Tess Torelli March 11, 2018

Eric Korsh became a problem shortly after he became the executive chef of North End Grill in the spring of 2014: He gave unwelcome massages to female staffers, made inappropriate comments about female customers that he found attractive, and regularly lost his temper at both kitchen and front-of-house staff, according to eight former staffers.

Korsh’s alleged behavior may be all too common in the restaurant industry, which is known for hot-tempered chefs and rampant sexual misconduct, but multiple former and current staffers at North End Grill say that they were particularly disturbed by it because of who owned the restaurant: Union Square Hospitality Group. Founder and CEO Danny Meyer has built his reputation, and two multimillion-dollar restaurant empires — USHG’s 15 restaurants, plus the fast-food phenomenon Shake Shack — on a foundation of “enlightened hospitality” and a motto of “employees first.” Through relentless proselytization of his ethos — in books, talks, articles, and even workplace awards — Meyer has become the rare restaurateur who is more famous than any of the chefs he employs. His management philosophies are so well regarded that they’re even taught outside of the hospitality industry, including at a nearly $5,000-per-person “leadership development workshop” run by USHG.

But former staffers at North End Grill, as well as current and former staffers at Gramercy Tavern, said that their work experience did not always line up with Meyer’s slogans. Multiple staffers at North End Grill reported Korsh to USHG’s human resources department throughout 2014, 2015, and 2016; following the reports, the department required Korsh to check in regularly, but his behavior did not materially change until as recently as summer 2017, multiple staffers say, leading several of them to quit the restaurant. Korsh left North End Grill and USHG altogether at the end of 2017; both the company and the chef tell Eater that it was a mutual decision. Korsh is now the executive chef at Racines in Tribeca.

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At Gramercy Tavern, multiple current staffers told Eater that they complained about aggressive behavior from sous chef Junsoo Bae who, in one January 2016 incident, allegedly groped a server and placed his hand on her neck at a company party; he remained at the restaurant until fall 2017, when management announced that he had been fired — on the same day that he was supposed to leave for a job at another restaurant anyway, the staffers said.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, as the restaurant industry reckons with endemic harassment issues, staffers who still work at the company or recently left said that USHG has been quietly clearing house of employees with known problems. Korsh and Bae are two of at least seven male employees who have left USHG since November, most of them fired, according to the sources.

In an Eater investigation, multiple current and former employees said that USHG, despite its reputation for being a safe haven in the hospitality industry, has previously tolerated and protected people who have behaved inappropriately toward their colleagues. The staffers particularly pointed to perceived failures in the human resources department, which for the last 13 years has been led by company veteran Angie Buonpane. Several current and former employees said that they left meetings with Buonpane, as well as another member of her staff, feeling like the company was not taking complaints about inappropriate behavior from people like Korsh seriously, or doing enough to address problems, even when such complaints were made repeatedly against the same people.

Buonpane has on occasion questioned complainants about what they experienced and witnessed in a way that upset them — in one case, the inquiry led a longtime North End Grill staffer to feel that Buonpane didn’t fully believe her account of repeatedly witnessing Korsh’s bad temper and unwelcome touching, the staffer said. Other employees described Buonpane as well-liked, “friendly,”and “sympathetic,” but they maintained that, ultimately, the department she ran seemed to protect certain people or the company over victims of misconduct. “It was our perception that was wrong, not his behavior,” the veteran North End Grill employee said of Buonpane’s attitude toward her complaint about Korsh.

Several current and former staffers said that they enjoyed parts of their experience of working at the company, and noted that tolerance for bad behavior varied from restaurant to restaurant. Most of the former and current staffers whom Eater spoke with were attracted to working at USHG precisely because of Meyer’s principles; some of them called landing a job at the company a dream after reading Meyer’s seminal 2008 book, Setting the Table, in which he lays out his seemingly winning ideology of 51 percenters, or hiring people based 51 percent on emotional intelligence and 49 percent on technical ability.

But longstanding respect for, and loyalty to, Meyer’s company is precisely what made their negative experiences with HR so surprising, disturbing, or even hurtful, former and current employees said. The “employees first” mantra is “misleading,” said the North End Grill employee, who worked at the restaurant for close to five years, and who, like most others in this piece, requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation in the hospitality industry. “It’s kind of an outrage,” she said. “Here he is being the face of this company, going on speaking tours, making these promises. It’s a false trap. Because they’re not acting that way.”

Meyer declined to answer questions for this story or respond to specific allegations. In a statement from a spokeswoman, he said that the company works “to hold ourselves to the highest standard” and said it investigates all claims of inappropriate workplace behavior, including harassment. When contacted for comment, Korsh denied that he ever behaved inappropriately, saying that he “always strived to maintain the highest professional standards in running a kitchen.”

