Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten caused a stir at the Philly Chefs Conference when he said he did not regret beating up an employee in the past.
The comments were made when Vongerichten was participating in a panel discussion at the conference on food memoirs led by Esquire food and drinks editor Jeff Gordinier and featuring chefs-authors Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Kwame Onwuachi, and Phyllis Grant.
The conversation referenced an anecdote from Vongerichten’s new book JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes where he recalls how he got into an altercation with an employee at Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Hotel in 1986 and beat him up.
The incident involved a dishwasher named Sam, who would take a 45-minute break every day at 12 pm, a time when the restaurant was very busy. When Vongerichten begged him to stay one day, the dishwasher replied that “he didn’t give a damn, he was union”.
So after service Vongerichten got the Chef de Cuisine to watch the door while he took Sam into a walk-in fridge and had it out with him. The argument got physical and Vongerichten “beat the shit out of him”. Sam ended up with a broken nose and was transferred the next day. Vongerichten writes that the two are still friends, He also claims he is “not proud” of his actions and that he was shocked he wasn’t disciplined. “Everyone in the kitchen saw what happened, and nobody said a word,” he writes.
Attending the panel discussion for Philly Mag, Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme reports “Vongerichten said that he does not [regret his actions], that he was glad he did it because he felt the dishwasher’s poor work ethic was getting in the way of what he was trying to accomplish in that restaurant.”
She was not the only food writer to express surprise at the chef’s apparent lack of remorse as Lukas Volger, who also attended the panel, said: “my row certainly tensed up, and it was a major topic of conversation at dinner afterwards.”
The chef’s comments have caused some consternation in among food writers and chefs alike. While it is acknowledged that Vongerichten’s actions come from another time, one where kitchens were brutal and unforgiving places, there is, however, today, a focus on changing kitchen culture and making them places of growth and respect.
Claims that when one of the world’s best chefs refuses to admit regret for breaking an employee’s nose and writes about it in his book, it is not helpful to the cause, cannot be denied.
Perhaps, Vongerichten, was only playing to the gallery as he saw it and was only looking for laughs, to liven up a panel discussion. The chef has since apologised and explained his comments in a statement to Eater:
“I’m sorry for my irresponsible and ignorant comments last week. They don’t reflect my views. Treating co-workers respectfully is a core value in all of my restaurants, I don’t tolerate abuse of any kind, and if anyone physically threatened or assaulted a co-worker, I would fire that person immediately. Everyone in my restaurants knows this.
In my book, I was honest about bad choices I made in my youth and early career, and one of them involved a physical altercation in the 1980s with a co-worker when I was in my 20s. I wrongly made light of this incident on the panel—it does not reflect who I am today. In fact, I do regret that incident and am not proud of it. I have worked hard to run restaurants where employees feel respected, well-treated, and safe, and I should have made this clear when given the chance. Let me also note: that was the first and only such incident.
I have an overwhelming respect and love for other cultures and their cuisines. In trying to convey the awe and wonder I felt when I arrived in Thailand, I made a thoughtless and insensitive reference. My career has been defined by working to respectfully incorporate flavors and traditions of many cultures. It pains me that I said something that would cause anyone to doubt that respect and hurt others.”