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Lawsuit accuses celebrity chef Mike Isabella of ‘extraordinary’ sexual harassment

Chloe Caras, a former top manager for Mike Isabella, has filed a lawsuit accusing the celebrity chef of sexual harassment. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Celebrity chef Mike Isabella, the head of a $30 million culinary empire based in the nation’s capital, was sued Monday by a former top manager who claims that Isabella and his partners repeatedly sexually harassed her in the workplace.

The lawsuit from Chloe Caras, filed in D.C. Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages from the “Top Chef” alum, his company Mike Isabella Concepts and four of his business partners: Taha Ismail, Yohan Allender, George Pagonis and Nicholas Pagonis.

In the lawsuit, Caras alleges that Isabella and his partners called her “bitch” and “whore,” commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission.

The treatment continued after she voiced concern to Isabella, she said in an interview.

“Women generally do not make it into the higher management ranks of Mr. Isabella’s establishments and when Ms. Caras did, she became the target of extraordinary sex-based hostility and abuse,” the lawsuit said.

Isabella and the others named in the lawsuit denied the allegations, saying the company does not tolerate sexual harassment and discrimination.

“Simply put, the allegations of an unwelcoming or hostile work atmosphere are false,” Isabella, his partners and his company said in a statement prepared by the Bascietto & Bregman law firm. “Harassment, discrimination, bullying, abuse, or unequal treatment of any kind whatsoever are not tolerated at MIC.”

Read the legal complaint filed against chef Mike Isabella

Caras said she reached her breaking point on the night of Dec. 5 when she was sitting in a booth with Isabella just before the launch of the Isabella Eatery in McLean, Va., and a male sous chef asked to join them. “Mr. Isabella had consumed numerous drinks throughout the day and appeared visibly intoxicated,” the lawsuit claims.

Caras said Isabella replied, “If you sleep with Chloe, you can,” according to the lawsuit.

“I told him to stop, and he immediately got angry,” Caras said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I tried to walk away, and he followed me into the kitchen, calling me a ‘bitch.’ ”

“As Ms. Caras reached the door to exit the restaurant,” the complaint states, “Mr. Isabella chased after her and continued calling her a ‘bitch’ and tauntingly shouted, ‘Love you, Chloe. Nice working with you.’ ”

Then he fired her, she said in the lawsuit.

Two male chefs who worked for Mike Isabella Concepts said in interviews that they witnessed Isabella yelling at Caras and following her on the night she said she was dismissed. Both have since left the company and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation.

Isabella’s lawyers disputed Caras’s account that she was fired, saying in the statement that “after years of working for MIC and never before raising these allegations, in December, she stormed off the job and refused to return, insisting she had been fired.”

The lawyers said 60 percent of the firm’s “management and leadership personnel” staffers are women and described Caras as a co-owner of MIC. Caras told The Post she made a one-time investment of $15,000 in Isabella’s Yona restaurant in 2015 and provided a receipt for documentation.

Separately, Sara Hancock, who worked for Isabella as a pastry sous chef from July 2017 until February, told The Post the chef kissed her cheek without consent in late December, exclaiming that he would make her a superstar.

She described the workplace at the chef’s Isabella Eatery as “degrading” for women.

“It’s just not for me — to be treated in a way that feels like the workplace is a frat house,” she said in an interview. “The word ‘whore’ was used quite often in the kitchen, and I hated it.”

Hancock said she told her boyfriend about the unwanted kiss on Dec. 31 by text message, which she showed to The Post.

“It made my skin crawl,” she said.

The lawyers did not address the allegations from Hancock.

After The Post contacted Isabella, his attorney sent a reporter the names of women he said wanted to talk about working for the chef.

Janelle Serianni, general manager at Isabella Eatery, said Isabella and his partners do drink in the restaurants, “but I have never witnessed negative name-calling or touching,” she said.

Dhiandra Olson, assistant ­general manager at Requin at the Wharf in Southwest Washington, said she has worked for Isabella for five years and has never seen him or his partners harass women.

“Personally, I think it’s a great environment to work in,” she said. “They treat everyone like family.”

Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in the District who is representing Caras, said women who face sexual harassment often fear that no one will believe them.

