A Top Chicago Restaurant Messaged Its Virtue. Then Workers Spoke Up.

Two weeks ago, Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo decided to declare their solidarity with the fight for racial justice. They did so with two posts on the Instagram account of Fat Rice, their award-winning restaurant in Chicago: one a plain black square, the other a photo of the words “Stand for change” spray-painted inside a heart.

The posts did not have their intended effect. They were immediately condemned on social media as shallow acts of self-aggrandizement, particularly by former Fat Rice employees, who took to the internet with a barrage of complaints about a culture of verbal abuse, rage and racial insensitivity they said had flourished at the restaurant.

Nearly all of the 20 former Fat Rice employees who spoke to The New York Times in recent days described Mr. Conlon, 39, as an extreme example of a restaurant-business archetype: a tantrum-prone chef who rules by fear and bullying. He ended one staff meeting, they said, by dumping a can of garbage onto the floor, and flew into fits of anger so severe onlookers feared they would lead to violence.

“Working there was pretty much a nightmare when Abe was around,” said Molly Pachay, 27, a former Fat Rice bar manager.

At a moment when restaurants across the country have made efforts to align themselves with protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the furor surrounding Fat Rice shows there are dangers for businesses that try to turn their names into symbols of virtue. Last week, the owners of Mission Chinese Food in New York and of the California restaurant chain Boba Guys issued apologies for the racist behavior of staff members — accounts that had emerged earlier but resurfaced after the restaurants declared public support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The misbehavior that the former Fat Rice employees have described does not include allegations of sexual harassment, which many chefs and restaurateurs have faced in the #MeToo era. But the uproar reveals a growing intolerance for a type of verbal mistreatment that has long been accepted as routine in the industry — one in which blacks and other minorities do much of the hardest work.

Mr. Conlon posted an apology to Instagram on June 6. “I have reinforced a culture of hostility and oppression due to my own insecurities,” he wrote in part. “I have much unlearning ahead of me.” (The Instagram account has since been deleted.)

Last Wednesday, he and Ms. Lo, 36, the restaurant’s co-owner, said that in response to the criticism, they had closed Fat Rice, which they had converted to a general store focusing on meal kits during the coronavirus shutdown. “We’ve stopped all orders of business in support of the movement and to take time to reflect,” Mr. Conlon said. Their roughly 70 employees were laid off in March after a shutdown order took effect in Illinois.

Fat Rice, which opened in 2012, specialized in the food of Macau, a former Portuguese colony in China. In 2018, Mr. Conlon was awarded the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region, and Chicago magazine proclaimed that “Fat Rice may be the most universally beloved restaurant in Chicago.”

But Alex Szabo, 29, who worked as a chef there from 2015 to 2016, said Mr. Conlon’s brute management style — “when Abe was on the line, it was as bad as any kitchen I’ve seen,” he said — took an emotional toll on the kitchen staff. He recalls breaking down in front of Mr. Conlon one night.

“I told him my life right now makes me want to kill myself, and I do not know what to do,” Mr. Szabo recalled. “His response to that was I should just work more.”

Mr. Conlon said he did not remember the incident, and in a lengthy interview with The Times, he and Ms. Lo took exception to some former employees’ description of Fat Rice as an unsafe place to work.

“I don’t think that’s a fair conclusion for you to make,” Ms. Lo said. Many former employees criticized her for not intervening on their behalf more often.

Both Ms. Lo and Mr. Conlon attributed his behavior in part to his own past “traumas,” including drinking, drug abuse and the way he himself was treated as a younger chef. In a text message after the interview, Mr. Conlon reiterated his belief that he is an example of an industrywide problem that he alone should not have to answer for.

“I am acknowledging that my harsh behaviors, poor leadership and temperament are indicative of the greater problems in the restaurant world in which I have learned them,” he wrote. “I am complicit in my participation in the ‘that’s just how it is, because that’s how it has been’ culture.”

Mr. Conlon’s former employees said his outbursts were routine and often alarming. One such incident occurred at the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, where Fat Rice had a stall. Mr. Conlon became so enraged with an employee who accidentally threw out his breakfast that someone called security.

“I remember security was like: ‘Hey, you need to take it easy. You can’t really talk to people like that,’ ” recalled Mr. Conlon, who said he was fatigued, having just returned from an overseas trip to film an episode of “Top Chef.” “I was wrongfully upset.”

Many former Fat Rice employees who voiced complaints about the restaurant on social media say the current push for racial equality should include a reckoning for chefs like Mr. Conlon. They point out that abuse in restaurants falls disproportionately on people of color, who often occupy low-level positions that keep them from fighting back.

“Black people have experienced this on a greater scale, but it doesn’t minimize what’s happening under our noses,” said Joey Pham, 32, a former Fat Rice chef who has accused the owners on social media of creating a hostile workplace. “When is it a good time to come out about abuse?”

Fat Rice has been under fire before. Last year, the restaurant made local news when an African-American guest complained that it played loud hip-hop music that contained racial slurs. The owners responded by posting a warning in the restaurant that diners could be exposed to explicit lyrics.

