At the conference, Vongerichten described a day when a New York Times critic was dining in his Restaurant Lafayette and he lost patience with a union dishwasher who had been taking his lunch breaks during the restaurant’s midday service. “The only way to get rid of him was to shake him up a little bit,” the chef said. Laughing, he said he told the man, “‘If I lose a star because of you … I’ll hunt you down.’ I needed to do something. So it was a little bit of physical abuse, for sure, for this dishwasher … but I had to react.”
Vongerichten — whose empire spans more than three dozen restaurants across the globe — wrote about the 1986 attack in his recent memoir, “JVG: A Life in 12 Recipes.” In that more graphic account, Vongerichten wrote that he “beat the s—” out of the man in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator and that his sous chef had guarded the door so the dishwasher couldn’t escape. He wrote that later he heard that he had broken the dishwasher’s nose. But the account had drawn little attention until the chef appeared onstage for a panel conversation about food memoirs at the Philly Chef Conference, an annual event hosted by Drexel University that hosts restaurateurs and media from around the world.
“It was as if a blast of ice went through the room — seriously, it was like the temperature of the room dropped,” said Jeff Gordinier, food and drinks editor for Esquire magazine, who was moderating the talk. Gordinier said he brought up the passage in Vongerichten’s book and asked the chef to comment about it because he had noticed that the memoirs of all three panelists, including Kith and Kin chef Kwame Onwuachi and former Bouley pastry chef Phyllis Grant, had included stories of abuse in professional kitchens — only the latter two were victims, not perpetrators.
“I thought he might express remorse,” Gordinier said.
Vongerichten instead appeared to offer a less-violent version of the attack than the one the moderator cited from the book, claiming that he had only “shaken” the man. He also declined to publicly apologize for his behavior when Gordinier gave him the chance. “I feel pretty good about it,” he said. “He was the abusive one who pushed the cooks for me to act this way.”
At another point in the conversation, Vongerichten struck another discordant note when Gordinier asked him how he felt when he first arrived from his native Alsace to Bangkok, the city whose cuisine would inspire him to blend Thai and French cuisine, a fusion that helped make him famous. “I felt like Christopher Columbus landing on a new territory,” the chef replied, despite the fact that Columbus has come to represent colonization — something people are particularly attuned to in the food world, where cultural appropriation is considered a pitfall to be avoided by sensitive chefs.
The chef’s comments quickly became Topic A of conversation at the conference, according to attendees, and have fueled discussion about how pervasive workplace abuse is, and how even a well-regarded chef and restaurateur can have blind spots about the problem.
“The people who are at the very top of our industry are a lot more insulated than the rest of us,” said Stephen Satterfield, editor of the food-culture magazine Whetstone, who was in the audience and said he found Vongerichten’s remarks to be “tone deaf.” “And the conversations that are happening on the ground level are maybe not reaching the upper realms.”
Satterfield said he was disappointed in the chef, whom he considers one of the best in the world. “I’m just so astonished because it’s not so hard,” he said. “Chefs who are not even paying close attention to what’s happening have to know that what might have been their past behavior is now being frowned upon or punished by law. That things aren’t the way things used to be is well-established.”
Others criticized Vongerichten for not being part of industry-wide efforts to combat mistreatment of workers. “Though there are plenty of chefs who are excited to talk about the ways they’re shutting down abuse in their own kitchens, there are still titans of the industry who have yet to realize the influence they wield in shifting the industry away from normalizing abuse,” Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme wrote for Philadelphia magazine.
When contacted by The Washington Post, Vongerichten issued a statement apologizing for his remarks, calling them “irresponsible and ignorant.” He said he was sorry both for the incident and for the way he spoke about it. “I wrongly made light of this incident on the panel — it does not reflect who I am today. In fact, I do regret that incident and am not proud of it. I have worked hard to run restaurants where employees feel respected, well-treated, and safe, and I should have made this clear when given the chance.”
Several other chefs of Vongerichten’s generation — mostly men who began their careers in hierarchical, European-style kitchen systems where shouting was the norm and physical violence was not uncommon — have admitted they had abused members of their staffs. But they have recounted their behavior with feelings of remorse. French chef and TV personality Eric Ripert described himself in an interview as “a young, borderline violent dictator” who eventually learned to control his temper. Noma chef Rene Redzepi confessed to abuse and has publicly struggled to atone for it. “I’ve been a bully for a large part of my career,” he wrote in an essay. “I’ve yelled and pushed people.”
There is no indication that Vongerichten, 62, has a history of abuse. In fact, in his memoir, he expresses surprise at the violence he inflicted on the dishwasher, viewing it as an aberration. And later, he describes his typical management style as one in which he doesn’t instill fear, but rather motivates through “positive mentorship.”
In the statement, Vongerichten said the 1986 outburst “was the first and only such incident.”
He also apologized for his Christopher Columbus reference, which many found to be insensitive.
“I have an overwhelming respect and love for other cultures and their cuisines,” he said in the statement. “In trying to convey the awe and wonder I felt when I arrived in Thailand, I made a thoughtless and insensitive reference. My career has been defined by working to respectfully incorporate flavors and traditions of many cultures. It pains me that I said something that would cause anyone to doubt that respect and hurt others.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the day the panel discussion took place.
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