Bad Recipe: Farm-to-Table Chef Accused of Sexual Harassment by 22 Former Employees

Want a side of sexual harassment with your dinner? Twenty-two former employees who say it's a permanent part of the seasonal menu at Juventino, a successful restaurant in Brooklyn's Park Slope area, are sharing their stories on the internet in hopes they can give a voice to women everywhere who think that being groped, humiliated and worse comes with the service industry territory. But can a group of young, anonymous former servers with a bare-bones blog actually make a difference in an industry where staffers have long been expected to shut up and deal with it?

Juventino Disclosed is a website backed by former Juventino employees; the blog was born after a few former staffers — the vast majority women (only one man signed the petition) in their early to mid-twenties — started talking to each other about what went down in between serving cage-free truffled eggs and cornmeal crusted oysters. A common thread emerged: they had all been subjected to the manipulative and grossly inappropriate actions of the restaurant's head chef and namesake, Juventino Avila.

An open letter on the site explains:

The food is seductive, but behind this restaurant's charming facade lies a toxic work environment where employees are publicly berated, servers are paid less than the legal tipped minimum wage, 17-hour work-days without breaks are demanded, and young women are subjected to unwanted sexual advances behind the closed and locked doors of Juventino's office.

We understand that it is bold to come out publicly with our concerns and experiences.

Juventino, however, has consistently refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his actions, even choosing to spread falsehoods about former employees who left after feeling mistreated.

We believe Juventino is doing a disservice not only to his servers of the past and present, but to his incredibly hardworking and honorable cooks, and ultimately to you, the unwitting guest whose patronage sustains his business and misbehavior.

Both the group as a whole and the six staffers we contacted for this piece asked to remain anonymous; one is considering legal action against Avila, but the majority are more focused on letting other servers dealing with the same circumstances know that they're not alone. "Serving can be an empowering profession, but at the same time, male chefs and owners too often set the tone and exercise their power in unprofessional ways," one former Juventino staffer explained. "We want to start a dialog with other women in the industry so they know that they can come forward, too. Just because lines get blurred doesn't mean it's ever okay to experience harassment in the workplace."

"That's just the industry."

75 percent of more than 400 discrimination suits and settlements reported by the federal government as of November 2011 involved sexual harassment, and 37 percent of those involved the food service industry, according to an msnbc.com analysis of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), which recently released a study on the role and impact of gender in the NYC restaurant industry, reports most workers feel that in order to serve food and drinks, one has to "deal with" or accept the fact that they will encounter or witness sexual harassment on the job.

(The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" that "affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.")

ROC researchers found that women overall have low representation in the industry's highest-paid positions, even though they account for 38% of the industry's workforce. Unsurprisingly, young women are by far the most likely group to be harassed. Perhaps most troubling of all, the survey found that responsibility for taking action against sexual harassment is often put on the person being harassed instead of on management, as dictated by state and federal law; women in the ROC's focus groups said that when they resisted inappropriate behavior, their own behavior was often scrutinized instead.

"Sexual harassment is often not only expected but also overlooked or even condoned by management and employers," said Daisy Chunt, the assistant director of the ROC. She added that most restaurants don't have sexual harassment policies, and even if they do, they're rarely implemented. "Employees don't speak up because they don't want to create waves or face both emotional and financial repercussions," she said. Simply put: they'd rather deal with ass grabs and inappropriate comments than lose their job. But how do you know when your boss's actions go too far?

At Juventino, "light" sexual harassment was a regular occurrence, the women said, and most of them chalked it up to industry culture. "I justified what was happening with phrases like, 'Well, that's just the industry' or 'Juventino is a chef and that's how he's used to interacting with people,'" a former server explained. "That's how I justified him telling me that I was a 'dirty slut' when I once had a cold sore on my lip."

"He leaned in to try and kiss me."

Former staffers described Avila, 39, as a cruel, power-driven control freak who became progressively more aggressive and manipulative when he drank, which was often. "He would yell at you to 'move your fucking ass,' tell you you were retarded and call you a 'fucking idiot,' but then the next second he would say you were the 'most interesting person in the world,'" said one woman.

