‘Top Chef’ Judge Tom Colicchio Speaks Out About Accusations of Worker Abuse

The five-time James Beard Award–winning chef and restaurateur is being sued by employees who allege wage theft at his New York eatery ’wichcraft.

Tom Colicchio. (Photo: David Moir/Bravo/NBCU/Getty Images)

Jan 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Chef Tom Colicchio’s rock-solid reputation as a good guy of the food world has come under fire, despite all his deeds as an advocate for mandatory GMO labeling, fair restaurant labor practices, and congressional testimony to improve childhood nutrition.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 12, Colicchio’s restaurant chain ’wichcraft was accused of paying workers below-minimum wage, docking tips, and denying overtime—claims the Top Chef judge strongly denied Thursday.

“It was alleged that we were distributing tips to the managers, and that’s just not true,” Colicchio told TakePart in a phone interview. He also denied allegations that his employees were paid below the tipped minimum wage or that their overtime benefits were refused. He went on to add, “We take all allegations very seriously.”

Lourdes Rivera said she worked 33 hours per week as a delivery person at ’wichcraft in Greenwich Village from April 2010 to March 2013 but was only paid for 27-and-a-half hours, according to the 48-page filing in the U.S. District Court of Southern New York. “In addition to her scheduled hours, plaintiff Lourdes Rivera worked off-the-clock for half an hour each day, changing into and out of the required uniforms,” the filing said. Emma Rivera makes the same claim, saying she started there as a delivery person in April 2009 and worked until May 2013.

After-hours attempts to reach attorneys for Lourdes Rivera and Emma Rivera, who filed the suit, were not immediately successful. Full disclosure: The film division of TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, produced the documentary A Place at the Table, of which Colicchio was an executive producer.

This isn’t the first time one of Colicchio’s restaurants has been sued for labor violations. In 2008 an employee from Craftbar filed a similar lawsuit over allegations of unpaid overtime and garnished tips. That was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

In the filing, Colicchio is also accused of running his restaurant like “a boys’ club,” with plaintiff Lourdes Rivera saying her bosses turned a blind eye in August after a male coworker recorded her changing with “a cell phone hidden near the bottom of a locker.” Colicchio said Thursday that the man, only identified as “Gregorio” in the court filing, was fired immediately.

“And as for the ‘boys’ club’ thing, 16 of our 34 managers are women, so that’s just not true. Also, at the Restaurant Opportunities Center, we were awarded the gold star award, and we have a long record of treating our employees really well,” Colicchio said.

The mission of the nonprofit organization, known as the ROC, is “to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s 10 million restaurant workers.” Saru Jayaraman, the organization’s cofounder and codirector, said that Colicchio’s restaurants have always been bastions of fair labor practices.

“We gave Tom a gold-star award for his wage standards, his benefit standards, his promotion policy, and also the racial equality in his restaurants. Tom is honestly one of the best we’ve seen in these categories,” she told TakePart.

Both Jayaraman and Colicchio stressed that all claims by workers should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately, but they acknowledged that confusing state regulations surrounding minimum wage often play a prominent role in these lawsuits.

The state minimum wage is $8.75 per hour. Employers are only obligated to pay tipped food service professionals $5 per hour, but that does not include delivery workers, who have a $5.65 minimum hourly wage, according to the New York Department of Labor.

“A lot of these issues come up consistently across all different restaurants because of this ridiculous policy of sub–minimum wage tipping. And it creates tremendous liability for smaller restaurant groups,” Jayaraman said.

She thinks states should implement regulations that require restaurants to pay their workers a fair wage, without relying on the generosity of customers to supplement their income.

Jayaraman said that all restaurants are susceptible to labor violations, even the ones that consistently follow the rules; that’s just the nature of the business. But she clarified that the difference in ethics can be seen in the way a restaurant responds to the claims.

“The people who take the high road to profitability respond differently to those who take the low road. The people who take the high road take the allegations very seriously, respond to them quickly, and are open to reacting and changing. Tom has always taken the high road,” she said.