Celebrity Chefs Who Were Sued By Their Employees

You could probably name a few celebrity chefs that have experienced their fair share of scandal. From sexual misconduct allegations on the parts of some (looking at you, Mario Batali) to some very poor word choices on the parts of others (hello, Paula Deen), chefs' bad behavior really runs the gamut. Whatever the exact complaint, though, quite a number of celebrity chef scandals are linked to issues with employees.

Anyone who's worked in the food and hospitality industry knows that serving is typically a thankless job. Waitstaff deal with complaints from all angles, from the front of house to the diners to the back of house. Often, servers deal with the chaotic work environment and inevitable drama that comes with the industry with poise and grace. However, when your boss is a celebrity chef and you know they're behaving poorly, and worse yet, that poor behavior is directed at you — well, it's time to leave the poise and grace behind and start thinking about a lawsuit. And that's exactly what happened in these cases of celebrity chefs who were sued by their employees.

Geoffrey Zakarian

If you watch Food Network in just about any capacity, then you likely are familiar with Geoffrey Zakarian. The celebrity chef pops up on quite a few different Food Network programs, including "Chopped," "The Next Iron Chef" and "The Kitchen." In 2011, more than 150 employees who worked at Zakarian's restaurant Country (which closed in 2008) sued him for $1,250,000, claiming that the restaurant did not pay proper overtime, had falsified records, and falsified paycheck deductions. Employees reported that when they brought up concerns, they were met with an indifferent Zakarian and crying bookkeepers who knew about the fraud. In response to the claims, Zakarian filed for bankruptcy, but still denied any wrongdoing despite some of his ex-partners backing the former employees.

This is hardly Zakarian's only legal woe, though. He was also involved in lawsuits with his Country partners and, in 2015, former President Trump sued Zakarian for not honoring a contract to open a restaurant in one of Trump's hotels.

Mario Batali

Mario Batali was a near-constant presence in the celebrity chef media world throughout the 2000s and into the early 2010s — right up until he was accused of sexual assault and harassment in 2017. After, Batali quickly disappeared from the limelight even though, as the New York Times reported, the New York Police Department decided not to pursue investigations due to insufficient evidence. Later, in 2019, Batali was accused of a separate incident of sexual misconduct and found not guilty.

However, while these cases were the ones that garnered the public's attention, Batali was actually embroiled in a prior legal battle when he was sued by employees years before the 2017 allegations came to light. In 2012, he agreed to a $5 million-plus settlement after servers claimed he violated labor laws by stealing tips. The lawsuit claimed that the bad behavior went back nearly a decade and impacted more than a thousand employees, and that it was common practice for Batali's restaurants to deduct a percentage of servers' tips to supposedly cover necessary expenses.

Anne Burrell

While many lawsuits are brought up against chefs and restaurant owners due to legal issues surrounding wages that mysteriously go missing, for employees of Anne Burrell at Centro Vinoteca in New York's West Village, the problem was a bit more in-your-face. In 2009, employees sued, noting that Burrell was discriminatory and verbally abusive toward the women on her staff, unabashedly making lewd or offensive comments toward these employees on a regular basis. The staff said that when they complained about this behavior, they were fired and the owners, in at least once instance, accused them of lying in order to get out of work.

The case was settled but, by the time that Burrell was accused, she'd already left the restaurant and embarked on her Food Network career. The accusations hardly hurt her career trajectory, either. Since 2009, she's appeared on or hosted some of the network's most notable programs, including "Worst Cooks in America."

Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay may not be known for his friendly behavior in the kitchen thanks to the brash front he puts on in shows like "Hell's Kitchen," but he can at least say that he's never been sued for verbally abusing his employees. However, he's still been involved in his fair share of legal battles. In 2000, he settled a breach of contract case brought against him by his former employers. In 2006, he won a libel case against a newspaper. In 2012, he sued partners at a Montreal restaurant for defamation — and these are just a few of the cases Ramsay has been involved in.

However, in 2013, employees at Ramsay's Los Angeles-based restaurant The Fat Cow sued for unpaid wages and labor law violations. Claims included allegations that employees weren't always paid minimum wage, did not receive shift breaks as required by law, and didn't receive overtime pay, among others. That said, one former employee told ABC News that she wasn't sure Ramsay was to blame for the issues, as it was very possible that violations were occurring without his knowledge.

