Mike Isabella, the one-time celebrity chef who became the most prominent example of #MeToo fallout in the D.C. restaurant scene, is now cooking at a bistro in Florida.
More than a year after settling a sexual harassment lawsuit with an employee and overseeing the dissolution of an enormous, precariously stretched restaurant group, Isabella has emerged from the rubble of bankruptcy and quietly returned to the kitchen in a state known for sunshine and eccentrics.
Working as a consultant, Isabella helped open the Blasé Bistro and Martini Bar in Sarasota, Florida, earlier this month. Co-owner Cynthia Breslin confirmed the details of the arrangement, saying that Isabella helped her get the restaurant ready for business and is now regularly showing up for work from 9 a.m. until close. Isabella designed the entire lineup of European specials, she says. His name has not appeared on menus online or in any of the local press coverage in the lead-up to opening. A video posted November 3 on the restaurant’s Facebook page shows Isabella rolling out pasta.
Isabella did not respond to Eater’s request for comment through a third party, and could not be reached through other attempts to contact him. He has taken down his Instagram account after posting photos that tagged the Blasé Bistro.
In a lawsuit that ended with an undisclosed settlement, Chloe Caras, a former manager in Isabella’s restaurant group, accused him of calling her a “bitch” and a “whore,” using sexually suggestive language, and creating a hostile work environment. Caras claimed in the suit that Isabella and others would comment on the appearance of female customers, look at pictures of naked women on their phones at work, and come up with cocktail names that referenced trips to brothels in Europe. Another employee, pastry chef Sara Hancock, told the Washington Post that Isabella kissed her on the cheek without consent in a way that made her “skin crawl.”
Months later, after paying a settlement to Caras and agreeing to incorporate harassment training into his restaurants, Isabella began closing lauded restaurants such as Graffiato, Kapnos, and Arroz. Washingtonian ran a story that detailed Isabella’s excessive drinking in his restaurants and included a cover illustration of the chef with literal egg on his face.
Breslin says the allegations against Isabella do not bother her. Her reasoning: she points out that he’s not accused of trying to sleep with anyone, and that his wife stood by him throughout the scandal.
“What, the guy is never supposed to work again?” Breslin asks.
She chalks up Isabella’s alleged behavior to a “hard-partying industry” and says she has had nothing but overwhelmingly positive experiences with him in her restaurant. She says she even observed him backing away from a kiss on the cheek from another employee, explaining that he was not a touchy-feely person. In the Washingtonian story, Isabella describes himself as an “alcoholic drug addict.” Breslin says she has only seen the chef drink wine with dinner, and he’s never appeared drunk at work.
“I will risk my business as far as being judged, because I believe in him that strongly,” Breslin says.
Breslin says he told her about his history within an hour of meeting her, and she did her own research after that. She says all of her 30 employees signed off on the decision to put him in the restaurant. Breslin, 64, started her restaurant career as a milkshake maker at McDonald’s when she was 13. She says she has survived sexual assault during her career in the industry. She trusts her own intuition over Isabella’s accusers.
“I don’t even buy the whole story. I don’t even know if all of it happened. If it did, so be it,” she says, adding, “If he did do something wrong, he paid for it.”
In an attempt to rehabilitate his image, Isabella appeared to show contrition in an interview with Fox 5 in D.C. “I want people to know that I’m sorry,” Isabella told the TV station. “I probably should have apologized earlier.” Months later, defiant once again, Isabella blamed his company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization on “bad press.” Mike Isabella Concepts would eventually file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts and assets that would be auctioned off.