A little over a month ago, Maimon Kirschenbaum, a notorious figure in the restaurant world, filed suit against the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare on behalf of several former employees. All claim owner Moe Issa had withheld tips and overtime, and one claims chef Cesar Ramirez repeatedly referred to Asian people as "shit people," refused to have them seated nearest his station at the counter, and served them (as well as, supposedly, "Upper West Siders"), the worst cuts of meat. Issa and Ramirez have already both responded to the allegations in print, claiming that none of them are true. But a representative for the pair recently reached out to Eater, to offer a more thorough interview with them on where the case stands now.
The interview took place in the early afternoon at the Downtown Brooklyn restaurant, when the D-shaped counter has been covered in mats to double as a prep space, with all the chairs stacked in the center. Issa and Ramirez were flanked by two lawyers, and the conversation took place under the condition that it could go off record at any time. It frequently did, but mostly under the most lawyerly of precautions. Which is to say, no revelations were made off record that would change the tune of what was said on record. Though it should be noted that all that was said, on or off the record, was very well prepared.
We've always been focused on Asian culture. I've worked with Asians all my career.
When asked what their immediate thoughts were, on learning of the lawsuit, Issa responds, "It was a little shocking. I was very surprised." Here the lawyer jumps in to clarify that the lawsuit "really has two pieces." There's the wage theft part, which was filed by multiple employees, and then there's the racism part, which comes only from one employee, a woman named Emi Howard. To say that the former was a "complete shock," he says, "is unrealistic," since it's the sort of thing that restaurants get hit with all the time. But the allegations of racism, both Issa and Ramirez insist, blindsided them.
Here Ramirez speaks up, sounding incredulous: "How can I be racist against Asians? 85 to 95 percent of our product comes from Asia. We've always been focused on Asian culture. I've worked with Asians all my career." He talks about his years working at Bouley, where the food is strongly influenced by Japanese cuisine, and where his "right hand guy" was Korean. He insists that 95 percent of his menu is Asian in some way, and that the dining counters he'd encountered in Japan were "really the inspiration" for his chef's table. "When Moe called me up, I knew exactly what he had in mind, because I'd seen it in Japan."
So then how could those claims, specific as they are, come out of nowhere? Can they think of any reason why this former employee would have filed this lawsuit? No one can give a straight answer to these questions. It seems like maybe they do know something about why this employee would have called Ramirez racist, but they skirt the subject, even off the record. If anything, that reason may have to wait until the case goes to trial.
It all comes down, then, to one word against another. Why should we believe Ramirez over Emi Howard? He admits that there's nothing they can do to prove it definitively. The best they can do is march out the evidence, which he does, vehemently. He talks about time he filmed a video in support of Japanese fisheries after the tsunami of 2011, when other chefs had stopped using Japanese fish for fear of contamination. He describes emails of support he's received from Asian customers. He notes, "We have had Asian employees on the pay roll since day one. One gentleman has been working here for three years." Plus, a lawyer adds, there are photos out there, like one published in New York Magazine in 2011, that show Asians dining in exactly the seats that Ramirez allegedly forbid them from taking.
If I gave anyone any shit cuts, people would notice. People are not dumb.
At a certain point, Ramirez gets up and pulls a piece of well-marbled beef out of the walk-in. He shows how it's been portioned, how "there's no such thing" as a bad cut. He's getting very emphatic now. Walking around to his station, which faces the curved dining counter, he demonstrates how exposed he is. "There's no place to hide. We give the same meal to everyone, and everything is portioned in advance. If I gave anyone any shit cuts, people would notice. People are not dumb, and they would speak up if they thought that their neighbor had gotten something better than them." Plus, he says, everyone can hear everything, so how could he say anything racist? Issa agrees: "The setup of the place speaks for itself. People who have never been here have no idea how this place looks. Once you come in at night, you see that it's a very democratic table." Both are convinced that most of the detractors haven't actually seen the restaurant in action, and that if they did, they would change their minds.
But what about Ramirez's reputation for being a hotheaded chef? When the lawsuit surfaced, some were quick to pull up an old 2010 article written by Joshua David Stein, accusing the chef of berating him for taking notes. As Eater noted at the time, Stein was not the only one to complain of such treatment. "I have a reputation in the city," Ramirez admits, "but I have that reputation because I want the customer to have the perfect meal. It's such a small space, there's only so much room here. There are people celebrating a special occasion, and they don't want to have someone taking notes or photos. It's a very different restaurant, very tight, very communal, unlike any other restaurant." He also adds, "I remember [Stein] walking out of here telling me what a great meal he had."
I have a reputation in the city. But I have that reputation because I want the customer to have the perfect meal
For the record, Issa also insists he's not guilty of wage theft. He explains: "Because the place is very small, it was very hard to attract employees good enough to reach the level we wanted to reach and have them live on tips. So instead we guaranteed a salary, and that's how we got employees." He's able to do so partly because Brooklyn Fare charges diners for their dinner in advance, and includes a service fee with that. All sous chefs get paid a flat salary (rare in the industry), most other employees make around $21 an hour. Additional tips are rare, but they also, he says, always get divided up. He pulls out a stack of time sheets, which are little more than pieces of paper on which employees write down what time they start and what time they stop each day. "We work on the honor system here," he says, and "if someone tells me they worked 68 hours, I pay them time and a half for those extra hours."
So what's next? At the time of this interview, just before the new year, the restaurant had yet to be served the formal complaint. But the lawyers are confidant. The first step, says one, is to "have a conversation with the other lawyer and find some common ground, some misconceptions." Sometimes a deal can be reached. If not? "If they don't drop the discrimination thing, it's going to go on and we're going to fight it." As for the wage issue: It's "not going make the lawyer a lot of money." That's right, says Ramirez. Despite the price tag on the meal, "We're a mom and pop restaurant. We're not Daniel, we're not Per Se."