Tensions run high at Osteria Elisir after GM and chef de cuisine quit for positions at Sax

September 10, 2013

Last week, shortly after Enzo Fargione returned from vacation, the chef/co-owner of Osteria Elisir received news that would almost ensure he wouldn't be taking another break anytime soon: His general manager and chef de cuisine handed in their resignations.

In happier days: Enzo Fargione (front, center) and his opening-day chef de cuisine Michael Fusano (back, right). Julia Saah is front, right. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
In happier days: Enzo Fargione (front center) and his opening-day chef de cuisine, Michael Fusano (back right). Julia Saah is to Fargione's left. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Chef de cuisine Michael Fusano and general manager Lindsay Suozzo, who are married, told Fargione they would be leaving Elisir sometime in late September before taking new positions at Sax, that gilded palace devoted to indulgences of both the eyes and palate. Fusano will become executive chef at Sax (and assist with the beverage programs at all of Nancy Koide and Errol Lawrence's restaurants, including Oya and Sei), while Suozzo will handle special events.

The exact date of the couple's resignation, and the exact length of their notice, are points of contention: Fargione says Fusano and Suozzo tended their resignations Sept. 5 and promised to work until Sept. 21, essentially providing two weeks' notice. The chef de cuisine and GM say they informed Fargione on Sept. 4 and promised to stay until Sept. 24, giving Elisir a full three weeks' heads-up.

Plus, Fusano said during a phone interview, he and Suozzo agreed to work at Elisir on their days off at Sax until the chef/owner was able to find and train their replacements.

Instead, Fusano and Suozzo abruptly stopped working at Elisir this weekend. The reasons they left vary, depending on who tells the story: Fargione says the couple refused to show up for Saturday's service after he and Elisir co-owner Julia Saah edited the staff schedules that Fusano and Suozzo had submitted (though Fargione says both did make attempts to come back and work their final days).

Fusano says tensions on Saturday became so intense — and, in some ways, so personal — that he and his wife thought it better not to work that night and instead come back on Monday. Both sides describe an escalating war of words via e-mail between Suozzo and Saah about schedules and payroll checks, a conversation that left both women angry on Saturday.

Later in the weekend, Fusano says, Suozzo texted Fargione, saying that she would come in Monday to take care of the details for some upcoming private events but that she needed access to her Elisir e-mail. Apparently, the password to the general manager's e-mail account was changed at some point after the argument between Suozzo and Saah.

Fargione responded to Suozzo, writing, "that would not be necessary. We will handle things from now on. Stay home. Please send your keys with Michael tomorrow. No hard feelings. It's just business," according to Fusano, who says he was reading from the text. Fargione confirms that he sent the message to Suozzo.

Elisir's policy is "if you walk out of your job, you stay out," Fargione says. "I would never take them back."

Except Fargione says he was willing to make an exception when Fusano called and said he would come back and work his last weeks. Fargione says he made the exception partly because he thinks Fusano was initially being loyal to his wife and partly because Fargione needs his chef de cuisine during September. Fargione says he is contractually obligated to take part in a gastronomic bike tour in Puglia, Italy, from Sept. 13-23.

But when Fusano arrived for work on Monday, he changed his mind. The chef de cuisine quit either because Fargione refused to hand over Suozzo's final two checks without Fusano first signing a document (Fusano's version) or because Fusano was still upset about Fargione's text to Suozzo (Fargione's version). Either way, Elisir is now without its most experienced cook; Fusano, a man who led his own kitchens in Chicago, had been with Fargione since Elisir first opened as a fine-dining destination in late 2011.

"I told him, 'You know what? I can't do this anymore,' " Fusano says he told Fargione. "He said, 'Okay, I wish you the best of luck.' We shook hands, and I walked out."

Shortly after, Fusano says, Fargione decided to flame the couple on his Facebook page. Fargione wrote:

"It is always nice to find out the level of care, professionalism and commitment of GM/Chef husband and wife team when they walk out their place of employment without any notice to pursue a new gig. I am absolutely speechless and amazed how little respect is given to this industry and their employers!! Lindsay Suozzo and Michael Fusano. . .I wish you both lots of luck for a bright future with the hope you will be more considerate and a lot more professional with your next employer."

Some chefs in the area, including Frank Ruta of Palena, expressed their sympathy on Fargione's Facebook page. "I will remember those names," another chef wrote.

Part of what made Fargione mad, he says now, is that he had a verbal commitment from Fusano and Suozzo to give him a month's notice should they both decide to leave at the same time. Fargione says he thought such an agreement only fair, given the couple's high-profile positions at Elisir.

Fusano counters that he and his wife had an "informal agreement" with Fargione that they would give Elisir a month's notice if the couple planned to move to Florida, as they had been discussing. Fusano says it wasn't a blanket agreement to give a month's notice no matter where the couple went after Elisir.

A couple of days after the dust-up with his former GM and chef de cuisine, Fargione sounds more introspective about the situation. "They gave me a lot. They really gave me a lot," he says. "It was a great relationship."

"I'm upset about it, but I'm not as upset about it as I'm hurt," Fargione adds. The Elisir chef/owner says that he is now pulling down more hours in the kitchen to fill Fusano's shoes and that Joshua Boardwine has stepped into the GM role.

"I love Michael to death, and I love Lindsay to death," Fargione says. "I hope one day our paths cross again."

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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