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Mike Isabella’s restaurants used nondisclosure agreements to silence sexual harassment accounts, lawsuit alleges

Mike Isabella faces a new lawsuit in federal court. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella’s company used nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking out about sexual harassment, lawyers representing his former manager allege in an expanded lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court. Chloe Caras’s lawsuit asks the court to declare the NDAs unenforceable — which could free many more employees to speak about their experience working for the company.

The complaint also includes new allegations that Isabella’s company retaliated against employees for speaking up against sexual harassment and used the NDAs to ensure their silence. The lawsuit was filed amid an intensifying legal battle in which Isabella and his team are aggressively defending the former “Top Chef” contestant’s reputation while also alleging that Caras engaged in some of the same conduct about which she is complaining.

Caras initially filed suit in D.C. Superior Court on March 19, accusing Isabella and his partners of “extraordinary” sexual harassment, but her lawyers dismissed that suit to file a new one in federal court. She alleges that they called her “bitch” and “whore,” commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission. She was fired, she says, on Dec. 5 after Isabella told a male sous chef to sleep with her.

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

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

Since the lawsuit was initially reported, The Post has interviewed more than 25 people about the culture of Isabella’s workplaces, including current and former employees, and independent eyewitnesses. Many of the former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they had signed an NDA as a condition of accepting their jobs and feared being sued by Isabella.

“These allegations are false, petty, and lack context. I want to be clear: We do not condone the hostile work environment implied in these allegations,” said Isabella in a statement. “My team has worked incredibly hard building this successful restaurant group, and I will continue to focus on my employees, food and hospitality at this time.”

Since 2011, according to the complaint, many Mike Isabella Concepts employees have been required to sign NDAs barring them from sharing information with anyone, including a significant other, about “details of the personal and business lives of Mike Isabella, his family members, friends, business associates and dealings, including any television programs concerning Mike Isabella and his restaurants.” Each breach of the NDA, copies of which were provided to The Post, carries a $500,000 penalty, according to the complaint.

“This is a lifetime muzzle, with a hammer of $500,000 per occurrence, hanging over the head of all of his employees, including many of who are low wage earners,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in the District who is representing Caras. “These NDAs have been one of the tools that companies use to allow serial harassers to stay in place, without any kind of ability for people to speak out.”

Companies use NDAs to protect intellectual property, including, in the case of restaurants, recipes and business plans. But Katz said that Isabella’s agreements are so broad, she is asking the court to release employees from them. In deciding whether to enforce NDAs, courts must weigh factors including the public interest, and they have voided NDAs that were deemed overly broad.

An NDA cannot prevent employees from speaking to law enforcement or filing a complaint with the EEOC, but it can bar them from speaking about their employment to friends, family and the media. President Trump’s attorneys have accused the performer Stormy Daniels of violating her NDA, and have claimed the right to seek $20 million in damages. Several states, including Pennsylvania, California and New York, have proposed legislation to limit an NDA’s ability to muzzle speech about discrimination and harassment.

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

At Isabella’s restaurants, several employees alleged that they were reminded of their NDA after experiencing sexual harassment or witnessing misconduct.

Emily LeHuray, a former food runner at the Graffiato in Richmond, said she signed two NDAs during her 14 months there. The second one, she said, was much longer than the first — so long that she didn’t read it. But she said she felt its impact: Graffiato employees told her that they were “afraid to talk” publicly about anything related to the restaurant.

LeHuray left Graffiato in October but still remains close to staffers there. She recently told several of them she was going to talk to the media about her experiences. “They all got really nervous when I brought that up,” LeHuray said. They told her not to say too much.

In a statement, Isabella said NDAs “were established six years ago to prevent any news about our restaurant openings from leaking to press before we were ready to announce it. NDAs were absolutely never used to intimidate employees. In fact, we have always had policies in place to encourage employees to report incidents that made them uncomfortable.”

'It made my skin crawl'

The complaint also contains new allegations about the Richmond Graffiato, which allegedly had a toxic culture, even though Isabella didn’t visit the restaurant frequently after its first year in business, employees say.

According to the complaint, “Mr. Isabella routinely drank throughout the day at his restaurants, and his behavior while intoxicated was often belligerent, threatening, and sexually inappropriate.”

One former bartender who worked at the Richmond Graffiato during its opening months said Isabella would order double gin and tonics. The bartender, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works in the Richmond hospitality industry, said that one night, Isabella drank six doubles, or about half a bottle of Bluecoat.

