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Hanoi House Owners Sue Acclaimed Chef, Claiming He Threatened Them

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Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell are seeking a temporary restraining order against John Nguyen

John Nguyen at Hanoi House
John Nguyen at Hanoi House
Photo by Gary He

Turns out the split between East Village Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi House and its acclaimed opening chef John Nguyen was not so amicable: Owner Sara Leveen is suing Nguyen for a temporary restraining order to keep him away from the restaurant, as well as to stop him from “using, disclosing or publishing” any of the restaurant’s recipes, the Post reports.

The complaint, in full below, alleges that after Nguyen showed up to work drunk on at least one occasion, Leveen and co-owner Ben Lowell fired him. But the real trouble allegedly started when Leveen and Lowell sent Nguyen a separation agreement that included a three-mile-radius, two-year non-compete, and one month of severance pay plus a bonus. Nguyen took issue with that, allegedly writing in an email to Leveen that, “I am going to compete with you guys or help others do it.” He also allegedly threatened Leveen and her family via text, writing, according to exhibits on the case, “Your family is next,” and “I am not leaving until I feel like I hurt your enough.”

The complaint also alleges that Nguyen signed an agreement when he was hired in October 2016 that any recipes developed for the restaurant were property of the restaurant. Now, according to the suit, he has threatened to share the recipes “with the world.”

In a statement to Eater, Nguyen writes, “If it was fair, then I would sign it, but it isn’t fair when I give Hanoi House two years of my life and recipes.” Nguyen notes that even though he is leaving to go cook in Hong Kong and that Leveen agreed to limit the radius to two miles, he will not sign the agreement. In a statement to Eater, Leveen says they hope to “resolve this amicably” and “genuinely wish” Nguyen “the best in his future endeavors.”

Nguyen shot to fame in the months following the opening of Hanoi House, racking up accolades such as Eater NY’s chef of the year and favorable reviews from the Times, Grub Street, and Eater. In a January 2017 profile of the chef, both Nguyen and Leveen acknowledged that their relationship may be temporary.

Update: September 11, 2018, 12:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Sara Leveen.

Hanoi House

119 Saint Marks Place, Manhattan, NY 10009 (212) 995-5010 Visit Website