Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello is back in the spotlight once more, two years after he was accused of sexual harassment and wage theft by two former employees. Not only did he recently open a burger joint and “nitro lab” in Yountville, but the chef will soon head down to Miami to appear as “talent” at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in February.
The five-day festival, hosted by the Food Network and Cooking Channel, takes place in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood and includes demos from celebrity chefs like José Andrés, Giada de Laurentiis, and Ann Burrell. According to the festival’s website, Chiarello will participate in Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best tasting event ($350 per person), as well as a Spanish dinner with chef Jose Garces at Norman Van Aken ($250 per person).
Understandably, his planned presence has started a backlash, at least in San Francisco, where the industry has finally begun to experience the effects of the #metoo movement firsthand. Just after Christmas, well-known Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell was accused of sexual harassment by former employees, and today the influential founder of Four Barrel Coffee, Jeremy Tooker, was named in a lawsuit alleging sexual assault and harassment. Local chefs took to Twitter to publicly question Chiarello’s participation in one of the food world’s biggest events:
Underlying the tweets is a debate that emerges with each incident of misconduct made public: Must we throw away our Mario Batali spatulas? Are we allowed to stop by Charlie Hallowell’s restaurants for a loaf of country bread? In these cases at least, the bad actors have “stepped away,” recusing themselves from daily operations (though likely still collecting paychecks).
Yet Chiarello, who denied the claims and settled out of court, continues to open restaurants and now, appear at SOBE, as will Austin chef Paul Qui, who was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in 2016 (charges were later dropped). These kinds of events are typically opportunities for affluent attendees to hobnob and mingle with their favorite chef personalities, eat special dishes, and drink large quantities of wine. It’s a brand building exercise for chefs, and the opportunity to escape the kitchen for some high-class hedonism — SOBE is often referred to as “spring break for chefs.” For men who create toxic environments for women in their own worlds, participation seems hardly advisable.
According to Eater Senior Correspondent Meghan McCarron, “when it comes to men who have clearly made their businesses unbearable for women, the only recourse that does seem clear is excision, and that includes from the festival circuit. If harassment is a cancer, then it must be cut out.”
In the 2016 lawsuit, former servers at Chiarello’s Coqueta restaurant Katherine Page and Asja Sever detail several alleged instances in which Chiarello, Coqueta’s executive chef Dominick Maietta and other management level employees of Coqueta created an alleged “sexually charged, hostile and abusive environment.” That included instances where Chiarello compared a new sandwich on the menu to a vagina by “stating that the sandwich looked liked a ‘woman’s underparts’ while making a triangle with his hands and placing it over his crotch,” and claimed female customers left “snail trails” in their chairs after speaking with him.
At the time, Chiarello disputed the charges in a statement: “Michael Chiarello disputes the misdemeanor charges filed against him. Although he is embarrassed and apologizes to his family, friends and business colleagues about this occurrence, he intends to vigorously challenge the misdemeanor charges filed against him.” The sexual harassment suit was later settled for an undisclosed sum.
And, in a twist of fate, the festival itself is sponsored in part by The New York Times, which recently published a report exposing instances of sexual misconduct by notable restaurateur Ken Friedman, as well as an op-ed on these scandals from critic Pete Wells. Eater has reached out for comment from the Times communications department, which, along with events and sales, typically maintains a healthy (or in this case, clueless) separation from editorial.