ”It’s not about me getting my money. It’s about the people who [Donna] continues to screw over.” The former employee would also like some money to go toward paying Clark, whose fees were part of the original judgment against Donna.
When reached by phone, Clark says she first heard about the Web site on Tuesday. “I don’t know whether I will be involved” with the site, she tells All We Can Eat.
Regardless of the site’s success, Clark says, she will continue to chase down the money owed her clients. She won the right to garnish Donna’s wages in the spring, although she notes there have been some technical issues in getting the money into the right hands. Clark says she hopes to persuade the courts to garnish any wages that Donna might earn from the second location of Al Dente, planned for I Street NW.
“We’re hopeful all the good press for [Donna] will result in good recoveries for us,” Clark says. “We will continue to be pursuing our judgment collection.”
When reached by phone text, Donna said he didn’t know about the new site. ”What?” he texted. “What are you talking about?” He did not immediately respond to an interview request.
* Tom Sietsema review of Al Dente (then known as La Forchetta)