There are so many opportunities here of rare, rich experiences which I need to thank Chef Trotter for. From the housewives, doctors, and others who come to work as guest chefs to famous chefs like Tetsuya, Toque and Alain Ducasse. I've always learned and appreciated from these people who have a great passion for food. Cooking for inner-city students, talking to them … it's been a fulfilling experience to share and hopefully inspire. The recent trip to the Fancy Food Show in New York showed me how to reach excellence at every level — I think meeting The Red Hot Chili Peppers at Mercer's Lounge was the highlight of that trip!
Thank you chef for being a great teacher, teaching me to be intimate with my food, to be aware of the present moment, to have an eye for detail. These experiences, the people who work here, the products we work with, make this restaurant one of the best restaurants in the world.
— Beverly Kim
Beverly Kim, the new chef at Bonsoiree and a "Top Chef" semifinalist this year, wrote these words for a memory book compiled by Charlie Trotter's staff and presented to him for the eponymous restaurant's 15th anniversary in 2002.
A year later she was suing him.
The class-action suit, filed Sept. 17, 2003, in Cook County Circuit Court and moved to federal court a month later, sought recompense "for Defendants' failure to pay Plaintiff and other similarly situated employees overtime pay and other earned wages." The complaint states that "back of the house employees" — i.e., the cooks — "were required to work shifts of 12 to 14 hours per day, often six days a week" without having their pay adjusted to reflect the extra hours worked.
This suit, followed by a front-of-the-house (i.e., service staff) class-action suit over the restaurant's distribution of tips, struck at the heart of how Trotter's kitchen operated. His approach has been that tough work for relatively little pay is the nature of jobs one gets early in a career; what young employees give up in comfort and pay, they gain in leadership abilities and on their resumes: "If I go to Harvard next year as a graduate student, I'll be lucky to make $18,000 a year, and I'll be working for the professor and doing research for him and (being a teaching assistant)," he says.
Mark Signorio, a Trotter's manager for most of the 20 years he spent there, says, "I was sick to my stomach" upon hearing of the suit by Kim, who worked in Trotter's kitchen for more than a year. "You want to be treated like an hourly employee and punch in and punch out? That's going to get you a certain level job, but if you want to excel and be a leader in the industry and create and innovate, you need to understand that there's sacrifices and commitments and challenges that you need to do."
Matthias Merges, Trotter's chef de cuisine when Kim worked there, and now chef/owner of Yusho, notes that those challenges were laid out up front.
"We spell it out: 'You're gonna work 12, 14 hours a day, 16 hours a day on Saturdays, and this is what you're gonna get paid. End of story. And if you don't want to accept this, then don't take the job,'" he says.
Then-sous-chef Giuseppe Tentori, now chef-partner at GT Fish & Oyster and Boka, remembers the young chef having a tough go of it.
"I talked to Beverly every other day because she was crying, because it was too intense for her, and we tried to help her out, tried to make her understand that it's a kitchen, and you take it or leave it," he says.
Says David LeFevre, also a sous-chef at the time: "She was just like freshly fallen snow. And in that kitchen, you had to have some really thick skin."
"Honestly? She just couldn't hang," Merges says. "It was a very, very difficult environment for her."
Merges says although he was surprised to hear that she had sued Trotter's, "we all knew it was going to catch up, and we all made the appropriate warnings: 'This isn't right; we're breaking the law here, I just want to bring it to your attention.'"
Trotter's reaction to these warnings? "'(Expletive) them,' pretty much," Merges says with a laugh.
Says Trotter now: "This was a woman that we nurtured. We took her on, and I think we were pretty good to her. Took her on a couple of trips. I don't know. Some people, maybe they get greedy. To this day, we pay people in a way where it's basically the same amount of pay, but it's just not reflected as a day rate (as before). It's an hourly rate with overtime factored in."
And he bristles at the notion that he treated anyone unjustly.
"I always thought I was very fair with people," he says. "Over the years I've loaned many, many people a lot of money, and in most cases halfway through them trying to pay, I just say, 'You know, that's fine, you've paid half of it, don't worry about it, the rest is for you.' I don't have to speak on what I've done philanthropically or hosting high school students three nights a week for 12 years, on and on, dinners in people's homes and huge fundraisers for major organizations and things like that. I'm not going to defend myself. I've always done the right thing by people. I bring homeless people out of the alley and feed them at our kitchen table for lunch. I have a blind woman who's worked for me for 2 1/2years. Do you think I'm trying to screw people? It's like, you've got to be kidding me."
Still, Merges says: "Sure, you're philanthropic and you give money away and you feed kids. That's great. But you can't break the law at the same time."
Trotter settled the suit in 2005, and every nonmanager who worked in Trotter's food-preparation positions from Aug. 20, 1998, to Dec. 31, 2002, was offered money. Of the 84 people eligible to participate in the settlement, 24 returned their claim forms. Court documents show that Trotter paid more than $300,000 to former kitchen staffers, though if everyone had collected, he would have been on the hook for almost $700,000.
Terms for the service-staff suit settlement were confidential.
Homaro Cantu (Moto, iNG) turned down his share, as did Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, g.e.b.) and others. Curtis Duffy (of the soon-to-open Grace) is on the recipient list. Jeff Mauro (Jam in Logan Square) says he mailed the envelope confirming his participation in the settlement on his way to the airport to fly to Europe after his Trotter's stint.
"I regret that decision," he says. "I regretted it a lot. That ultimately obviously is why I'll never see Chef Trotter again. I think you sign up for what you sign up for. I don't know why I did it. I really don't."
Those who accepted that money basically terminated their relationship with Trotter.
"Why would I want to have anything to do with (them)?" he says.
Kim's only comment came via email: "The litigation addressed important workplace issues facing kitchen staff in restaurants, and I am glad we were able to resolve those issues."