Allegations of sexual assault and sordid cover-ups are shaking the American restaurant industry. Mario Batali is facing a reckoning for years of alleged foul behavior toward nearly every woman in his path; New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh faces accusations of fostering a culture of sexual predation; James Beard-winning restaurateur Ken Friedman kept a private dining area his employees called “the rape room.”
Dallasites are probably reading these stories and wondering, are we next? When will the national scandal become local?
But in one prominent restaurant owner’s case, the news already hit, and nothing much changed.
Phil Romano, 78, is the high-profile owner of Eatzi’s, Nick and Sam’s, and the Trinity Groves restaurant development. He founded Romano’s Macaroni Grill and the burger chain Fuddrucker’s. He’s also the defendant in a lawsuit filed June 27, 2016, by former Eatzi’s assistant manager Ichel Cook, alleging that he placed his hand on Cook’s buttocks (specifically, according to a subsequent filing, “in Cook’s gluteal cleft”) without her consent and “with a grin on his face,” during an Eatzi’s staff meeting.
According to Cook’s suit, “Phil Romano later confronted Ichel to discuss what happened. The only justification Phil Romano offered was, ‘I thought you were just one of the guys.’”
Local news media reported on the case when the lawsuit was filed but have not followed up on later developments. Every local media outlet, including the Dallas Observer, has since published articles on new or expanding Romano businesses without mentioning the sexual assault allegations.
Not one local news source picked up the story when Cook followed up with a second lawsuit in August 2017, this time against Eatzi’s, alleging wrongful termination.
According to the August suit, Eatzi’s HR director Kristie Talbert listened to Cook’s account and asked, “What do you want me to do about it?” Shortly afterwards, Romano allegedly confronted Cook, declaring, “You were not paying attention when I walked in, so I gave you a goose.”
The suit goes on to claim that after the incident, Cook’s hours were changed haphazardly and she was subject to a campaign of harassment by Eatzi’s CEO Adam Romo, who repeatedly demanded that she turn over her cellphone without explaining why. Romo told Cook that although she was a member of management, she was no longer allowed to attend management meetings. Cook filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission in October 2016 and was fired just weeks later.
There are two main differences the Romano-Romo case has from those of Besh, Batali and their ilk. One is that Romano is pugnacious. In August 2004, he sued The Dallas Morning News over a glowing four-star review that he believed to be defamatory. Former D Magazine restaurant critic Nancy Nichols reported at the time that Romano had called her employer at least twice to demand that she be fired for her reviews of his restaurants.
Romo is litigious, too. Romo’s son Ryan was arrested on a rape charge as a teenager; when a grand jury declined to indict him, the Romo family sued the alleged victim and her family for defamation. The suit was settled in 2013, according to Dallas County court records.
Faced with Cook’s story, Romano is denying everything. According to the denial filed with the court, “Plaintiff’s alleged losses and damages, if any, are the result of, and directly related to, Plaintiff’s own conduct, actions, or failure to act, and not to Defendant’s conduct.”
Similarly, Eatzi’s denies that it fired Cook wrongfully, saying that the decision to fire her after her discrimination complaint was “based upon legitimate, non-discriminatory, and non-retaliatory business reasons.”
Eatzi’s and Romano stand out from the national tidal wave of sexual assault cases because they have chosen to fight the accusations rather than admit wrongdoing. The Romano trial is expected to go before a jury in April; the Eatzi’s case is a nonjury trial scheduled for August. In July, a judge denied Romano’s demand that Cook be evaluated by doctors, and on Dec. 8, the same judge denied Romano’s request to merge the two lawsuits into one.
The second difference between Romano and Batali? Romano assaulted Cook on videotape. The tape is public. We can watch it.
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Besh and Batali have relinquished most of their responsibilities in their businesses, but they remain as owners and still get paychecks. Why was Romano never subject to the same public backlash that they faced?
The cynical explanation is that Dallas really likes Eatzi’s, Nick and Sam’s, and Trinity Groves, but there are other factors, too. Cook’s allegations were made before the current #MeToo movement sprang to life. Romano’s reputation as the man who sued over a four-star review perhaps has kept Dallas media from speaking out forcefully. Cook is, to our knowledge, his only accuser.
But one accuser, especially one with video, should be enough to inspire curiosity in the Dallas dining public. That footage should be enough to prompt questions about the casualness with which powerful restaurateurs can place their hands on their employees’ bodies, and the ease with which the press and public can watch it happen and then change the subject.
Eatzi’s, Romo and Romano will have their days in court to defend themselves against Cook’s allegations of assault, harassment and discrimination. There is a court of public opinion, too — one that has been active in the cases of chefs and restaurateurs across America. In Dallas, however, all we hear is silence.