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Mike Isabella, whose D.C. restaurant empire ended amid sexual harassment allegations, is cooking in Florida

Mike Isabella in 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Bearded, bespectacled and wearing a ball cap, Mike Isabella is almost unrecognizable in a video in which the chef prepares spaghetti alla chitarra at Blase Bistro and Martini Bar in Sarasota, Fla., his first known place of employment since his Washington restaurant empire crumbled last year in a #MeToo scandal.

Isabella is serving as a consultant and co-chef at the newly opened Blase Bistro, Florida hospitality veteran Cynthia Breslin’s third restaurant. Breslin said she met Isabella earlier this year via the contractor for her new bistro. The contractor, Breslin said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, is related to Isabella’s wife, Stacy. (Eater DC first reported the news about Isabella’s job.)

“He was looking at my menu and thought it needed to be a little more secure because I had it a little all over the place. He gave me some ideas on concepts. He just gave me some valuable information,” Breslin said. “I’m like: ‘I like you. Why don’t you help us open up?’ He immediately told me what happened, and that was how it started.”

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Isabella, she said, laid out his roller coaster ride in Washington. He was the head chef at José Andrés’s Zaytinya, became a celebrity from his appearances on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef: All-Stars,” opened his own restaurants, built one of the largest restaurant groups in the area and liquidated it all in bankruptcy after a former manager, Chloe Caras, filed a lawsuit accusing Isabella and his partners of “extraordinary” sexual harassment.

In her initial complaint and a second one filed in federal court, Caras alleged that the partners called her a “bitch” and “whore,” commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission. The second lawsuit alleged a toxic, alcohol-fueled culture at Isabella restaurants where managers and chefs created a “boys’ club” in which female employees were touched, insulted and harassed. The Post also spoke with 25 former employees, current employees and others who alleged rampant misconduct in the company.

Isabella denied all the allegations. The chef and restaurateur also settled the lawsuit in May, but the terms were confidential.

Breslin said she researched the stories on Isabella before hiring him as a consultant. She even talked to her staff about him and suggested they conduct their own research. None of the staff, she said, objected to the idea of working with Isabella.

“My first reaction was, honestly, I thought it was odd that the woman was with him for 10 years and never left if it was such a bad situation,” Breslin said about Caras.

“I mean, he never touched her. He used some bad language, I guess, and he paid for it, very, very highly. He lost everything he had. He paid a lot of money, and he was destroyed. So is the guy never supposed to work again?” Breslin continued.

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“Personally, I’ve worked in restaurants where the guy was really rude and inappropriate, and I quit and I went somewhere else. I certainly didn’t stick around for 10 years,” she said.

According to her LinkedIn page, Caras worked for Isabella for just under three years, not 10 years.

“The record is clear about the behavior that Mr. Isabella engaged in,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer who represented Caras in her lawsuits.

“He ultimately settled his lawsuit and, on some level, apologized,” Katz said. “The old trope that something didn’t happen because the woman continued in her job is just that: It’s just an old trope. Women stay in terrible jobs. This wasn’t a he said/she said. There were many women who came forward who had the same experience in the Isabella restaurants. I hope Mike is truly rehabilitating himself and has found his way to something better. But to cast blame on the person who came forward with these allegations is just silly.”

When reached by text for a comment about his new job, Isabella responded with a two-word brush off, unprintable in this newspaper. Isabella has, in the past, blamed his downfall on negative media reports.

Breslin, 64, said she is a survivor of sexual abuse herself. She also said that she has worked around a sexual predator in one of her restaurants, knows the signs of such a person and doesn’t see it with Isabella.

“I’ve never seen him drunk,” Breslin said. “He comes in at 9 in the morning and he leaves after service. He works harder than anybody has ever worked for me. Ever. And he runs it like it’s his own, and he’s very respectful and low-key.”

The French-heavy Blase Bistro menu was created entirely by Isabella, Breslin said, although he is not credited for his efforts on the menu or on the restaurant’s website. The dishes include French bistro staples such as steak frites, duck confit, salad Lyonnaise and a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. But the menu also has plates that appear to lean on Isabella’s background in Italian and Greek cooking: butternut squash agnolotti, spiced lamb hummus and a falafel burger with tzatziki.

“The entire menu is his except the pasta Cynthia, but he reworked that to where I don’t even feel like I should call it mine anymore,” Breslin said.

Breslin said that she plans to give Isabella credit on a future menu. She also would like to bring Isabella on permanently, or at least part-time, because the restaurant industry in Sarasota is so seasonal. If Isabella took the job, he would be making the same kind of move — quietly working for another restaurateur — that revived the career of chef Roberto Donna, whose own restaurant empire crumbled amid lawsuits, debt and customer complaints.

If Breslin does hire Isabella, she said, she hopes his past doesn’t follow him to Florida.

“Because it’s not fair to me,” she said. “I’ll deal with it if it does. I’m not going to get rid of him.”

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