The restaurateur behind Mirabelle is suing Frank Ruta, the star chef that opened the high-end French restaurant downtown, in an attempt to prevent the former employee from cooking for a rival company more than a year after he was let go.
Ruta, a former White House chef who won a James Beard award at Palena in 2007, opened Mirabelle with owner Hakan Ilhan in the spring of 2017 and left the job just a little more than a year later. Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, the company that owns a slew of power dining spots downtown and in Penn Quarter, hired Ruta this spring without assigning him to a specific restaurant. The ownership company for Mirabelle is alleging that Ruta can’t work for Knightsbridge because in 2016 he signed a noncompete clause agreeing he wouldn’t work for a competitor within two years of leaving.
The civil suit, filed Tuesday morning in D.C. Superior Court, includes a copy of the non-compete agreement as “Exhibit A.” The agreement says the chef would be released from the non-compete if “the employer decides to change direction/concept of the business and Frank Ruta’s employment would no longer be necessary.” Ilhan says he let Ruta go but is still pursuing the suit.
“Frank was let go for having very high good[s] and labor costs, cost management was an issue,” Ilhan tells Eater in an email.” Mirabelle re-open with a different chef, Keith Bombaugh, shortly after Ruta’s departure.
Ruta declined to comment, saying he had yet to review the suit against him.
The complaint claims Ruta left September 15, 2018, so he would be ineligible to cook at a competing restaurant until the fall of 2020. The suit seeks “injunctive relief” that would keep Ruta from working for Knightsbridge or any restaurant within a 10-mile radius of Mirabelle (900 16th Street NW). The suit also seeks “compensatory damages” to be determined at trial and attorney’s fees for the company, 16th Street Dining Inc.
Ilhan, who owns other restaurants in town and plans to open two more in the coming year, confirms he has non-competes with his other chefs to protect his investment. The suit alleges Ilhan spent $2 million to open Mirabelle, anticipating to drop “substantially more” to promote Mirabelle as D.C.’s premiere French restaurant.
An industry expert who does not work with either group tells Eater on background that non-compete agreements are very common for chefs opening new restaurants and in many cases owners will take out “key man” insurance policies protecting the restaurant in case the chef gets injured or otherwise can’t cook.
The noncompete deal included in the suit says Ruta can’t work for similar restaurants or anywhere within a 10-mile radius of Mirabelle, including (but not limited to) those that focus on serving American, Italian, French, or Mediterranean cuisines. Under restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, Knightsbridge’s lauded portfolio includes Bibiana, Oval Room, Bombay Club, Olivia, Bindaas, Rasika, and Sababa. All are within 10 miles of Mirabelle.
The lawsuit specifically references Annabelle, a Knightsbridge restaurant that hasn’t yet opened. The anticipated replacement to Restaurant Nora plans to serve French food, and the suit states that its name is “confusingly similar” to Mirabelle. A job ad for the general manager of the restaurant cites a “James Beard award” winning chef at the restaurant, but doesn’t name Ruta directly.
The suit also accuses Ruta of trying to steal employees from Mirabelle, specifically naming head bartender Zachary Faden.
In response to the suit, Bajaj tells Eater: “It’s sad. That’s all I’m going to tell you on this one. This is sad, honest to God. It’s just sad.”