In an interview with Eater, though Bae contested allegations that he created a toxic work environment, he confirmed the nature of the holiday party incident and another incident where he yelled at a server, saying he took full responsibility and that he felt he was “fully punished.” “I sincerely apologize for everything that happened,” he said. “It was all my fault. I feel guilty about it, and I [went] through all this punishment. …I hope that makes everyone who felt uncomfortable feel better.”

“We strive to pursue a thoughtful and balanced process, but unfortunately not all investigations end conclusively,” Meyer’s statement said. “The last several months have been an invaluable learning opportunity for us. We understand that sexual harassment is a symptom of broader systemic inequality in our industry, and going forward we are resolved to eradicate the deep-seated problem of gender-based discrimination at its source. Real societal transformation takes time. For now, we are focused internally on improving gender parity in leadership roles; further diversifying our recruiting sources; and taking a harder than ever look at who we hire, reward, and empower.”

In a separate, emailed statement, Buonpane said she has spent her career “advocating on behalf of employees, giving my entire self to their care and well-being.” She continued, “I joined USHG over 13 years ago specifically because of the Company’s devotion to the philosophy of Enlightened Hospitality and putting employees first. I can proudly say that I have upheld those values throughout my career. It is USHG’s policy to never comment on any employee matters. Beyond that, I would never violate the trust of the employees that I support.”

Former staffers said that HR’s handling of continued complaints about Korsh demonstrates how the company has failed to fulfill its promises of “enlightened hospitality.” Catherine Woodard, a former back waiter who worked at North End Grill when Korsh started in 2014, said that the chef texted her incessantly, tried to feed her food, gave her unrequested shoulder massages, asked her to come to his apartment, and at one point, took a picture of her from behind while she wasn’t looking and sent it to her. (The move, she said, felt like a way to exert his dominance as her boss. “It was just sort of like, I’m in charge, you’re working for me,” she said.) His treatment was so blatant that colleagues teased her about the attention he showered on her, she said; another former staffer, without prompting, named Woodard to Eater as someone targeted by Korsh.

Woodard did not report Korsh to HR immediately — she had confronted him and felt embarrassed after he told her she had no evidence of wrongdoing — but several others told Eater that they made complaints against him. A former kitchen employee complained to HR twice within Korsh’s first year, following months of unwanted touching, his fits of rage, and more than one meeting with a manager to discuss the problem. Another staffer went to HR about Korsh several months after he started, in 2014, and then again in 2015, after months of witnessing him inappropriately touch staff and erupt in abusive shouting that was sometimes directed at her. A former server reported his behavior to HR when she left in July 2016, in part because of an incident where he lost his temper and in part because she didn’t think HR was properly handling complaints against him. The woman who worked at North End Grill for five years says that she reported him in August 2016; she left a month later, when he screamed at her in the restaurant, thinking that USHG didn’t plan to do more about Korsh’s behavior. Though Woodard left North End Grill after receiving a theater apprenticeship, the other women all said that they quit because they felt that Korsh’s behavior wasn’t improving, and that complaining to HR didn’t help.

Woodard ended up talking to HR in January 2015, when she worked at Union Square Cafe after her apprenticeship and a manager propositioned her during a holiday party. When she spoke to HR about it, she also mentioned Korsh’s behavior at North End Grill. Initially, Woodard was satisfied with how the company handled the misconduct: Buonpane said that she’d already heard about Korsh’s bad behavior, and that he was receiving biweekly sensitivity training; Buonpane also assured her that Korsh would not contact her again, Woodard said. A month later, when she reported that Korsh had contacted her again, she felt that Buonpane’s tone changed. Buonpane asked her a lot of questions — ones that Woodard felt sounded “leading” and “calculating,” as if Buonpane was trying to convince her that Korsh’s behavior “wasn’t what I thought it was,” she said.

Woodard was deeply disappointed by the reaction; a former Union Square Cafe coworker confirmed that shortly after the meeting, Woodard said that she had “felt pretty dismissed.” “I remember leaving feeling really frustrated,” Woodard told Eater recently. “It was like I realized, ‘Oh, they’re not looking out for me. They’re looking out for the company and making sure that I’m saying the right things.’ Like the liability of it is not on them.”

Both the five-year North End Grill veteran and the former server who left in 2016 said that women under their report recounted uncomfortable flirtations or unrequested massages from Korsh on several occasions. They were both aware that others had previously reported the chef to HR and had witnessed Korsh’s angry outbursts; the five-year veteran also received multiple comments from guests about his aggressive behavior, which could be seen and heard from the restaurant’s open kitchen, which is lined with seats for diners.

