News broke recently of a hefty $25 million lawsuit being filed by a former pastry chef at The Oak Room at The Plaza in New York City against chef Eric Hara for some particularly nasty sexual harassment allegations. But sexual misconduct isn't the only issue that gets many chefs in legal trouble. Mishandling tips, missing appearances, allegations of copyright infringement, libel on TV — there are plenty of legal pitfalls for chefs to fall into. And while you're more likely to hear about suits involving celebrity chefs (who hasn't sued Todd English or Gordon Ramsay?), it's not just famous chefs that get in hot water.
I saw this firsthand in 2007 when I worked in both kitchens featured in one of New York City's biggest restaurant lawsuits in years. Chef Rebecca Charles sued her former sous-chef Ed McFarland for allegedly ripping off the lobster roll concept that kick-started the city's love affair with the New England staple (though it wasn't the first time a former Pearl cook left and set up a similar shop; remember Mary's Fish Camp). Pearl versus Ed's made the front page of The New York Times. Serious Eats' Ed Levine injected himself into the controversy. There was a press conference for crying out loud. Nasty stuff.
That suit was eventually settled out of court in 2008 and no numbers were made public. But some pretty hefty sums have been publicized during chefs' legal battles over the years. Check out this list of 10 great chef lawsuits.
• $40 Million: This one's messy. Courthouse News Service reported in February of 2010 that Paula Deen was suing Celebrity Chef Tours LLC for $1.25 million in damages after "the promoter bounced a $150,000 check and sent 'bogus' wire transfer instructions." In March, Food Network Addict reported that Celebrity Chef Tours was countersuing for $40 million, complaining of an alleged lack of promised publicity by Paula and her sons, concerns about the language used by Deen on stage, "that her show is not 'family-friendly' and the fact that audiences at her previous appearances have been disappointed by the fact that Paula Deen rarely cooks during her performance." [Eater, Food Network Addict] (Photo courtesy Flickr/lifescript)
• $25 Million: Melissa Rodriguez, a former pastry chef at The Oak Room at The Plaza, was said to be filing a $25 million suit against chef Eric Hara for subjecting her and others to sexual harassment including: throwing her in the garbage, pouring food in her hair "almost every day," making her carry eggs in her shirt, and ordering a female chef to verify sizes of cooks' penises if their lengths were bragged about. [Eater, Daily News]
• $3 Million: In 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that in a $3 million lawsuit, Julia Child was accused by Daniel Coulter of discrimination. It was alleged that she nixed his application for the post of executive director of The American Institute of Wine & Food because she didn’t want “a homosexual in charge.” Child didn't go to deposition, and Coulter settled and disappeared, but it's interesting to note subsequent articles alleging Child's supposed prejudices. [LAT, Boston Magazine, SFist, Appetite for Life] (Photo courtesy Wikicommons/Elsa Dorfman)
• $2 Million: In March of 2011, it was reported that Duco Events, a New Zealand-based promotions company, was suing celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay for more than $2 million after he cancelled appearances at sold-out charity events in New Zealand. It was said to be the second time Ramsay failed to uphold his contract with the company. [New Zealand Herald] (Photo courtesy Flickr/gordonramsaysubmissions)
• $1.75 Million: In September of 2008, Reuters reported that celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten agreed to settle a lawsuit over tips filed by waiters at his New York restaurants for $1.75 million. [Reuters]
• $1.25 Million: In April of 2011, The New York Times reported that Geoffrey Zakarian, the former owner of Country (now closed) in The Carlton Hotel was being sued by a group of former cooks in a class-action lawsuit that alleges the owner/head chef, “failed to pay the workers time and a half for overtime, falsified pay records to shortchange them and deducted from their paychecks for staff meals they were not given." The cooks were said to be seeking $1 million in damages and $250,000 in penalties. Zakarian’s former partner in the restaurant, Adam Block, filed an affidavit in support of the cooks. Zakarian, in turn, is suing another former partner, Moshe Lax, for $380,000, the amount Lax and Block agreed to pay to buy Zakarian out of the partnership. Lax is countersuing for more than $2 million in damages for “breaches of fiduciary duties and misappropriation of funds.” [NYT]
• $1,219,795: In February of 2011, it was reported that Sara Stewart, the former director of a subsidiary for Gordon Ramsay Interactive Limited, was suing the chef for sexual discrimination, claiming that she was unfairly dismissed. "Stewart could be in line for a payout of £765,000 [US$1,219,795], the cap at which unfair dismissal payouts is set, according to the News of the World," the Daily Mail reported. "But there is no cash limit on her other claims which means she could receive a huge compensation payout." [Daily Mail]
• $806,000: In June 2007 a suit was filed against Ramsay and his show Kitchen Nightmares by Martin Hyde, a former Midtown restaurant manager who that claimed Ramsay faked kitchen catastrophes and that the program was a fraud. The New York Post reported that the suit was tossed and that the judge ordered both sides to go into arbitration, as required by their contract. But in September of 2008, the Daily Mail reported that Hyde was suing Ramsay and the "programme makers for £500,000 [about US$806,000] claiming his treatment on the show has ruined his career." [NYP, Mail]
• $138,000: Variety reported that in 2006 Gordon Ramsay won a libel action in London against a newspaper that accused him of faking scenes on Kitchen Nightmares when he worked to turn around a bistro in northern England. According to Variety, "Associated Newspapers Ltd., publisher of the Evening Standard, agreed to print an apology and pay $138,000 in damages to Ramsay and the makers of his program." [Variety]
• $101,000: In December of 2009, the Daily News reported that the Bronx-based company Dairyland USA was suing Gordon Ramsay for damages of $101,000 in unpaid bills, claiming that his then New York City restaurant hadn't paid a bill since Thanksgiving. [Grub Street]