Mike Isabella, a former “Top Chef” contestant who turned his stint on the reality TV show into an 11-location, $30 million restaurant empire in the nation’s capital, is the latest food industry figure accused of sexual harassment.
In a story published Monday by The Washington Post, Chloe Caras, a former regional manager for Mike Isabella Concepts, detailed her sexual harassment lawsuit against Isabella, his restaurant imprint, and four of his business partners. Caras’ attorney, Debra Katz, told The Associated Press in an email that Caras also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requesting that it conduct an investigation into allegations that MIC maintained a sexually hostile work environment.
The suit, which was filed in D.C. Superior Court and seeks unspecified damages, alleges a culture of rampant sexual harassment in Isabella’s restaurants that stemmed from, but was not limited to, the celebrity chef’s own actions.
Isabella, his partners, and their attorneys released this statement:
“Simply put, the allegations of an unwelcoming or hostile work atmosphere are false. Harassment, discrimination, bullying, abuse, or unequal treatment of any kind whatsoever are not tolerated at MIC.” The company said it hired a dedicated human resources director in 2017 and made other policy changes long before Caras threatened to bring her lawsuit and that Caras’ claims won’t deter Isabella from continuing to “be a stalwart of positive transition tin the culinary industry.”
Brian R. Bregman, the attorney representing MIC, issued an official response via the law offices of Bascietto & Bregman, LLC.
“The allegations of an unwelcoming or hostile work atmosphere at MIC are false. The allegations come from a former employee, who is also a co-owner of the MIC enterprise. After years of working for MIC and never before raising these allegations, in December of 2017, she stormed off the job and refused to return, insisting she had been fired,” the statement said. “This was after she and Mr. Isabella became involved in a verbal argument at one of the restaurants. Despite calls from management and HR for her to return to work, she flatly refused to do so. At that point, MIC felt she had quit. Ms. Caras then made an unemployment claim and afterwards, through her attorney, she presented these never- before-raised allegations of sexual harassment.”
Caras joined MIC in 2015 as a manager and opened three Isabella concepts in Arlington, Virginia. She says she tried to ignore the hostile workplace culture and inappropriate remarks from superiors, hoping a job well done would end the harassment. But the intrusive, predatory behavior continued despite “policy and HR changes” designed to curb such a culture in Isabella’s restaurants.
The boiling point for Caras came last December, just before the opening of the Isabella Eatery in Tysons Corner, Virginia.
According to Caras and her lawsuit, “Mr. Isabella had consumed numerous drinks throughout the day and appeared visibly intoxicated” on the night of December 5, days before the opening of Isabella’s gigantic, 41,000 square-feet food hall housed in Tysons Galleria. The space, housed in a mall once described by National Geographic as the “Rodeo Drive of the East Coast,” features nine bar and restaurant concepts and more than 600 seats.
Caras claims that while sitting in a booth with Isabella, a male sous chef approached the table and asked to join. Isabella said he could, but only if the chef had sex with Caras. When she told Isabella to stop, he immediately got angry, started calling her “bitch” as he followed her to the kitchen, and continued to do so as she left out the back door.
As she walked away, the complaint says Isabella shouted, “Love you, Chloe. Nice working with you.” Caras was then fired.
From the routine use of the words “bitch” and “whore” at MIC restaurants to the specific details of Caras’ suit, Isabella, his lawyers, and his partners have categorically denied the accusations. Attorneys representing Isabella even denied that Caras was fired, saying instead that she abandoned her post.
In addition to the rebuke of these accusations, Isabella’s attorneys provided a list of women who had worked for Isabella that The Post could reference to refute the claims.
Janelle Serianni, general manager at Isabella Eatery, and Dhiandra Olson, assistant general manager at Requin at the Wharf, both denied a culture of sexual harassment at MIC.
“These allegations, coming from this single disgruntled co-owner of the company, are supported only by several former employees, all of whom are also her friends. In response to this story, we provided the Washington Post with the contact information of four of our top women-leaders at MIC who were willing to go on the record to refute her allegations,” MIC’s statement said. “The Washington Post story only named two of our leaders, but more importantly, all of MIC’s staff, everyone from servers to managers, can attest to the fact that the allegations of a hostile working environment towards women are completely untrue.”
Caras’ accusation was not limited to the night she was fired, or even to her own personal experience.
Beyond the cat-calling and verbal abuse Caras says she tolerated from Isabella and partners Taha Ismail, Yohan Allender, George Pagonis, and Nicholas Pagonis, her experience at MIC was defined by harassment, she claims.
Isabella and his partners degraded Caras regularly, she says, commenting on the size and shape of her body and touching her without permission. She alleged that, on separate occasions, Isabella and Ismail approached her from behind, grabbed her hair, and simulated sex with her.