Both also independently pointed to a specific incident that compelled them to make a complaint to HR. A female back server had reported Korsh to management for his behavior in 2016, specifically noting unwelcome flirtations while the two were alone, the two staffers allege. Shortly after, Korsh was asked to apologize to the employee privately, with only another male manager present; this reaction troubled both staffers, they said. The former server said she didn’t think it was sufficient, considering past complaints against Korsh, while the veteran staffer felt that the employee’s confidentiality had been violated, she said. The former server quit after the incident and transferred to Union Square Cafe, reporting Korsh’s behavior to HR as she left in the hopes that a paper trail would help her colleagues who remained.

The veteran staffer decided to report Korsh in August 2016, thinking that her seniority and congenial relationship with Buonpane would mean she would “be heard”; it had become too “emotionally draining” to witness Korsh’s behavior without trying to change things, she said. But she was unprepared for the response from USHG: At the meeting, Buonpane not only told her that Korsh met with HR frequently to improve his behavior, as Buonpane had told several others, but that he had told her that his inappropriate behavior had actually stopped. Buonpane also asked the staffer for additional evidence, as if she wanted “me to have stacks of folders and rolls of films, and without that, I wasn’t credible,” the staffer said. Right after the meeting, she called her mom “sobbing” — “hurt” and disappointed that she felt like she hadn’t been taken seriously, she said. “It was aggressive, it was volatile,” the former staffer tells Eater now of Buonpane’s reaction. “It was a cross-examination, that is how it felt. I was getting torn to shreds.” (Her mother, as well as a screenshot of a text message from the staffer to a friend at the time, corroborated her account to Eater.)

“There was a lack of belief, which was quite jarring when I had worked for the company for four and a half years at that point and had a clear record,” she said. “I was a faithful, loyal, go-above-and-beyond employee, coming forward on my own without being asked. I saw something egregiously wrong, and wanted to address it. For that to have no weight against a man who had HR complaints… that was the issue.” About a month after speaking to Buonpane, she found herself under fire from Korsh, when he yelled at her about an issue that she felt she had no control over, she said. She quit that day.

Another one of the former staffers, who worked with Korsh early on at North End Grill, witnessing and bearing the brunt of his explosive temper, said her decision to leave was largely influenced by how HR handled her claims against Korsh in 2014 and 2015. Buonpane told her that she was very sorry about how she felt, but as in conversations with other staffers, she explained that Korsh was regularly meeting with HR to help recalibrate his behavior, the staffer said. Over the year and a half that she worked with Korsh, the staffer said she saw no change. “I think like a lot of women who work in kitchens, I don’t get offended easily, but this was just too much,” she said. She decided to quit. Then, despite what she considered an inadequate HR intervention for Korsh, she said she felt that the company seemed very concerned about what she would say on social media about her departure. “After everything, they were just trying to protect themselves. I still couldn’t believe it — his behavior was not normal and I was the one made to feel awful,” she said.

The former kitchen employee, who experienced Korsh’s uninvited flirtations, massages, and frequent temper blow-ups, said she was nervous to go to HR, but felt that, especially at a Meyer restaurant, Korsh’s behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. The chance to work at North End Grill was a big deal for her when she started in 2014; she initially she saw Korsh as a mentor and admired Meyer’s philosophies, she said. But from the very beginning, she said, Korsh’s aggressive behavior was on display, exhibiting “that cliche, ego-driven, abusive chef” with “brazen” screaming in the open kitchen. She started trying to avoid him, but his behavior began to wear on her, she said. She had a 2014 meeting with an HR employee to talk about Korsh’s behavior, but she felt that little happened to change the situation, she said.

Beyond that, she felt that Korsh became more aggressive with her after she went to HR, she said. With things getting worse, she decided to go back to HR a couple months later, this time asking for a transfer to another USHG restaurant, saying that dealing with Korsh had become untenable. In response, Buonpane said that the staffer would need a reference from Korsh. At that moment she felt “helpless,” she said: “For a lot of reasons, USHG is a great company to work for in the restaurant world — I didn’t want to leave — so it was just this strange moment where I really realized that even here, no one’s going to call him out, no one’s going to protect me or other women.”