David Burke

While David Burke may not be as recognizable as some celebrity chefs, he's certainly one of the busiest, with a multitude of awards, more than a dozen restaurants, appearances on a range of television shows, a large number of products, and even a few U.S. patents. While his record is a bit cleaner than those of some scandal-heavy chefs, Burke still has a lawsuit to his name.

In 2014, a group of 50 employees filed a discrimination lawsuit against Burke, claiming that management discriminated against Muslim employees at four of Burke's restaurants. One of the employees noted that he had informed management that he could not work on Fridays due to prayer services, and that they were agreeable, but then that quickly changed. The employee began taking breaks to attend his services during his Friday shifts, until management ordered him to stop. After the employee complained, management terminated his position.

Michael Chiarello

You may recognize Michael Chiarello from "Top Chef" or "The Next Iron Chef," or from one of the many shows that have featured him as a guest chef. He also has his own show on Cooking Channel, "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello" and has won numerous awards and recognitions in addition to running several restaurants. It's at one of these restaurants — Coqueta in San Francisco — that employees filed a pair of lawsuits against Chiarello.

These 2016 lawsuits claimed that Chiarello refused to pay employees, and that he sexually harassed employees by making inappropriate comments, inappropriately touching employees and, in one instance, simulating a sexual act with a baguette. In regards to pay, the lawsuits claimed that false wage statements issued to employees did not include wages for all hours worked and did not include overtime. Additionally, the employees said the restaurant did not always allow for legally required breaks. The lawsuits were settled out of court, later in the year.

Graham Elliot

In August 2012, the Chicago Tribune announced that Graham Elliot was "hot" — and for good reason. The chef had won numerous honors, helmed three restaurants in the Windy City, appeared on "MasterChef" and more. However, that same year, Elliot was dealing with a lawsuit.

In March 2012, a group of 14 employees filed a lawsuit against Elliot stating that there was a "scheme" at his restaurant to avoid paying employees both regular and overtime wages, and that the restaurant illegally forced tip sharing between wait staff and other employees. The employees asked for back pay with interest and the suit was settled in September 2012. That said, it seems the lawsuit hardly slowed Elliot down. The Michelin-starred chef went on to judge on "MasterChef Junior" and "Top Chef," opened a new restaurant in Asia in 2018, served as the culinary director for Lollapalooza, and even had a citywide holiday in Chicago, Graham Elliot Day, on Sept. 19, 2012.

Mike Isabella

In March 2018, a former manager once employed by Chef Mike Isabella filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him requesting back pay, damages, and moneys for pain and suffering caused by Isabella's sexual advances, comments, verbal abuse and other incidences. The former manager was fired after Isabella suggested she engage in intercourse with another chef, and the manager walked out of the restaurant. At the time, Isabella owned myriad restaurants in Washington D.C. and was known for his "Top Chef" appearances.

This suit resulted in what the Washingtonian called a "fallen empire" later that year. Restaurants closed and more details regarding Isabella's bad behavior were revealed, including frequent bouts of drunkenness at his restaurants. Isabella's parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2018 as a result. More recently, in 2020, employees accused Isabella for still owing them wages that were years passed due in a new lawsuit. At that time, he had fled to Florida and was trying to establish a new career in the Sarasota area.

Chris Santos

Chris Santos is a staple judge on "Chopped" and one of the many chefs to be sued for wage theft. In 2019, bussers who worked at Santos' restaurant Beauty & Essex in New York City said that they were not paid for overtime hours, even though they were often forced to work past their shifts' ends, and that they were not paid minimum wage. Instead, they were paid similarly to servers, with the expectation that tips would make up the bulk of their pay, even though bussers do not spend much time, or any time, on tipped work. Furthermore, employees claimed that their paychecks subtracted money for meals that they supposedly ate and that bussers did not receive their legally required shift breaks.

However, unlike many other celebrity chef scandals, this is one that didn't really make headlines. Santos' career was not outwardly impacted, and news coverage remained minimal. Beauty & Essex is still operational with a sister restaurant in Las Vegas.

Tom Colicchio

Acclaimed restaurateur and "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio has faced numerous lawsuits. In 2008, an employee sued Colicchio claiming that he did not pay workers everything they were due, including overtime, tips, and minimum wage. The employee in question worked at Colicchio's Craftbar, which closed in 2017 due to a 50% increase in rent. More recently, in 2021, a group of employees sued Colicchio for similar reasons. The employees — who were all delivery drivers for Colicchio's Wichcraft sandwich shops in New York City between 2005 and 2016 — said that the business paid them less than minimum wage, did not cover job costs such as bicycle maintenance, and withheld breaks. The case was settled for $180,000.