The overall effect was an environment that the women described as "cultish." Former staffers allege that Avila would confuse and manipulate broken-down employees by rewarding them and making them feel "special" before trying to kiss, grope, or otherwise harass them. Here's how they say it worked: Avila would single a young staffer out by inviting her to dinner at another fancy restaurant for "research" purposes, making her feel like part of the team. "The after-hours outings were a reward for a job well done," one woman explained. The dinners made servers feel like they were part of an "elite club" — and it also made them feel guilty when Avila asked them inappropriate questions about their personal lives and then, eventually, came onto them in the cab or after dinner. "It made me confused, like maybe I shouldn't have accepted the offer in the first place," one woman said.

One young former employee, who said she had "zero experience" before working at Juventino, described an incident where Avila called her up to his office and, clearly drunk, asked her to massage his calf because it was cramping. "All of a sudden, he put his arm on my shoulders," she recalled. "I looked at him and shrugged them off. He then put both of his hands on my face and leaned in to try and kiss me." Furious, she tried to leave his office — but then noticed Avila had locked the door. She quit that night. Later, she heard that Avila had told other staffers that she "simply had not shown up for work and had disappointed him."

Another woman said she was quickly promoted to Avila's "personal assistant" soon after being hired as a back server, which meant she had to spend hours alone with the chef in his office and off the premises. Avila told her that he planned to open an adjacent bar and that she could help run operations, an exciting prospect for a 20-year-old who had recently moved to the country from Europe. That's why it took her three months to quit, even though she said Avila tried to kiss and grope her on a daily basis. She claims to have reached her breaking point when Avila explicitly told her he booked a hotel room and expected her to sleep with him that evening, putting her hand on his penis for emphasis. She quit the next day.

"Detailed lies from disgruntled employees."

When we spoke at length with Avila regarding specific allegations, he became flustered but insisted that none of it was true, referring to himself as a "frigid" person who didn't even like to answer personal questions about himself, such as his age. "If I have done something, I'm guilty of being aggressive and strong minded," he said. He acknowledged that the restaurant was "fast-paced" but said he was "positive" that he had never made sexual advances to any of his servers, on or off the restaurant premises. He said he spent time with employees after hours dining out at other restaurants, but was adamant that nothing "of a sexual nature," non-consensual or otherwise, ever took place. "One could describe the [environment] as intense," he said. "But I have a mom, and I have sisters, and [sexual harassment] is something I would never condone or be a part of. I know it's common at restaurants, but I don't accept it."

Although Avila runs the restaurant, Juventino's official owner is Rebecca Uberti, who lives with Avila and has been in a relationship with him since 1996. She called the sexual harassment allegations "100% unfounded and untrue" and said they were "detailed lies from disgruntled employees who may or may not have been terminated for poor job performance." Both Avila and Uberti wondered why no informal or formal complaints had ever been made about the chef's behavior. But according to former staffers, informal complaints were made numerous times, mostly in exit interviews with Avila, in which they explained that they were quitting due to his conduct.

"The environment did not feel conducive for honest feedback, as it did not feel safe considering how 'trigger happy' Juventino was at firing employees, and how little contact we had with Rebecca," wrote one former staffer. Although she didn't know Uberti was the sole owner, the former staffer did have an exit interview with her, during which she felt uncomfortable being honest because Uberti told her she supported Juventino and all of his policies "100 percent."

"People can't endure if they're treated badly."

Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How To Cook Everything, recently wrote about restaurant industry worker's rights, noting that "...though you can't be a card-carrying foodie if you don't know the provenance of your heirloom tomato, you apparently can be one if you don't know how the members of your wait staff are treated." We asked Bittman to elaborate. "Good, 'sustainable' food is about much more than how it's grown," he told us. "'Sustainable' means enduring. People can't endure if they're treated badly. In this case, they might quit or, if they can't quit, they likely suffer."

Of course, it's next to impossible to tell how a manager treats his staffers behind closed doors; you can't ask your server if her boss ever gropes her. That's why the strategy behind "Juventino Disclosed" could be revolutionary. Whether the blog has any immediate effect remains to be seen, but for service industry workers who think harassment is par for the course, the act of using the web as a platform for speaking out is a step in the right direction. "They're creating awareness," said Chunt. "Lawsuits don't do that — they get settled very privately. The community can play a huge role." Bittman agreed. "They have to mobilize somehow, and they need support," he said. "I think they're totally heroic."