4 former employees accuse celebrity chef Johnny Iuzzini of sexual harassment and abuse
One night in 2011, on the gilded first floor of New York’s Trump International Hotel and Tower, a pastry chef labored at her station in the Jean-Georges restaurant. Her boss, pastry chef and emerging TV star Johnny Iuzzini, hovered nearby. Without warning, the pastry chef told Mic, Iuzzini was beside her, his tongue in her ear.
Iuzzini repeated the offense “three or four times” on separate occasions, said the pastry chef, who worked under him for nearly two years. “I cried every time,” said the chef, who spoke to Mic on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. She did not report the incidents to management at the time, but she did tell a friend, who confirmed to Mic that she heard the story shortly after it happened. The pastry chef resigned later that year, not in reaction to any single incident, she said, but because of the culmination of Iuzzini’s behavior toward her: “I left because of the way he treated me.”
Two pastry chefs and two externs — an unpaid position that often requires the same time commitment as full-time employees — who reported to Iuzzini between 2009 and 2011 described in interviews with Mic a work environment in the Jean-Georges pastry kitchen that was rampant with incidents of sexual harassment. Jean-Georges is one of New York City’s most celebrated restaurants, and the flagship restaurant of famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; his brother, Philippe, is its director of operations. In its 20 years in operation, Jean-Georges has served as a launching pad; chefs including Dan Kluger of Loring Place, Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink and Top Chef winner Jeremy Ford all worked in Vongerichten’s restaurant empire before going on to open their own businesses.
In a statement to Mic, Iuzzini said he was “shattered and heartbroken at the thought that any of my actions left members of my team feeling hurt or degraded.” After reviewing the allegations in this story, he denied several of them. “Many of the other allegations are inaccurate, others I do not recall and none were meant to hurt people,” he said. (Iuzzini’s full statement can be found at the end of this article.)
By the time Iuzzini left in 2011, sources told Mic it seemed Jean-Georges management was aware of his inappropriate conduct, though media reports at the time characterized the split as amicable. The two pastry chefs cited in this story said that they did not personally believe the Vongerichtens were initially aware of the extent of Iuzzini’s behavior. Philippe Vongerichten came to the first pastry chef in 2011 and asked her to file a report on events she had witnessed. She said he told her that Iuzzini was “skating on thin ice.” At that time, she already had plans to resign. “I declined to file any paperwork because I was always worried [Iuzzini] would see it,” she said. A spokesperson for Jean-Georges confirmed that “Philippe, like all managers, has been trained to encourage any employee who felt or feels inappropriately treated in the workplace to come forward to human resources.”
Iuzzini denied to Mic that he left Jean-Georges on bad terms. “I provided three months’ notice and maintain a good relationship with chef and mentor Jean-Georges to this day,” he said.
The recent wave of public sexual abuse and harassment allegations that have toppled such high-profile figures as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer has also swept into the restaurant industry. In October, restaurateur John Besh resigned from his company after 25 women reported sexual harassment allegations to the Times-Picayune. In mid-November, Washington Post published several accounts of sexual assault and harassment from women in the food world.
During his stint at Jean-Georges, Iuzzini rose to become one of the most famous figures in the pastry world. In 2006, he received a James Beard award for outstanding pastry chef. In 2008, he published a cookbook, Fourplay, followed in 2014 by a second, Sugar Rush. From 2010 to 2011, he starred as one of three judges on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts, a spinoff of Top Chef. Although Iuzzini no longer works in a restaurant setting, he’s set to reprise his role as a judge on ABC’s The Great American Baking Show, which premieres Dec. 7. Iuzzini also works as a pastry consultant and runs a chocolate company, Chocolate by Johnny Iuzzini.
While at Jean-Georges, the chef oversaw a pastry kitchen that included roughly 10 people plus a group of externs. The staff was mostly women, according to three sources cited in this story. The pastry kitchen was located in a separate space from the main kitchen, and sources describe it as an ecosystem unto itself.
The four women who spoke to Mic alleged that Iuzzini was often verbally abusive and prone to screaming, and that his mood could turn dark very quickly. The two pastry chefs and one extern said it was openly speculated that Iuzzini might have had a drug problem; the other extern said when she accompanied him to an off-hours social event, she witnessed him using cocaine. When asked about these allegations, Iuzzini denied that he “ever had a drug problem.”
The first pastry chef explained that Iuzzini had a habit of touching female employees’ rear ends with items in the kitchen — knives, long vegetables and spoons — in a suggestive manner. He’d also creep up behind women menacingly. “He would stand behind you really closely and breathe on your neck,” she said. “I think he did things to make people uncomfortable, and to see what he could get away with.” She witnessed the same behavior directed at other female employees in the pastry kitchen.