LeHuray, the former food runner, said that one night, Isabella and Taha Ismail, an MIC partner, were sitting at the Richmond restaurant’s pizza bar when a woman who recognized Isabella from his TV appearances approached him. LeHuray said she overheard Isabella tell the woman, “If you show us your tits, I’ll buy you some food.” The woman proceeded to pull up her shirt in the crowded restaurant, but left her bra on, LeHuray said. The woman then lifted her shirt a second time, LeHuray said, presumably to show Isabella and Ismail her breasts.

“I wasn’t looking,” LeHuray said. “But why else would she do it again?”

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The culture was allegedly perpetuated by Graffiato’s former chef, Matt Robinett, who “continued to harass female employees and patrons at Graffiato with impunity until his unrelated termination around October 2017,” according to the complaint.

Robinett could not be reached for comment, but one former server told The Post about attending a work meeting with Robinett. “While he was looking directly at one of the servers who has tattoos, he said, ‘Girls who have tattoos like anal sex.’ Maybe someone laughed and it got shrugged off,” said the server. “It made my skin crawl that he would say that at a meeting.” A former female manager there confirmed that other employees had told her about these remarks.

Another former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared litigation, said that on repeated occasions Robinett belittled her for making mistakes on the job and commented on her appearance.

“I was told I needed to start wearing makeup,” she said. She complained to upper management in Washington, and believes that Robinett was subsequently told about her complaints.

After her complaint, “he had mentioned that he was going to make my life a living hell,” she said, adding that Robinett took steps to make it more difficult for her to do her job, and verbally berated her.

'The employees were disgusted'

In an August 2016 incident outlined in the complaint, Robinett and other Graffiato staff members were drinking after work at the nearby GWARbar, which shares two owners, Hilda Staples and Travis Croxton, with the Richmond Graffiato. Sarah Dix, a regular at the bar, said that she went to the single-occupancy bathroom and was using the facilities when Robinett opened the door, which had a faulty lock.

“We both yelled, ‘Oh s---,’ and he closed the door,” said Dix, but then he reopened it wider. “He was laughing and leering.”

Mike Isabella is no longer eligible for a top industry award in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit

Later, Dix said, Robinett walked up to her while she was drinking with her friends and said, “Nice vag,” short for vagina. He later attempted to dump a beer on her friend, she said, and tried to get in a physical altercation with a male friend of Dix. Details of the incident were confirmed by two former employees who were there that night.

She said that a manager from GWARbar showed her security video that confirmed her story. A manager from Graffiato contacted her and apologized.

The next day, said the former Graffiato manager, Robinett bragged about the incident at work.

“He coined this phrase, ‘Nice vag,’ and he would say it throughout the day” to female employees including her, said the manager. “He thought it was the funniest thing in the whole world . . . . The employees were disgusted.”

Dix, who has acquaintances who work at Graffiato, left a review detailing her experience on Graffiato’s Yelp page, but the review was later deleted. Images of the review were provided to The Post by Caras’s lawyers. “I think that he should have gotten fired,” said Dix. “To me it just says that they have no respect for women.”

After the Yelp review was posted, Isabella visited Richmond to talk to Robinett. The former manager said she assumed that meant he would be fired, but she and some other staff members were surprised that he was not.

One former bartender, who supported Robinett, said the incident “got blown out of proportion.” MIC said in a statement that because Robinett was no longer an employee, the company would not provide comment on the matter.

“I was notified that the chef of Graffiato was involved in an altercation with a few other patrons, resulting in our staff immediately escorting him off-premise,” emailed GWARbar co-owner Travis Croxton, also the co-founder of the Rappahannock Oyster Co. “I do know that the next day, he came back and apologized to the staff, made offers to apologize in person to the others involved. And on a personal level I know that he’s not had a drop to drink since that night.”

Others said that the incident and the time off didn’t do much to change Robinett’s behavior. He still flirted with hostesses, said LeHuray and the former manager, and he still ignored complaints from back-of-the-house women who told him that they were being harassed by line cooks. “He said, ‘They speak Spanish. You don’t know what they’re saying anyway,’ ” LeHuray said.

When Robinett remained in his job weeks after the GWARbar incident, one former Graffiato employee, who remained close with staff there, told The Post he decided to take action. He printed up about 100 stickers naming Robinett and using the phrase “Making Restaurants Sexist Again,” and started posting them on the windows at Graffiato, among other places in the neighborhood. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared that Mike Isabella Concepts would sue him over the NDA he signed. The former employee also took his campaign to social media to “spread awareness of what transpired and what Matt was like.”

