French Laundry, Thomas Keller slapped with $5M sex discrimination suit

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The French Laundry and its owner, celebrated chef and cookbook author Thomas Keller, have been hit with a $5 million sex discrimination lawsuit by a woman who claims she was denied a job because she was pregnant.

Vanessa Scott-Allen, a server “captain” at Keller’s Per Se in New York City, said she was offered a transfer to the renowned Yountville restaurant earlier this year after a visit with general manager Michael Minnillo, according to the suit filed Sept. 26 in Napa County Superior Court.

Scott-Allen later learned she was pregnant and informed the company before she and her husband gave up the lease on their New York apartment, bought a car and shipped their belongings to California, the suit said.

But when she arrived in Napa and was asked about her maternity leave plans, Scott-Allen alleges she was subjected to discrimination and retaliation and told the position was no longer available.

Her suit seeks damages for economic harm, emotional stress and attorney fees.

Restaurant industry insiders said the suit points up a common workplace problem for women trying to balance careers and family. It also could make it difficult for Keller to recruit top talent in a tight job market where qualified workers are in high demand.

The French Laundry did not respond to email requests for comment. Scott-Allen’s attorneys also did not return calls or emails.

“It sounds like if they had worked with her, they would have had a loyal employee,” said Liza Hinman, chef and co-owner of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa, who had no direct knowledge of the suit. “Instead, they are losing her and sending a message that it’s not a friendly work environment.”

Keller’s vaunted restaurant has received numerous honors since he opened it in 1994. The Michelin Guide of San Francisco awarded it its highest three-star rating for six years straight, according to the restaurant’s website.

Per Se, opened in 2004 in Manhattan, also has been highly rated. However, the restaurant was panned this year in a review by the New York Times, and Keller acknowledged the shortcomings.

Scott-Allen worked at Per Se for five years and received regular promotions before being appointed to the highest-ranking server position, or captain, her lawsuit said.

In January, she and her husband traveled to California and arranged to visit The French Laundry. The couple thought about moving west but had no formal plan, the suit said.

She spent several hours observing operations and service. At the end, Minnillo told her, “We would love to have you,” or words to that effect, the suit said.

She returned home and found out she was pregnant. She told the Per Se general manager who relayed the information Minnillo, the suit said.

Meanwhile, the company approved Scott-Allen’s transfer. An internal bulletin in March featured a photo of Keller hugging Scott-Allen and saying: “Thank you, Vanessa. May your warmth, grace and impact shine just as brightly at TFL as it has here.”

Scott-Allen and her husband moved, with a planned start date of April 4.

She arrived in time and met with another manager, Olivia Wallace, who asked questions about her pregnancy, including her due date, how long she expected to work before giving birth and how long she expected to be on maternity leave, the suit said.

Wallace said she would not be permitted to work so close to her delivery date and promised to get back to Scott-Allen about her schedule.

Then, Scott-Allen alleges, she was told by Minnillo the position was no longer available and there were no other positions for her within the company, the suit said.

Scott-Allen lodged a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In her suit, she is claiming fraud and deceit as well as violations of maternity leave laws. Minnillo is named as a defendant.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312. or On Twitter @ppayne.

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