A second chef who worked in Iuzzini’s kitchen backed up this account. “He used to say, ‘If I hit you with my hand, it’s harassment, but if I hit you with an object, it’s a mistake,’” she said. She was granted anonymity for fear of retribution to herself and those close to her who still work in the industry. “It was a big, huge joke to him.”
A chef said that Iuzzini had a habit of touching female employees’ rear ends with items in the kitchen — knives, long vegetables and spoons — in a suggestive manner.
The second chef recounted a separate incident that left her deeply uncomfortable. “There was one time, I went to the walk-in for something and he ran up behind me and simulated having sex with me. He didn’t actually grind up on my butt, but his hands were on my hips,” she said. “He did it for five seconds and ran out.” She said that at the time, she wasn’t sure the event qualified as something worth reporting.
“This is going to screw up my career,” she said, describing her thought process. “He knew everybody. And if I ever wanted to get a job in a restaurant, I’m going to burn every bridge that I have. And when you’re surrounded by that, you don’t [report it], you bitch to other people.” She confided in a friend, who confirmed to Mic that the chef told her about the inappropriate touching and the simulated sex at the time that they happened.
Three of the women say that Iuzzini assigned nicknames to his female employees, some of them offensive, including “Kimchi” for an Asian woman. He also demanded that certain female employees give him shoulder massages at the end of their shifts, according to all four of the women.
“He would always make me give him a shoulder rub, every day — that was part of my job, when I signed off,” one extern told Mic on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the industry. Both externs and one pastry chef confirmed that they were asked to give shoulder massages. The first extern didn’t want to touch Iuzzini, but felt like she couldn’t say no. “I thought, ‘I’m an extern,’ and it’s just a hard place to bring up anything,” she said. “This was such an open thing. He was just that way, very openly. Everybody experienced what I experienced.” He also made crude jokes, the first extern said. Iuzzini once walked by while she was whisking and commented on her “nice technique.” “I said, ‘Thanks, chef,’ and he goes, ‘No, no, nice technique,’ and then he makes a jerking-off motion and walks away.” At another time, he showed her a photo of a woman’s genitals.
“I began working in kitchens when I was 15 years old, back in a time when it was rare to see women in the kitchen, and behavior was more bawdy than professional,” Iuzzini said in a statement to Mic. “There were dirty jokes and vulgar remarks, times where people would lose their tempers and it was deemed permissible since four-star kitchens are high-stress jobs. This was the behavior I learned as a boy, and for too many years participated in during my restaurant career. And it was wrong.”
At least once, sources said, Iuzzini’s temper turned violent — the two pastry chefs cited in this story witnessed an aggressive encounter between Iuzzini and a female employee who displeased him.
“She got into work super early and found out that the freezer broke down ... everything in the freezer had gone bad,” the second chef said. “She called Johnny and all the chefs.” While she was trying to remake the spoiled goods, she said, Iuzzini arrived and threw the canister at her in anger. “She said she was in such fear of her life, he was in her face, screaming at her,” the second chef said. “She quit the next day.”
“He would always make me give him a shoulder rub, every day — that was part of my job, when I signed off.”
The first chef recalled being shaken by this incident, during which she said Iuzzini appeared to be unnaturally agitated. It was after this event, she said, that Philippe Vongerichten reached out to ask if she wanted to file a formal complaint against Iuzzini.
Other alleged incidents inhabit a gray area of propriety. The day before her interview in 2010 for a pastry externship at Jean-Georges, a 19-year-old hopeful fired off an email to the then 36-year-old Iuzzini, who was to conduct her interview. She had no formal culinary training but had been connected to Iuzzini through a friend, and said she was looking forward to the interview and wanted to confirm the details. He responded, she recalled, by asking that she stop by his apartment right then.
The 19-year-old willingly spent the night at Iuzzini’s apartment, a decision she wrestled with for years. While she doesn’t describe the interaction as coercive, she contends the power dynamic made saying “no” difficult. “He was 36, I was 19 and he had all the power,” she said. She spoke to Mic on the condition of anonymity out of fear of Iuzzini’s influence. “And if one person has all the power, it’s not really consent.” The extern felt conflicted about her relationship with Iuzzini and tried to keep it under wraps. “Even at 19, I knew it diminished what I was trying to accomplish,” she said. “I’ve had to work so hard to prove that I’m worth it.”