But as the months went by and Robinett remained on the job in Richmond, the employee eventually stopped his campaign. According to Caras’s lawsuit, another employee “who complained to Mr. Ismail about the harassing conditions was fired by Mr. Robinett one day after she filed a formal complaint. Mr. Robinett acknowledged that he was aware that she had filed the complaint and questioned why she had ‘martyred’ herself.”

Isabella kept Robinett in the job because of inertia, said Adam Howard, who was the MIC corporate chef until February. He said Isabella told him “that the restaurant didn’t make enough money to have to warrant hiring another chef, and he’d just rather let it close than have to deal with it.”

'This guy is messing with me'

At the Graffiato in Washington, “It was very much a boys’ club, and the girls were just less than,” said one former female server, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared legal action from Isabella. She said that Nick Pagonis, a partner in the restaurant group, would frequently grab her around her midsection. “It honestly got to a point where I would walk past him and I would wince, because my body would be preparing for him to grab me,” she said. A female bartender who worked there at the same time told The Post she observed this behavior.

“This allegation is false and never occurred. I have confidence that when all the facts are brought to light, it will be abundantly clear that Nick Pagonis did not initiate or perpetuate a hostile work environment like the one alleged. We are gathering evidence that proves our case,” said Demetry Pikrallidas, an attorney representing Pagonis and his brother, George, another partner in the restaurant.

The former server also spoke of a cook who would make lewd remarks and gestures at her, also witnessed by the bartender, and said she complained to her manager.

“I said, ‘This guy is messing with me. You need to tell him not to mess with me.’ I would be crying. He’d said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll talk to him,’ but it didn’t seem like he talked to him, because the cook kept doing it.”

Isabella said in a statement: “Employees’ complaints were never ignored by managers at Graffiato.”

Isabella and his team have been defending themselves vigorously against the suit. “Simply put, the allegations of an unwelcoming or hostile work atmosphere are false,” Isabella, his partners and his company told The Post in a statement. “Harassment, discrimination, bullying, abuse, or unequal treatment of any kind whatsoever are not tolerated at MIC.”

On Thursday, Isabella’s publicist circulated a letter to local media, signed by “The Women of Mike Isabella Concepts.” “Chef Mike and his team have built a culture based on open-communication, equality, and a productive, friendly work environment,” said the letter, which was signed by 10 female employees. The publicist also emailed other letters of support from women who knew the chef. One was from Isabella’s florist, who said she had “never witnessed or been a part of sexual harassment or abuses in these work places.” Two others came from former Isabella restaurant employees who had not worked at his restaurants since 2014.

MIC human resources manager Ket Raxajak drafted the letter after she reached out to employees to check on their well-being following the first lawsuit in March, said Dhiandra Olson, assistant general manager at Requin, an Isabella restaurant at the Wharf.

Raxajak attached her own name to the letter, too. Asked about a human resources manager signing a letter of support for a boss accused of sexual harassment, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said such a scenario could make it difficult for employees to bring sexual harassment complaints to HR.

“For HR to be effective under circumstances like this, it has to be not only objective but it must appear to be objective,” said Taylor, who emphasized that he was speaking not about this case but generally about the role of human resources during sexual harassment allegations. “Employees ultimately have to feel that they have an HR department that they can bring matters to, and that HR will conduct an investigation that is neither pro-employee or pro-employer. Anything that causes one party or the other to question the integrity of the investigation causes real problems.”

When asked whether employees could feel safe filing workplace harassment complaints to a manager who signed the letter, Isabella responded, “Of course.”

Isabella’s publicist, Lacy Jansson of the Austin public relations company Status Labs, also sent The Post and other news organizations signed declarations from two MIC employees, one current and one former, with allegations that Caras was herself a sexual harasser.

“Women in the restaurant industry are put in the untenable position of having to fit in with a ‘bro culture’ in order to succeed,” said Katz, Caras’s attorney. “Ms. Caras vehemently denies that she created this environment. She did her best to get along in an egregiously sexually hostile work environment.”

On Monday, Katz sent a letter to Jansson telling her that the statements were false and defamatory, and “will undoubtedly lead to a further escalation of legal claims against MIC and a separate defamation suit against you and your company if the statements are not rescinded at once.”

Isabella said in a statement, “There is no reason to retract statements that were given under oath.”