In 2017, Ryan Zeh, a chef, said he heard Mr. Conlon talking angrily about a female server, and became so concerned that he followed Mr. Conlon as he approached the employee.

“I thought I needed to be there,” said Mr. Zeh, 27. “He’s thrown plates at cooks.”

Ms. Pachay, the bar manager, said Mr. Conlon was furious with the employee for improperly coursing the meal of a single diner. “Abe verbally berated and abused her for it in front of a crowded bar,” Ms. Pachay said.

Mr. Conlon never laid hands on the server. He said he doesn’t remember making the threat, and while he admitted to throwing plates, he denied ever having thrown one at an employee.

He nonetheless said he regretted losing his temper, and confirmed that it led to his taking a leave of absence from the restaurant, after several employees, including Ms. Pachay and Mr. Zeh, urged Ms. Lo to tell Mr. Conlon to seek professional help.

“It wasn’t my incident alone that caused the sabbatical,” said the server who was the target of Mr. Conlon’s anger. “It was the tipping point for it.” She asked not to be named because she didn’t want the controversy to hurt her new career.

Mr. Conlon spent three weeks in his native Massachusetts, where he took some time to reflect at a yoga and meditation retreat. “Why am I acting this way? What are the behaviors that I need to change?” he recalled asking himself. “It was an important time for me. But it obviously wasn’t enough.”

Sukainah Jallow, 32, said she started working at Fat Rice as a server during Mr. Conlon’s leave. “People were very open, telling me, ‘You should be happy he’s not here,’” she said.

Still, when Mr. Conlon returned, he did not appear to have changed, she said. “I was never personally a target, but people around me were emotionally broken by him,” Ms. Jallow said. “He’s been doing this stuff for years. He’s not understanding.”

Ms. Jallow is one of several African-American former staff members who accused Mr. Conlon and Ms. Lo of treating black employees differently than white employees.

Some of these differences were subtle, like the way Ms. Jallow said Mr. Conlon “changed his tone of voice with people who are black,” adopting black slang.

Anisa McGowan, 22, a former server, said Ms. Lo once ordered her to cover her head during service when she came to work with an Afro.

“She tried to frame it as a hygiene thing,” Ms. McGowan said, “but I don’t believe that, because there were a lot of white people who had shoulder-length hair and didn’t wear it back or anything like that.”

Ms. Lo said that all employees, regardless of race, were instructed to wear their hair up, and that she was “not picking on” Ms. McGowan. “There had been problems with hair in the food,” she said.

But Ms. McGowan said she interpreted the attention paid to her Afro as “anti-black,” in part because of the other ways she saw race play out at Fat Rice.

She was particularly troubled watching a young black food runner whom she believed Mr. Conlon had singled out for abuse. The former employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of being blackballed in the industry, said he worked at the restaurant for less than a year, in 2017 and 2018, and that he was 20 when hired.

Mr. Conlon, he said, “had a lot of animosity toward me personally. I don’t know if it was because I was new or because I was black or because I was young, or because of all three of those things.”

He said Mr. Conlon once showed him a photograph on his phone of a “black banjo guy with overalls and a hat and a straw in his mouth.” He said the chef encouraged him to dress up like the man for the restaurant’s New Orleans-themed Halloween party.

“I was like, ‘Why would I do that? I look like this guy?’ ” the former food runner recalled. “He said, ‘Sure, you do.’ ”

Mr. Conlon said he remembers the food runner, but not the incident he described. “I know that we would have brainstorming sessions when we had events,” he said.

The young man recalled the night Mr. Conlon fired him. “He kept pulling me aside so he could yell at me,” he said. “I got really mad,” having taken several months of such treatment. “The last time he pulled me aside into a corner really hard. I walked away from him and he grabbed me again. Then I yelled at him and told him, ‘Don’t touch me.’ ”

Mr. Conlon and Ms. Lo said the food runner often moved too quickly through the restaurant’s cramped space, sometimes colliding with other people. “He was moving headfirst,” said Mr. Conlon, who said he told the young man: “You make me nervous. I’m afraid you’re going to crash into somebody again.”

“I reacted and I grabbed him by the shoulder because I thought he was going to crash into somebody,” said Mr. Conlon, who added that his reaction “wasn’t based on who he was as a person. It wasn’t based on his race.”

Both men say they moved into the alley to continue the argument. The young man said he asked why Mr. Conlon kept pulling his arm. “He was like, ‘I thought you were going to attack a guest.’ In, like, five seconds, he changed the narrative into, I was going to attack a guest because I was walking away from him angrily.”

He said Mr. Conlon then told him, “I could have called the police on you.” Mr. Conlon said doesn’t recall saying that. “I think I was trying to explain what my concerns were to him,” he said, “and why I don’t think it was being heard, and things obviously got heated.”

He fired the employee later that evening. Ms. McGowan said the young man told her later that night about the incident.

“That’s a really hard thing to manage,” she said, “to work with people who damn well may call the cops on you.”

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