The judge in a heated lawsuit between the Williamsburg Hotel and rising star chef Adam Leonti banned the chef from working at any restaurant in New York City until the spring — a decision that his current employer Sessanta plans to appeal in hopes of moving forward with a fall relaunch for the restaurant.
Earlier this month, the court ordered Leonti to stop working at the Soho restaurant owned by prolific downtown restaurateur John McDonald, saying that the employment violates a non-compete agreement the chef signed with Williamsburg Hotel and its restaurant Harvey. The court order notes that Leonti cannot work in any NYC kitchen until March 1, 2018.
But McDonald says he plans to appeal the decision. This fall, Leonti was going to revamp Sessanta, located at 60 Thompson Street, so that the back room would host a tasting menu in the same vein as the one at Vetri, the acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant where Leonti made his name. The front room would remain a more casual, a la carte restaurant.
McDonald and the Mercer Street Hospitality group still want to fulfill this vision as soon as possible, the restaurateur says. “At this stage, I’m not going to lie down and let it go,” he says.
Williamsburg Hotel’s spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
In the interim, Sessanta will remain open with a temporary menu created by Mercer chef Josh Capon and several other chefs, McDonald says. Leonti will be traveling to Italy. It’s possible that Sessanta will lose the appeal, and Leonti will have to wait until March to start working at any local restaurant. Regardless, “we’re committed to bringing him back into the fold,” McDonald says.
Leonti’s Rocky NYC debut
It’s been a rough start in New York for Leonti. He was fairly unknown here when he arrived in 2015, but he had been running the kitchen at chef Marc Vetri’s Philly tasting menu restaurant for years, to much praise. While the chef was at Vetri, Eater critic Bill Addison called it “one of the country’s most playful and singular takes on the tasting menu format.”
He came to New York for Harvey, signing a contract in March 2015 with the Williamsburg Hotel and owners Toby Moskovtiz and Michael Lichtenstein. At the time, Harvey was considered an exciting opening for Williamsburg. Moskovitz and co. agreed to pay him $130,000-per-year until the restaurant opened and then $150,000 once it did.
A complaint filed by the hoteliers alleges that they spent more than $2 million turning Leonti into a “celebrity chef.” “Mr. Leonti is using that brand to drive those same customers to Sessanta, the precise thing the non-compete was designed to prevent,” the complaint says.
But Leonti claims the non-compete doesn’t apply since the restaurant never opened despite repeated promises from the hoteliers, according to the suit. He also characterized their treatment of him as “hostile,” noting that they had requests that were “virtually impossible.” For instance, the chef claims he was asked to make pastries for a “high tea” but was not allowed to order ingredients without approval. Moskovitz allegedly later “berated” him for buying too many carrots for carrot cake snacks, the suit claims.
The chef ultimately resigned in February 2017. On March 22, the Times announced that he would work at Sessanta, and on March 27, the hotel filed a lawsuit saying that he’d violated his non-compete agreement.
A judge denied the hoteliers’ initial request, noting that the restaurant was not yet open, but he changed the decision in August after Moskovitz showed Harvey is open for breakfast.
Harvey still has not yet opened for dinner, though the hotel started accepting guests earlier this year. Stay tuned for more.