Renowned chef Thomas Keller's court battle over allegations of pregnancy discrimination within his restaurant empire kicked off Monday in Napa Valley Superior Court.
Plaintiff Vanessa Scott-Allen names Keller, two of his restaurants—Per Se in Manhattan, which you may know from its "devastating" NY Times "bong water" review, and French Laundry in Napa Valley—an employee, and the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group in her 2016 lawsuit, claiming that staff blocked her job transfer when they found out she was going to have a baby, and eventually let her go because of it.
According to the Associated Press, Scott-Allen joined Per Se in 2011, climbing from kitchen server to head waiter by 2016, and earning a six-figure salary. In January of that year she and her husband took a trip to California, where she met with the French Laundry's general manager, Michael Minnillo. He reportedly told her that the French Laundry would "love" to bring her onboard: She completed the transfer work in February, and was slated to start on April 1st, 2016.
Things allegedly became problematic when she discovered she was pregnant, however. After Scott-Allen told her employers, the news solicited the following email from Minnillo, according to court documents reported by the AP: "Apparently she is pregnant. She never mentioned this to me. I am confused how to proceed."
To which Julie Secviar, head of TKRG human resources, allegedly replied: "Well, unfortunately not much we can do. What was committed verbally or in writing?"
According to the AP, Secviar and Minnillo set up a "sham interview" for Scott-Allen, a workaround that would allow them to dismiss her as "not the right fit" without firing her outright over her pregnancy. (Minnillo allegedly admitted to this in a deposition.) According to the Napa Valley Register, the interview took place on April 4th, 2016, after the job was supposed to have begun, and included numerous questions about Scott-Allen's pregnancy: Did she think she could work while pregnant? For how long? When was her due date? How long did she expect her maternity leave to last? Ultimately, Minnillo told her that the French Laundry had "no position" for her, even though the restaurant allegedly had three open roles at the time.
Unfortunately, she'd already been induced to sign a "Notice of Resignation" in March, purportedly a part of internal transfer protocol, but in practice a means of forcing her departure while shielding the company from blame, Scott-Allen contends. Her lawsuit asks $5 million in damages for the defendants' alleged sex discrimination and violation of pregnancy disability leave.
"This is one of the last bastions where it is OK for women to be discriminated against," Scott-Allen's attorney, Carla Minnard, told the AP. The "culture of misogyny in fine dining" persists, she added, alleging that TKRG management "found out [Scott-Allen] was pregnant and figured out a way to backpedal."
A spokesperson for TKRG said the company cannot comment on pending litigation.