However, it's not just former employees that have tried to sue Colicchio. In 2017, a man attempted and failed to sue a group of restaurateurs, Colicchio included, by claiming that restaurateurs that eliminate standard tipping practices are conspiring to raise the cost of food for higher profits.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

An award-winning French restaurateur with more than 60 restaurants to his name, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is inarguably a culinary success, but that hasn't protected him from some bad press and the occasional lawsuit.

In 2008, a group of employees sued Vongerichten, claiming that five of the chef's New York restaurants had not paid its employees for all hours worked and that employees were forced to share tips with managers. The suit was settled and Vongerichten paid the group of employees $1.75 million, over half a million of which was used to cover legal fees. The year prior, in 2007, a waiter sued Vongerichten's restaurant Jean-Gorges for sexual harassment, saying that he was subjected to verbal abuse, among other injuries. He also claimed management also gave him a poor reference after he left.

More recently, in 2020, Vongerichten received some negative press for a comment that may shed further light into his restaurants' working conditions. When speaking at a conference, Vongerichten said he did not regret assaulting a dishwasher in 1986 and he admitted he broke the dishwasher's nose when beating him for his alleged poor work ethic.

Lidia Bastianich

Lidia Bastianich may not be as widely known to the general population as some of the chefs on this list, but she's very prolific. You likely know one of the businesses she helped launch: Eataly. Bastianich was sued by a former employee for one of the odder reasons you'll come across, with complaints that go far beyond wage theft and harassment. Instead, a former employee claims Bastianich imprisoned her.

In 2011, an Italian woman filed a $5 million lawsuit that claimed Bastianich's "associate" brought her to the United States from Italy with the promise of a lucrative job working for Bastianich. Instead, when the woman — who spoke little English and had no resources — moved to New York, she was forced to work in a domestic care role, taking care of the 99-year-old wife of one of Bastianich's former employees who had sold his home to Bastianich under the agreement that she would provide care for his wife. After the woman died, supposedly, Bastianich attempted to force the employee to return to Italy, offering her a one-way ticket to Venice and $10,000. The former employee's complaint was dismissed.

Josh Henderson

In 2016, Seattle celebrity chef Josh Henderson eliminated tipping from his restaurants, which, on the surface, seems like a fine idea. Restaurants took the burden of gratuity off the diners and, instead, implemented a 20% service charge across the board, with that service charge funding wages and benefits. However, this change ended up getting Henderson into some hot water. Employees felt that the service charge was still technically a "tip" and, as a tip, all of the money from that service charge should have been given to the workers, not allocated as management saw fit.

By 2018, Henderson had a lawsuit on his hands, with employees saying that, since not all of that service charge ended up in their pockets, the change qualified as wage theft. Henderson settled with the employees for $1 million, but not before he had to sell off some of his restaurants, nine in total, to other chefs in the Seattle area.

Daniel Boulud

With his multiple Michelin stars, a range of restaurants across the globe, and a seemingly never-ending list of accolades and accomplishments, Daniel Boulud is known as a culinary powerhouse. However, in 2014, he was known for wage theft when servers filed a suit claiming that they did not receive proper compensation for work that went above and beyond the tip-reliant labor that allows restaurants to pay servers less than minimum wage. The servers asked for millions of dollars to cover lost wages from the previous six years.

This was not Boulud's only costly legal run-in, though. In addition to another, second wage theft suit that was settled in 2014, Boulud also was fined $1.3 million by a jury in 2016, when a diner at one of his restaurants consumed a metal wire from a metal cleaning brush — the kind you might use to clean your grill — and then almost died from the resulting infection.

Thomas Keller

Even if you don't know the name Thomas Keller, you likely know the name of his restaurant — The French Laundry. The famed eatery in Napa Valley, along with its owner, was the center of a discrimination lawsuit in 2016.

A woman who worked at Keller's Manhattan restaurant Per Se said she was offered the option to transfer to The French Laundry. She accordingly made all the necessary arrangements to move and did so ... only to arrive in Napa and find that the position was no longer hers. The woman claims that the change came because her manager found out she was pregnant and did not want to provide maternity leave. She asked for $5 million to cover the economic and emotional turmoil that resulted, as well as her legal fees. However, Keller did not have to settle this case out of court, like so many other sued chefs do. Instead, he won his case as a jury cleared him of wrongdoing, under the determination that the former employee was let go for performance reasons rather than because of her pregnancy, and that her move to California was a matter of miscommunication.