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Former Chef Sues Vegan Chinese Spot for Alleged Unchecked Harassment and Assault

The lawsuit also accuses Spicy Moon of alleged wage violations

A variety of vegan dishes, including mapo tofu, sauteed brussels sprouts, and fried rice.
An array of dishes from Spicy Moon.
Spicy Moon
Melissa McCart is the editor for Eater New York.

In an ongoing legal battle that started in 2022 involving a former chef at vegan Sichuan restaurant Spicy Moon in the East Village, the onetime employee alleges the restaurant failed to address abuse and harassment, as well as allegedly threatened him with retaliation when he alerted management. He’s also suing for alleged wage violations.

Spicy Moon, now with three Manhattan locations (operating under the corporate name LLC 20X Hospitality) filed a motion to dismiss the complaint; the motion was denied September 19. The hospitality group continues to deny allegations, court records show.

June Kwan, manager Joanna Avery, and executive chef Yidi “Kenny” Mao are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. Beyond Spicy Moon, Kwan is also an owner of Han Dynasty, with nine locations in New York and Pennsylvania, and the Double Dragon Farm in the works.

The complaint, first filed in June 2022, involves the plaintiff Milan Lipstein who was hired by Kwan in January 2021 to be the head chef at the restaurant at 328 E. Sixth Street, between First and Second avenues.

In the lawsuit, the former chef claims he worked over 100 hours a week on average, assembling new dishes and building a following for the restaurant on social media. Then, in September of that year, a co-owner and former general manager, Nick Kwak, hired a new chef, Yidi Mao, and Lipstein was eventually demoted to a line cook, working at the restaurant through November 2021, according to the lawsuit.

Lipstein alleges that Mao regularly grabbed and assaulted him, threatened to rape him; threatened to kill him, cornered him in the walk-in; made lewd gestures as well as anti-Semitic statements. Mao allegedly asked if he was gay, “hoping to have a homosexual relationship with the Plaintiff.”

General manager Joanna Avery was “regularly present” during the incidents, and “often” laughed at him, Lipstein alleges. By October 2021, Lipstein met with Kwan and Avery when he chronicled Mao’s behavior, according to the suit. Lipstein claims that Kwan “doubled down” on her “thinly veiled threat to fire Plaintiff for complaining” after he insisted it was “unacceptable and needed to be addressed.” After the meeting, Lipstein went back to work with Mao, who continued his abusive behavior.

At this point, Lipstein contemplated resigning, even as his manager asked him not to; he also continued to complain about the harassment and abuse, both to Kwan and Avery, according to the lawsuit. On November 8, he says was terminated, with “Kwan claiming they would be outsourcing food preparation and his services were no longer needed.”

In the lawsuit, Lipstein also alleges that he and other kitchen staff were not always paid on Friday paydays; that his effective hourly rate fell below the state minimum wage based on the number of hours he worked, and that Spicy Moon didn’t pay him overtime.

“The egregious sexual assault and harassment that Mr. Lipstein endured at Spicy Moon is a direct symptom of the rise in anti-Semitism worldwide,” says the plaintiff’s lawyer, Taylor Crabill, of Faruqi & Faruqi. “Spicy Moon not only allowed an anti-Semitic work culture to fester but terminated Mr. Lipstein for complaining about the outrageous and discriminatory conduct he experienced. No employee should have to endure what Mr. Lipstein faced and we intend to hold Spicy Moon accountable.”

Eater has also reached out to the restaurant group for a response.

It’s the first lawsuit for Spicy Moon since it opened in 2019, while Han Dynasty has been sued several times for wage violations and unpaid overtime, resulting in settlements.