SAN FRANCISCO — A former employee of celebrated chef Thomas Keller is suing him and his three-star Michelin restaurants — Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California — for discrimination, saying she was denied a job transfer and ultimately let go because she was pregnant.
Vanessa Scott-Allen is seeking $5 million in damages for allegations that include sex discrimination and violation of pregnancy disability leave and says she hopes her trial, which started Monday, will draw attention to a “culture of misogyny in fine dining,” said her attorney, Carla Minnard.
“This is one of the last bastions where it is OK for women to be discriminated against,” Minnard said ahead of the trial in Napa County Superior Court. She said the case will highlight antiquated traditions in the fine dining world where men are favored for high-paying “front of the house” jobs and seen as more suitable to interact with high-paying guests. In the case of Scott-Allen, “they found out she was pregnant and figured out a way to backpedal on” a job transfer, she said.
Keller, who is named as an individual defendant because he owns and controls the two restaurants, attended opening statements. A Thomas Keller Restaurant Group spokesman, Pierre Rougier, said the company cannot comment on pending litigation.
Scott-Allen, 28, was hired at Per Se in 2011 as a kitchen server who plated food. She was promoted through the ranks until she was named a “captain” or head waiter at the restaurant, where set menus start at $355 per person and she earned a six-digit salary.
According to the lawsuit, she visited the French Laundry in January 2016 during a vacation to California with her husband and told General Manager Michael Minnillo they were considering a move out West. Minnillo told her the French Laundry “would love” to have her work there, the lawsuit says.
Scott-Allen’s lawsuit alleges Secviar and Minnillo devised a plan to get rid of her by setting up a “sham interview” that would result in her being declared “not the right fit” for the French Laundry.
Minnillo addressed the interview during an April deposition. Scott-Allen’s lawyers showed a video of the deposition during Monday’s opening statements. In it, Minillo is asked if he wanted to hire Scott-Allen after learning she was pregnant.
“No, I didn’t,” he said in an excerpt of the video provided to The Associated Press. He added Secviar recommended they go through the motions of holding the interview to avoid a lawsuit.