Mike Isabella has lost his public relations firm, a prized chef, award nominations and other pieces of his career in the weeks after a former manager sued the celebrity chef and his business partners for sexual harassment.
The new complaint alleges that the chef’s company, Mike Isabella Concepts, used nondisclosure agreements to stop employees from speaking out about sexual harassment in the workplace; the lawsuit also asks the court to declare the NDAs unenforceable, potentially freeing up employees to speak about their experiences at MIC. Since the original lawsuit, The Washington Post has interviewed more than 25 people about the culture of Isabella’s workplaces, including current and former employees, and independent eyewitnesses.
In a statement to The Post, Isabella said, the “NDAs were absolutely never used to intimidate employees.” The “Top Chef” alumnus also denied the more recent allegations, both inside and outside his restaurants. “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,” he said 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.”
Even though Isabella and his partners have yet to have their day in court, some people and organizations have already distanced themselves from MIC:
• Know Public Relations, Isabella’s longtime PR firm, scrubbed almost all traces of Isabella and his restaurants from its website after the initial lawsuit was filed, the Washingtonian first reported. Know founder Jennifer Resick Williams did not return phone calls from the media to confirm the split, but she recently sent the following text to The Post: “Know Public Relations no longer represents Mike Isabella Concepts.”
Isabella has since hired Lacy Jansson, a senior PR strategist for Status Labs, an Austin firm that specializes in online reputation management and digital crisis response. The company was accused in 2014 of trying to bribe a journalist to include mentions of its clients (a charge the firm denied), and its CEO Jordan French resigned in 2015 after being involved, with another company he owns, in a controversial demolition and eviction of an Austin piñata shop.
• The Washington Nationals cut all ties with Isabella before the season opener with the New York Mets on Thursday, as The Post first reported. The ballclub had already planned to replace two of Isabella’s concessions — Kapnos at the Park and the Southern-influenced Catchfly — but after Caras’s complaint in March, the Nationals also dropped the popular G sandwich stand.
The Post’s Scott Allen reported that the Nationals have replaced G, located behind Section 136 along the main concourse, with a new concessions stand called Grace’s Kitchen, which will offer a rotating menu created by local female business owners, chefs and restaurateurs. First up for Grace’s Kitchen (named for first lady Grace Coolidge, a major baseball fan): chef and restaurateur Jamie Leeds of the JL Restaurant Group (which includes Hank’s Oyster Bar) and chef and author Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s “The Chew.” Leeds created a shrimp po’ boy with coleslaw, while Hall will introduce Nats fans to her Nashville hot chicken, which she featured for a New York minute at her short-lived restaurant in Brooklyn.
• Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington rescinded the nominations of two Isabella restaurants for this year’s RAMMY Awards, which will be announced on June 1o, The Post reported. Arroz, the chef’s nod to Moroccan, Portuguese and Spanish cuisine, and G by Mike Isabella, the sandwich shop, were removed from consideration in the categories of New Restaurant and Favorite Fast Bites, respectively. Chef Michael Rafidi, formerly with Isabella’s Requin and Arroz, remains eligible in the Rising Culinary Star category.
• Rafidi announced that he would step away from his jobs. He had already informed Isabella that he would be leaving to pursue his own restaurant. But after a March research trip to Lebanon, Rafidi decided he couldn’t stay at MIC. His last day will be April 22.
Rafidi’s statements to the press did not mention anything about the sexual harassment allegations against his bosses. But in an interview with The Post, the chef said the lawsuit played a role.
“I truly came back to D.C. to cook the food I want to cook, to build a team and build some really good restaurants,” Rafidi said. “I never really wanted to be involved in any drama or anything like that. For me, I’m leaving at a crucial time, but I’m leaving to follow my dream and to build my restaurant. And, of course, a distraction like a lawsuit is not going to help me build a restaurant. The timing was going to happen anyway, but it just kind of felt at a specific time that I don’t want to be associated with that, as well.”
• Dine-N-Dash, José Andrés’ annual fundraiser for World Central Kitchen, dropped Isabella’s photo from its website. The site also no longer lists Graffiato among the participating restaurants, to “ensure that we keep the focus of the Dine-N-Dash event on World Central Kitchen’s humanitarian relief and empowerment projects around the world,” WCK said in a statement.
• The Best Buddies Prom dropped Isabella as the culinary chair of its April 27 event and replaced him with Carla Hall. “Best Buddies prides itself on a culture of respect, inclusion, equality and empowerment,” the organization said in a statement to Washington City Paper.
• Eater removed Isabella’s restaurants from all its lists and maps, as reported by the Washingtonian. The removals are part of editor in chief Amanda Kludt’s policy not to highlight any restaurant operated by an alleged harasser or known bad actor.
• “New Chefs on the Block,” a new feature-length documentary about the openings of Rose’s Luxury and Frankly. . .Pizza!, removed Isabella’s face from the cover of its DVD release, although director Dustin Harrison-Atlas left the chef in his film. “We are saddened and disappointed to hear that Chef Mike Isabella has been charged with sexual harassment in the workplace,” Harrison-Atlas said in a statement. “True or not, we are outraged by the food industry’s general mistreatment of women. Our two stars Frankly Pizza and Rose’s Luxury have worked hard to reverse that trend, and continue to foster environments that are safe for all their employees.”
• Plum Relish, a company that partners with chef-driven restaurants to create bento-box lunches for D.C. office workers, has reportedly broken ties with Isabella’s catering division. Plum Relish’s website no longer lists Isabella’s company among its restaurant partners.