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High-Profile Chefs Across Manhattan Coming Under Fire From Lawsuits

By DNAinfo Staff on September 2, 2010 12:15pm

Chef Michael White, the latest high-profile chef to be sued by employees, prepares dishes on June 28, 2010.
Chef Michael White, the latest high-profile chef to be sued by employees, prepares dishes on June 28, 2010.
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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz

By Mariel S. Clark

DNAinfo News Editor

MANHATTAN — Things are heating up for several of Manhattan's famed chefs and restaurateurs as they find themselves the targets of lawsuits, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

This week, employees filed a lawsuit against Chef Michael White and his business partner Chris Cannon, who run the upscale Italian eatery Alto in Midtown, according to reports.

Alto employees accused White and Cannon of forcing them to share tips with the restaurant's general manager and not paying them the minimum wage to which they were entitled, the Journal reported.

Also targeted this week was "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto.

The bar-back suing Morimoto said he was forced to unfairly share his tips with non-service workers and a portion of his tips never made it to him, the lawsuit said, according to the paper.

The two lawsuits join a slew of others — Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich were sued in August by Babbo workers who claimed the pair stiffed them on tips. In March, grill-master Bobby Flay agreed to fork over $800,000 to workers who alleged they were cheated out of wages and tips.

All of the suits have shared a similar theme — workers say the restaurants and their owners violated labor laws by unfairly withholding or divvying tips and overtime pay, according to the Journal.

The suits also start with just one or a few employees, though some, like the one against Batali, have grown to as many as 20 plaintiffs.

Some have said the surge in lawsuits like these has been generated by a small group of law firms wanting to garner publicity and cash in on complicated wage and labor laws, the Journal reported.

"We don't chase people, people chase us," said Maimon Kirchenbaum, an attorney at one of the two firms that together have filed more than 10 lawsuits against star-powered restaurants in the last year, according to the Journal.

"They're being wronged, they're being taken advantage of by big corporations with a lot of power."