The lawsuit also details a story from February 2016, when Caras says Ismail and Nicholas Pagonis added her to a group chat and texted pictures of two naked men engaged sexually, plus a man with his penis held against what appeared to be a pre-prep turkey. Their attorneys did not address these specific allegations.
A month later, Isabella repeatedly petitioned Caras to name a cocktail drink the “Itchy Kitty.” When she refused, he asked her if she had one.
MIC said the two allegations of physical contact—the allegation that Caras’ hair was pulled and a sexual act simulated in her presence, and the allegation that Isabella gave Caras an unwanted kiss, “are completely untrue.”
“Not only are these allegations unsupported by any evidence, but countless MIC employees can confirm that these types of behaviors simply do not occur at the restaurants,” MIC’s statement said.
Caras kept her head down. More than a year later after the incidents, she was promoted to director of operations and tasked with guiding the opening of Isabella Eatery. But by December, after years of convincing herself the toxic culture she was experiencing was simply a dark side of the industry, Caras says she developed anxiety and was ready to quit.
There were other claims. Sara Hancock worked for Isabella as a pastry sous chef for about six months and says the chef kissed her cheek without consent in late December. Isabella said he would make her a superstar, Hancock claims. Further, two male chefs corroborated Caras’ retelling of the night she was fired. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, since they’d already left MIC, but feared retaliation for whistleblowing.
MIC said Caras and Isabella were friends “for many years.” And that she worked and socialized with the management team, including everyone named in the lawsuit.
“They all had ‘group chats’ and similar means of talking together, both during work and on their personal time. Ms. Caras now claims that the ‘chats’ that she engaged in for several years, all of which were private communications between her and the other MIC owners, created a hostile working environment towards women employees,” MIC’s statement said. “Again, however, all of the women-leaders at MIC dispute this and moreover, Ms. Caras was a manager and co-owner herself, so her claims simply defy logic.”
The tattoo-sleeved Italian-American chef made his debut on “Top Chef” in 2009 as the season’s bad boy persona. He made early headlines by saying, “There’s no way, no offense, but a girl shouldn’t be at the same level that I am,” while losing a clam shuck-off to contestant Jen Carroll.
He later called Carroll a “friend,” and the comment, “sarcastic.”
“I grew up in a broken family, with my mom, my sister, and my grandmother,” Isabella said then. “I was surrounded by women so I would never, ever disrespect a woman like that.”
Isabella is the latest accused in a string of high-profile sexual assault and harassment claims leveled against former industry giants like Mario Batali, John Besh, and Ken Friedman.
And unlike those cases, MIC is fighting back in a way the other companies have not.
In its statement, MIC said more than 60 percent of its top management and leadership personnel are women, “so Ms. Caras’ allegation that ‘women generally do not make it into the higher management ranks’ is provably false,” the company said.
“Mr. Isabella personally mentored and promoted Ms. Caras to run MIC’s boldest venture, the 41,000 square-foot Isabella Eatery. After Ms. Caras left, and before these allegations were made, another female was promoted to manage this coveted and important position,” MIC added.
MIC went on to add that Caras engaged in “the very same banter, language, and horseplay that she now claims created a hostile working atmosphere,” claiming that it has text messaged, incidents, and write-ups of serious misconduct at work that proves Caras’ “portrayal as a victim is, again, untrue.” The company said Caras, as a manager, was responsible for enforcing MIC’s polices against harassment, discrimination, and unequal treatment.
“MIC is prepared to litigate these issues in the public forum and to bring out all of the detailed text messages and communications, as Ms. Caras filed this lawsuit only after MIC refused to meet her financial demands over the course of the past several weeks,” the statement said.
Batali stepped down from his restaurant empire after being accused by four women of inappropriate sexual behavior over the course of more than two decades. At a party following a wine auction in New Orleans about 10 years ago, a young female chef alleges that she introduced herself to Batali, only to have the chef fondle her breasts when another party guest spilled wine on the young woman’s shirt.
In October, New Orleans’ Times-Picayune interviewed more than 20 women who delineated a culture of sexual harassment at Besh Restaurant Group. The story included a chilling recollection of Besh pressuring an employee to drink heavily on a work trip, following her to her hotel room, and performing oral sex on the accuser while she was unconscious.
Friedman was the owner of several James Beard-awarded restaurants, such as the Spotted Pig, where he routinely welcomed famous guests and groped his employees. One former employee said Friedman ran his hands over her butt and groin; another said he bit her on the waist as he bent beneath the bar; a third said Friedman grabbed her head and mimed fellatio in front of a crowded room, including comedian Amy Poehler.
These interactions, in fact, usually happened in public. They were part of the show—and after curtains, Friedman allegedly talked openly about blacklisting employees who didn’t toe the company line.