The woman said that first night was sexual in nature, but did not include intercourse. She later had an official interview with Iuzzini in the restaurant and was hired. She said they had sex before her first day as an extern, and kept up a consensual sexual relationship for three months until Iuzzini cut things off. They continued to have an on-off sexual relationship for several years, even after she left his employ, she said. “In my head, I had rationalized that I was special,” she said. “I don’t see myself as a victim. But if I take me out of the story and I just listen to the details” — specifically the beginnings of their relationship — “I would be upset.” A friend of the woman’s confirmed that she knew about both the pre-interview meeting and the eventual sexual relationship at the time it was occurring. Iuzzini did not comment on the alleged relationship with the extern.
“Even at 19, I knew it diminished what I was trying to accomplish,” she said. “I’ve had to work so hard to prove that I’m worth it.”
David Sherwyn, a law professor at Cornell University who specializes in hospitality labor and human resources, described the alleged relationship between Iuzzini and the extern as “a mess,” although not illegal under current federal law. He added that companies have good reason to be wary of unmonitored workplace relationships between supervisors and subordinates. “You don’t know when things are truly consensual, and that leads to problems,” he said.
Aside from the first pastry chef, who was approached by management, none of the women interviewed in this story were aware of an official channel at Jean-Georges to air their grievances during their respective employments. “I don’t even know if they had an HR person or anything,” the first extern said. “The guy who was taking care of those matters was Jean-Georges’ brother, I think. And that’s useless.” Philippe Vongerichten still works at the restaurant. A Jean-Georges spokesperson said that “the restaurant group has had a human resources function since 2003.” When asked about the specific allegations regarding Iuzzini, the spokesperson declined to comment on “the specifics of any employee incident that may or may not have occurred.” A spokesperson at ABC, which airs The Great American Baking Show, declined to comment.
“I must take responsibility if any of the members of my team felt uncomfortable by my words or actions, regardless of my intent or recollection,” Iuzzini said in his statement.
The first pastry chef said that Iuzzini “was a good mentor, and he did have a way of challenging people.” But, she added, “there are other people out there who can make what he can, and they treat you well.” For the second chef, Jean-Georges was the first kitchen she worked in as a staff member. “I assumed that’s just how kitchens are,” she said. “But my next kitchen was great. The chef never did anything untoward, and he never yelled.”
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Full statement from Johnny Iuzzini:
I am shattered and heartbroken at the thought that any of my actions left members of my team feeling hurt or degraded. More importantly, I am deeply sorry to those who felt hurt. I certainly deny the allegations, as presented to me, that I ever had a drug problem, threw an empty nitrogen canister at anyone or that I left Jean-Georges on anything other than good terms (I provided three months’ notice and maintain a good relationship with chef and mentor Jean-Georges to this day). Many of the other allegations are inaccurate, others I do not recall and none were meant to hurt people. Nonetheless, I must take responsibility if any of the members of my team felt uncomfortable by my words or actions, regardless of my intent or recollection. I must hear that what the women making the accusations are telling me and recognize I caused pain. I have strived to be a good mentor over the course of my career, and I now understand that I failed some people. To me, that is unacceptable.
Since learning that allegations were coming I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject. Thinking of the way kitchen culture has changed, thinking of the mistakes we made, the mistakes I was complicit in. I began working in kitchens when I was 15 years old, back in a time when it was rare to see women in the kitchen, and behavior was more bawdy than professional. There were dirty jokes and vulgar remarks, times where people would lose their tempers and it was deemed permissible since four-star kitchens are high-stress jobs. This was the behavior I learned as a boy, and for too many years participated in during my restaurant career. And it was wrong.
There are obviously people who I have hurt, and I cannot even begin to address how sorry I feel not only about what may have transpired, but about the fact they did not feel comfortable coming to me as their superior and letting me know how they felt. That is a failure of mine as a mentor, as a leader. I hope that anyone who felt wronged by me will reach out to me and give me the opportunity to apologize to them personally. I assure you that I will continue to learn, continue to do better and continue to strive to be the type of chef who can lead our industry into a culture of respect through example.
Dec. 12, 2017, 2:30 p.m.: This article has been updated to remove a reference to Johnny Iuzzini allegedly throwing a nitrogen canister at a female employee. After the publication of this story, the employee in question spoke to Mic to clarify the events that day. The woman said that it was a mixing bowl, not a nitrogen canister, that Iuzzini held it as if to throw in her direction, and that he stopped short of actually throwing it. Additional details about this interaction can be found in Mic’s follow-up coverage here.