News

Wm. Mulherin’s Chef-Partner Chris Painter Suspended Over Sexual Harassment Allegations

Painter, a Philly industry vet who once co-owned Il Pittore, had already been working a weekends-only schedule after an incident with an employee.

 

From left: Chris Painter | photo from Grub Street; the bar at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons | photo by Ted Nghiem

Method Hospitality co-founders Randall Cook and David Grasso confirmed to Philadelphia magazine on Thursday that Chris Painter, the chef at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown and a partner in the company, has been suspended from the restaurant, along with general manager Michael Jreidini and two other members of its staff, after four former Mulherin’s employees made a series of sexual harassment allegations. The suspensions were put in place after Philly Mag notified Cook and Grasso of the allegations.

Philly Mag has also confirmed that Painter had been on a weekends-only schedule at the restaurant, instituted by Cook and Grasso last summer after an incident between Painter and another employee that occurred after working hours. The specifics of the incident have not been disclosed, but Painter has not been allowed on the premises at the same time as the employee.

Painter, a Pottsville native, has been a notable name in the Philadelphia restaurant community for nearly two decades. The French Laundry alum played a key role in Stephen Starr’s empire, first as the chef behind critical darlings Tangerine and Angelina, and then as the company’s corporate chef and menu development guru. In 2011, Painter partnered with Starr to open a highbrow Italian concept on Sansom Street called Il Pittore. (Disclosure: I worked as a server at Il Pittore from October 2011 to June 2013.) In 2014, Philly Mag named him Best Chef in its annual Best of Philly issue.

In January 2016, Painter closed the restaurant to partner with Cook and Grasso on Method. In April 2016, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons opened its doors under the El, and it became an instant hit among its neighbors in Fishtown, and a destination for those beyond.

In interviews with the magazine, a former Mulherin’s server, a chef, and two hosts described the restaurant’s work environment as rife with sexual harassment, discrimination, and general inappropriate behavior.

“When you walked into that kitchen, it was like walking into the 1950s,” says Marqessa Gesualdi, a former pastry chef. “It was like walking into an episode of Mad Men — the way that they view women, talk about women, treat women. I was the only woman in that kitchen for a couple months. … Everybody thinks [Chris Painter] is so great, but nobody knows what it’s like to work for him.”

Neither Painter nor Jreidini responded to multiple requests for comment. Cook and Grasso released the following statement:

We are horrified by these allegations. As a company, we take any form of harassment or abuse extremely seriously. Last June a disturbing incident was brought to our attention. We immediately investigated the incident, met with those involved and took steps to protect the individuals affected and to prevent future issues of this sort. Among other things, we conducted management training, instituted policies and hired an outside Human Resources company to provide a way for all members of our company to report issues outside of the onsite management.

Yesterday, an editor from Philadelphia Magazine informed us of additional allegations which, from our understanding, took place prior to June, that suggest a more extensive problem may have existed. We have suspended all individuals accused of wrongdoing and have engaged an outside expert to conduct a broader and more thorough investigation. It is of the highest importance to us that every single person in our company feels safe and respected and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to guarantee that.

The Allegations

Amber Smith, currently a manager at the Love in Rittenhouse, was hired at Mulherin’s in May 2016 as a server after a four-year stint at Vernick, including one year as a manager. She says she was hired with the mutual understanding from her employers that she’d eventually fill a managerial position when it opened up, which is the reason she took the job.

During her time at Mulherin’s, Smith says, she and some of her female co-workers frequently fielded comments from Painter and other male staffers about their clothing and appearance. She says she’d try to deflect when she could, but in fall 2016, he eventually crossed the line.

“I was running food from the kitchen and Chris looked at me from behind the line and said, ‘Oh man, I’m so stressed out. I could really use a blowjob,’” Smith says. She responded “HR! HR!” hoping it would back Painter off, but instead, she says he responded: “I’m HR. Wanna go back in the back and have a conversation about it?” (It’s not unusual for independent restaurants, especially those that are chef-owned, to eschew an HR team. Method hired a HR firm in June 2017.)

Smith says that after her incident with Painter, she met with Jreidini, the restaurant’s general manager, to discuss the situation. “I told him what happened and I was like, ‘You have to tell this guy he can’t talk to people like that.’”

Following the incident, she says Painter gave her the cold shoulder for months, and when a managerial position opened up, it was given to a male employee.

When she expressed to Jreidini that she felt her contention with Painter had kept her from receiving the promotion, she says, he turned it into a money issue, telling her they couldn’t pay her what she wanted. “But he didn’t even offer it to me,” she says. “How would he know?”

According to Smith, she and co-owner David Grasso sat down together following the incident. “He said he wanted to talk to me about what happened, and I straight-up told him he had a systemic issue and asked him what he was going to do about it. He said it wasn’t as easy as firing [Painter] because he’s a partner in the company.”

Grasso, however, denies ever being made aware of a “systemic issue” in the restaurant: “I would like to say unequivocally that never was I made aware by anyone, including Amber Smith, that there could be a systemic problem such as is being accused at the restaurant. If it is true, however, heads will definitely roll.”

Smith eventually moved from server to bartender, which she says was a more comfortable working environment. She left the restaurant in May 2017.

Other female employees who spoke to Philly Mag say that they experienced and witnessed similar behavior from Painter and some of their male co-workers, and that their managers did not address their complaints in any formal way.

Paige Fernandez, a host at Mulherin’s from March to August 2017, says, “It was disgusting the way [Painter] was. He literally bent over in the kitchen one day and asked me what I had up my dress for him. I hated it. He treated me with obvious favoritism because he thought I was pretty and he liked that I wore dresses and skirts to work. And he would be inappropriate with me, but the one time I tried to report it to one of my managers, the manager just laughed it off and said that’s just kind of how it is.”

Ashley LaRue, who worked as a host at the restaurant between October 2016 and August 2017, tells Philly Mag that certain managers would touch her and her fellow hosts inappropriately at the stand at the front of the restaurant, giving them unsolicited massages and touching their lower backs. “We were all very uncomfortable,” she says, “but since they were managers, we felt like we couldn’t really confront them about how we felt given that they didn’t really open up to any kind of discourse about things that were going on in the first place.”

According to all four women, sexual harassment and discrimination were very much part of the restaurant’s workplace culture. Fernandez says: “One server told me to stop wearing the clothing of the guys I’m ‘fucking’ because my shirt didn’t ‘fit.’” She says that Jreidini, the general manager, would admonish her for wearing her hair down. “I’m half-black,” she says. “My hair’s curly, but he’d make comments about my ‘black-girl’ hair being a mess.” When she came in with her hair straightened, she says, Jreidini told her that she finally looked good, that she finally looked like the rest of the hosts, “all of whom were white with straight hair.” When she and other hosts brought complaints about this behavior to the managers’ attention, she says, they shrugged it off.

During Fernandez’s time at Mulherin’s, she and the other hosts kept a written log of times they were harassed by their male co-workers. The log, which was shown to Philly Mag, includes items like “A manager used a menu to flip a host’s skirt up,” “One of the hosts was holding a lemon and a server said ‘Don’t worry, it’ll fit,’” and “Chef said ‘Dang girl, mmmm’ directed at the way a host looked. When she addressed it to a manager, he told the host ‘he’s a creepy, old man and won’t stop.’”

Prior to Painter’s suspension, Method had announced that it would open a second restaurant with him at 1831 Chestnut Street. Neither Cook nor Grasso would say on Thursday whether the suspension would affect these plans.