“I have handled hundreds of sexual harassment cases over the last three decades, and it is commonplace for women’s allegations to be written off,” she said.

Since Isabella competed a decade ago on the Bravo show “Top Chef,” he has opened 11 restaurants in Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, published a cookbook and received regular national media coverage.

The restaurateur, whose patrons have included Lady Gaga and Michelle Obama, recently purchased a $2.19 million condo on the city’s Southwest Waterfront, two blocks from his French-style eatery Requin, which opened last fall with his name splashed across the steel- and-glass exterior.

Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

Men tend to dominate the culinary world: Only one-fifth of chefs and head cooks in the United States are women, per Labor Department data, and men own two-thirds of the country’s restaurant businesses.

In the star-studded food scene, Isabella gained a reputation for his brash commentary. During one televised clam-shucking event in 2009, he remarked that “a girl shouldn’t be at the same level that I am,” sparking Internet outrage.

Isabella called the line “a joke” in a live chat that year with Post readers and said: “I was raised in a broken family by my mother and my sister, so I have plenty of respect for women. It was sarcastic.”

Isabella’s legal team said in the statement that the chef had been trying to change restaurant industry culture.

“One last point we want to make is that we agree that unprofessional words and language have been customary and historically acceptable in the restaurant industry,” the lawyers said in the statement, adding that Isabella and his team had “recognized the need for change, which is why they made policy and HR changes long before these allegations were made.”

Caras told The Post she joined Isabella’s company as a regional manager in 2015, helping to open his three Arlington, Va., properties.

“The women bashing, the sexism — that was always there,” Caras said in an interview. “I tried to sometimes play along or ignore it. I thought if I kept doing a good job, I’d be okay.”

In her complaint, Caras said she was in “frequent contact” with Isabella and his partners and was “routinely subjected to their sexist comments, insults and ridicule.”

On Feb. 19, 2016, Caras said Ismail and Nicholas Pagonis, two of Isabella’s business partners, included her in a group chat texting pictures of a man licking a man’s buttocks and a man with his penis against what appeared to be a plucked turkey, according to texts attached to the lawsuit. (Ismail and Pagonis did not respond to requests for comment, and their attorneys did not address any specific allegations.)

One month later, Caras said in the complaint, Isabella asked her to name a cocktail the “Itchy Kitty.”

After she refused, Caras said, Isabella texted her about the drink.

“Itchy kitty,” he wrote, according to a March 11, 2016, message reviewed by The Post.

“Oh come onnnnn,” she replied.

“What’s wrong, u got one?” Isabella responded, according to the text exchange.

On April 17, 2016, Caras said, Isabella texted her to ask if she was going to a pork festival. She said she replied no, and he wrote, “I thought u were going to be my date.”

On separate occasions, she said in the lawsuit, Isabella and Ismail each approached her from behind, grabbed her hair and pantomimed sex.

Isabella did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

Caras was promoted in July 2017, taking on the role of director of operations. She was tasked with launching the Isabella Eatery, a 41,000-square-foot food court in the Tysons Galleria mall.

She hired servers, hosts and bartenders. She wrote training manuals. She helped design menus. Through it all, she said, her bosses continued to send her explicit text messages and comment on her appearance.

By December 2017, however, Caras said she had developed anxiety. She said she had told herself for years that the way her superiors behaved at work was “normal” in the restaurant industry.

“I think I was in denial,” she said.

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On Dec. 6, the day after Caras said she was fired, she said the company’s human resources representative, Ket Raxajak, called her and asked if she was planning to come to work.

Caras said she told Raxajak she had been terminated. About 20 minutes after the call, Caras said, the company deactivated her work email and removed her from the Isabella Eatery website.

Raxajak did not respond to requests for comment.

On Dec. 7, Allender, one of Isabella’s partners (and Caras’s direct supervisor), wrote in an email to Caras that Isabella had not fired her and the exchange had been a “miscommunication or misunderstanding,” according to the lawsuit and emails viewed by The Post.

After Caras told him Isabella had dismissed her, Allender asked her to return to work and then said it was her comments about a co-worker that made everyone “uncomfortable.”

She then told Allender she was consulting a lawyer, to which he replied, “You have abandoned your post.”