Three current employees, and one former employee, of Gramercy Tavern told Eater they were similarly upset that despite multiple complaints, the company kept Bae employed at the restaurant for years. Allegedly, he was not only a bully in the kitchen, but, in at least one instance, in January 2016, he drunkenly put his hand around a female employee’s neck at a company event. HR was made aware of the incident; in the summer of 2017, he was reported again, for berating a server in front of customers. The sous chef, who’d been at the restaurant since 2012 — starting as a line cook, then promoted to sous — was not fired until the fall of last year.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the incident, Bae became intoxicated at a holiday party in January 2016 and began grabbing a server’s behind while she repeatedly told him to stop. When she turned around to confront him, he placed his hand around her neck, “in what seemed almost like a bizarre, totally misread attempt at flirting,” a staffer said. Other employees quickly put their bodies between Bae and the woman to try to stop the situation, one source with direct knowledge said. When HR found out about the incident, which happened in front of numerous people, it began to question employees. Staffers said they were told that he had a work visa that was attached to his employment at the restaurant and punishment like getting fired could mean he had to leave the country. “There was definitely the sense that because getting fired would mean he had to leave behind his career in America, that ultimately that would be too harsh a punishment,” a staffer said. “But then, it’s like, if he were from Boston, would he have been fired?”

Bae said that following the incident, he was suspended briefly and required to take “Danny Meyer classes that reiterate his philosophy” on what he can and cannot do. But several employees said that since he already had a reputation for behavior such as losing his temper in the kitchen, they were surprised when the company didn’t take stronger action. “I think for most employees who saw or knew of the incident, it just felt like that should have been immediate grounds for firing of a manager, but nothing happened and it left a very bad feeling among the staff,” another current employee said.

According to employees, Bae’s bullying did not stop after the incident, or even after further complaints were made about his behavior. When one staffer reported him to superiors, she was told that the company was working with the sous chef on his issues, the staffer said. In summer 2017, his temper flared in the view of customers in the more casual dining section, where there’s an open kitchen, according to multiple current staffers. He began to berate a female server over a seemingly innocuous issue. The server complained to HR, and Bae said he was suspended for more than two weeks, but the incident was never addressed with the staff. (Bae confirmed the incident but added that he did not think his behavior created a bad work environment. “I truly apologize to anyone who ever felt that way,” he said.) “Kitchen culture is crazy, but at Danny Meyer restaurants, they really talk a big game about how they are different,” a female employee said. “They thought he was an excellent cook, but he was not a respected leader.”

In early fall, Bae announced he’d be leaving for his current position at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. But on what was supposed to be his last day, managers announced he had been fired without providing any further explanation.

In January, according to three current employees, and one former staffer, five other Gramercy Tavern kitchen employees were fired for harassment or bullying. It followed an October email from chief culture officer Erin Moran to the entire staff, specifically mentioning the #MeToo movement and reminding employees that the company has a “zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment abuse in the workplace,” and a December email to staff from Meyer that had the subject line “Sexual harassment in the workplace.” In it, he reiterated his 51 percent philosophy and announced that Moran would be doing a “listening tour” at all the restaurants regarding harassment, adding a link for people to report misconduct. “Perhaps too idealistically, I have always believed that if you and I set a standard for acceptable behavior in our organization, all others would follow,” Meyer wrote in the email.

True to their promise to promote women, USHG promoted chef Emily Brekke to the executive chef position after Korsh left. Meyer also announced this week that veteran USHG staffer Lena Ciardullo has been named the new executive chef at Marta, Vini e Fritti, and Caffe Marchio. She is now the third female executive chef at USHG’s nine full-service restaurants; the first, Suzanne Cupps at Untitled, started in her role in April of 2017.

“It feels like now they are really trying to clear house and truly have a zero tolerance policy,” said one employee who still works at Gramercy Tavern. “I think there’s a sense that people are happy they are finally taking things seriously — but I guess we’ll have to see how this all continues to play out.”

In a way, the company’s widely touted philosophy about being a family could have hindered how they dealt with bad actors too, two Gramercy Tavern employees said. “It’s like, in a family, you don’t really want to let anyone go, you want to try to help, or protect, in a way — but they were protecting the wrong people,” an employee said. “They should have been protecting us.”

Still, the same employee said that he truly felt heartened by their restaurant’s recent conversations with management and HR. “I think it seems like they are trying to not just enforce a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment, but that they are thinking about the deeper imbalance of power between men and women in our restaurants and are looking to change,” he said. Another Gramercy Tavern employee said she is also hoping the changes will be for the better at the restaurant. She decided to go into the industry because of Meyer’s philosophies as outlined in his book, she said. “It really changed the way I look at the restaurant industry, and made me want to be a part of his company,” she said. “I think if you make millions of dollars selling some pretty defining principles, you should make sure those are still a part of your restaurants.”

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