Israeli-American chef Alon Shaya has split from the Besh Restaurant Group, as the New Orleans dining partnership that elevated him to stardom has become embroiled in a sexual harrasment scandal.
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Shaya himself has not been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior, but a number of the 25 current and former BRG employees who were interviewed for an extensive expose published in NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and who worked for one of the restaurants he managed said their complaints about other employees or managers were ignored. Shaya disputed these claims, telling a reporter that inappropriate behavior was not tolerated at his restaurants.
Until September, Shaya was the executive chef not only of his namesake restaurant but also of BRG restaurants Domenica and Domenica Pizza. Accolades for his innovative integration of Louisiana ingredients and Israeli dishes include the James Beard Award for “Best Restaurant” in 2016 and for “Best Chef, South” the previous year.
The most egregious allegations outlined in the NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune article involved John Besh himself and his primary business partner, Octavio Mantilla, and included claims of unwanted touching and sexual advances.
But a few of the women who were quoted in the article, whether by name or anonymously, described a highly sexualized and abusive atmosphere at Shaya and at Domenica.
A former line cook at Shaya described in her resignation letter to the restaurant, sent in January and quoted in the report, being subjected in the kitchen to "daily 'jokes' about rape, including one joke about pedophilia," from male colleagues, and said that her complaints to management were ineffective.
Elizabeth Campbell, who was also a line cook at Shaya at the time, confirmed what she described as the abuse of her erstwhile colleague and said she regretted not speaking up. Campbell herself was fired from Shaya in June, after working there for 13 months, for crying at work. Alon Shaya confirmed the reason for her dismissal, telling NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that that her crying "disrupt[ed] the customer experience in the restaurant," despite management's efforts "to help her with her situation."
Shaya disputed part of the account of the line cook who quit, telling the reporter that the employee who told the offensive jokes was disciplined and providing documentation, as did BRG. Shaya expressed regret that the disciplinary measures were insufficient to prevent the line cook's resignation, and even implied that his own dismissal from the restaurant group was the result of his efforts to improve the company's employee relations.
The report quoted Shaya as claiming that "on multiple occasions" since Pizza Domenica opened in 2014 he had asked Besh and Mantilla to establish a human resources department in BRG, and that they had refused. BRG's general counsel, Raymond Landry, disputed Shaya's account, writing in an email: "Alon never requested an HR Department, let alone on multiple occasions."
In a meeting with a reporter that he initiated in August, Shaya said that any issues with sexual harassment were "handled appropriately," adding, "Being inappropriate, that's never tolerated, not one single bit. That's not part of Shaya Restaurant Group culture, and it never has been."
In another interview to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune less than a week ago, the Israeli-born, U.S.-raised chef said, "I do feel like I was fired for talking ... and for standing up." The report quoted BRG officials as saying that several issues, some of them going back months or even years, contributed to the "divorce" from Shaya.