'It was very disturbing'

The complaint also alleges that Isabella’s team has been pressuring employees to sign false statements about Caras and her termination. Howard, the former corporate chef, told The Post that the day after Caras’s termination, he was in the car driving to Isabella Eatery in Tysons Corner with another cook, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be associated with Isabella or his actions. Howard and the cook, who was present during Caras’s firing, said that Johannes Allender, the company’s chief financial officer, called him, and the cook put him on speakerphone so Howard could hear the conversation.

“[Allender] was like, well, Chloe made you feel uncomfortable, right? She was being really sexually forward, she made some sexual comments, right?” said Howard. The cook had told Allender that he did not wish to get involved. Later, the cook told The Post that the MIC partners asked him to write a statement about his experience working with Caras and her firing.

“They’re like, ‘Come on, man, I’ve helped you out when you needed help.’ They’re guilting me. And I’m like, ‘This isn’t my problem,’ ” said the cook. The cook said he ultimately wrote and signed a truthful statement that indicated Caras did not sexually harass him.

“Employees were never coerced to do anything,” said Isabella in a statement on behalf of the company, including Allender. “Employees wrote and signed their own letters that voiced their own opinions and beliefs.”

Isabella’s sexualized comments weren’t restricted to his restaurants, said Caras and one other woman. Caras recalled a conversation with Isabella when they were traveling to New York by train last July. The conversation was also heard by Katherine Maulden, a passenger on the train, who said she recognized Isabella from television and knew Caras because Caras used to work at Ted’s Bulletin, where Maulden was a regular. Maulden said two other colleagues, whom she did not know, were also present. Over the 3½-hour ride, “there was no way to miss what [Isabella] was saying,” Maulden said. “It was very disturbing.”

On the train, Caras told The Post, she mentioned that she was planning to freeze her eggs, and Isabella said he would fertilize them for her.

Maulden said she heard Isabella say that “he would be happy to fertilize them for her the old-fashioned way. She didn’t really respond.”

Caras also recalled the group discussing various personnel issues, which Maulden also said she overheard. At one point, she says, they brought up an employee who had taken leave to care for a sick relative.

“Mr. Isabella’s comment was, ‘I’ve been looking for a way to get rid of her anyway, because she’s so fat and ugly — nobody wants to look at her,’” said Maulden. “I thought that was appalling. Nobody really challenged him on that.” Maulden said she approached Caras’s lawyers with her account after reading about the lawsuit in The Post.

'I could feel my face turning bright red'

Last year, Isabella visited Spain as part of a trip paid by some Spanish wine growers and a Spanish wine importer. Ismail, the MIC partner, was part of the group, as were Abby Anderson and Amanda Jo Law, a pair of Denver wine sales representatives.

“The guy was just drunk all day, every day,” Anderson told The Post, referring to Isabella, who denied the allegations. Unlike them, they said, he didn’t tour the wineries, instead sleeping or making phone calls on the bus. When he pushed Anderson to have a gin and tonic with him at breakfast, “My response was actually, ‘I won’t have a drink with you because I don’t like you and think you’re an a------.’ All the guys just roared.”

One day, the women said, Isabella snapped the bra of a young woman who was wearing an elegant strapless dress. Another person in the entourage, they alleged, twice poured water down Anderson’s back after they had all finished lunch. Anderson said she was targeted because she was wearing a white dress at the time.

“Abby was upset,” Law said. “I didn’t know where she went. She skipped out on the rest of the lunch and went and sat on the bus. When I went to find her, she was in tears and wasn’t ready to talk about what happened.”

On the group’s last night, the two women said, Isabella repeatedly encouraged another man on the tour to grab Law and kiss her. He said, “You need to f--- her and you need to seal the deal,” Anderson said. “And when you say that, all of that, about 60 times over the course of dinner, it gets really annoying.”

According to the women, the guy eventually followed Isabella’s orders: He grabbed Law and kissed her. Law forwarded a photo of the moment to The Post. It shows Isabella seated next to Law, pushing her left arm into the man planting the kiss.

“I could feel my face turning bright red,” Law said. “I remember putting my napkin over my face, and then I remember getting off of my chair and sitting on the floor, like wanting to get under the table. Also [I remember] not wanting to let everyone know how much that upset me, because I felt like it was only fueling his fire. Like I think he was really enjoying seeing me squirm.”

“It definitely was really humiliating for me. That was the worst moment for me on the trip,” Law said. “It was led by, directed by, Mike Isabella.”

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