Mike Isabella decamped from D.C. to Florida a year ago, but the fallout from a 2018 sexual harassment scandal and the business failures that followed continues to shadow the one-time celebrity chef years after his prolific D.C. restaurant group crumbled. Three former employees at Requin, the contemporary French restaurant on the Southwest Waterfront that was one of the last two businesses in Isabella’s collection to go under, are accusing the chef, two partners, and a manager, of wage theft and fraud perpetrated over Requin’s final two months. The accusations surfaced in a class action lawsuit filed Friday, October 30, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
The legal team representing former Requin employees who worked as a food runner, a pastry chef, and a bartender sent Isabella a summons Monday, November 2, at the address in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Requin’s corporate name is registered. In addition to Isabella, the suit also names co-owner and chief financial officer Johannes Allender, beverage director Taha Ismail, and assistant general manager Dhiandra Olson as defendants. The Washington Post first reported on the filing earlier today.
In court documents Eater obtained, the plaintiffs allege Requin began issuing irregular, and in some causes fraudulent, paychecks in November 2018. As the restaurant stumbled toward a December 22 closing that year, the suit says, employees were paid via personal checks and checks from another corporation in Isabella’s group. The suit says checks issued from BallKap, LLC, a company formed to oversee Isabella’s food vendor stalls at Nationals Park, did not account for tax withholding, did not itemize hours worked or pay rates, and did not break out wages and tips. Other checks allegedly bounced, and the suit contends the defendants committed fraud by issuing checks from a Requin account they knew was empty.
The plaintiffs say that Olson encouraged employees to keep working when the restaurant could not pay them, and at one point offered Lucas Delcid, a food runner, a cash payment that they refused.
The suit says employees received no notice the restaurant was closing. Delcid reportedly showed up for a scheduled shift to find locked doors and colleagues waiting outside the restaurant. Requin’s landlord sued to evict the business on December 14, 2018, writing in a legal complaint that the restaurant owed $144,555.15 for everything from monthly base rent to utilities, late fees, and trash collection. Requin filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy a couple months after it allegedly locked out employees.
Olson, the former assistant GM, tells the Post she also considers it “crazy” that she’s a defendant, because Requin also owes her around $4,000. She tells the newspaper she was just passing along messages from ownership: “Mike kept saying that everyone was going to get paid.”
Along with Delcid, former pastry chef Danielle Harris and former bartender Milena Radulovic have signed on as plaintiffs. The lawsuit contends there were around 30 front-of-house staff members at Requin at the time the alleged wage theft occurred. That group and similarly affected kitchen staff would be eligible to join.
Daniel Adlai Katz, senior counsel for Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, is representing the former employees in the case, which accuses the defendants of violating minimum wage standards in the Fair Labor Standards Act, the D.C. Minimum Wage Act Revision Act, and the District of Columbia Wage Payment and Collection Law. The D.C. regulations could entitle the former employees to “treble” damages, or triple unpaid wages and other relief, including interest and legal fees.
Isabella, meanwhile, appears to be rehabilitating his career in western Florida. He helped open the Blasé Bistro and Martini Bar in Sarasota in November 2019. According to a bio posted by the Sarasota tourism board, the former Top Chef contestant is now a partner in a consulting business called Food Fix 123.
Ilili, a massive Lebanese restaurant based in NYC’s Flatiron District, has a lease in place at the former Requin space and has been renegotiating terms to move into D.C.’s high-end, waterfront Wharf development.