Courtesy of Chef With No Name
After leaving his namesake restaurant group in the summer of 2016, Kent Rathbun created this image and a social media campaign calling himself "Chef With No Name."

The Legal Battle Over Kent Rathbun's Name Has a Trial Date — and $1 Million in Attorneys' Fees

The legal battle over the rights to Dallas celebrity chef Kent Rathbun’s name has consumed an estimated $1 million in attorneys’ fees, and with a trial date newly set for December, tensions are escalating.

A court document filed by Rathbun’s attorneys Sept. 5 reveals accusations of a “confrontational situation” between the two sides, which, Rathbun’s team alleges, has hindered settlement negotiations. The document also accuses the defendants of lengthening the case to force Rathbun to spend more money on legal fees.

The situation began in June 2016, when Kent Rathbun quit his position as executive chef of high-profile restaurants Abacus and Jasper’s over a business dispute with his partner, William “Bill” Hyde Jr. Later, Rathbun sued Hyde over an agreement Rathbun signed in 2009 in which Rathbun gave up the rights to his name, image and likeness, turning those rights over to H2R Restaurant Concepts, the company that owns and operates Abacus and Jasper’s.

In the initial suit, Rathbun alleged that Hyde and attorney David Watkins deliberately misled him about the terms and purpose of the agreement, which bars Rathbun from using his name to promote any other food-related product or service. Hyde and Watkins responded that the chef understood the document and signed it voluntarily. Since then, both sides have added new allegations, including claims that both parties were attempting to steal business from each other and a charge that Rathbun owes William and Claire Hyde $250,000 in unpaid debts.

For a time, it seemed as though the sides might pursue a settlement in which Rathbun, who opened Abacus in 1999 and Jasper’s in 2003, was again allowed to pursue a culinary career using name, rather than resorting to disguises like “Chef With No Name.” H2R quietly dropped the iconic Dallas chef from marketing materials for its restaurants, but it still uses the URL kentrathbun.com.
Courtesy of Kent Rathbun
Kent Rathbun, in less litigious days.

But when H2R requested a postponement of the Oct. 16 trial date, in part to pursue settlement talks, the two sides’ differences spilled into public view.

“Settlement ‘discussions’ have not been reasonable,” Kent Rathbun’s legal team informed the court Sept. 5, “and the proverbial ‘ball’ has been in the hands of the Defendants for several weeks.”

In the document, Rathbun’s counsel sees a “transparent strategy to spend Rathbun into oblivion” in the request for more time. “To date, the parties have likely expended over a million dollars collectively in legal fees, which would only continue to accrue,” the document reads.

This number likely includes several third parties that have been dragged into the proceedings, notably a D/FW International Airport concession vendor whose restaurant concepts Rathbun allegedly tried to poach from H2R after his resignation.

The filing continues: “The implicit threat of accumulating more legal fees ... as leverage for settlement negotiations is completely inappropriate.”

H2R’s request for a delay, which also claimed the defendants needed further time to amass their case although they’ve already generated 94,000 pages of potential evidence, appears successful; the trial is now set to begin Dec. 4.

The plaintiff’s Sept. 5 filing also refers to a mysterious, unspecified “confrontational situation” that arose when Kent Rathbun attempted to negotiate in person with opposing attorneys.

Asked about the situation and the estimated $1 million in attorneys’ fees, Rathbun’s lead attorney, Michael K. Hurst, told the Observer: “We are certainly hoping we are going to trial on Dec. 4. The court has respectfully requested that counsel refrain from making statements about the case outside of the courtroom.”

Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.