James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and former judge of Top Chef: Just Desserts Johnny Iuzzini has been accused of sexual harassment by four former employees in a lengthy new Mic report.
Two pastry chefs and two unpaid externs who directly reported to Iuzzini at the famed Jean-Georges restaurant in New York City between 2009 and 2011 alleged a culture of sexual harassment perpetuated by the now 43-year-old chef.
In response, Iuzzini told Mic — in part — in a statement, “I am shattered and heartbroken at the thought that any of my actions left members of my team feeling hurt or degraded. More importantly, I am deeply sorry to those who felt hurt.”
One pastry chef alleged Iuzzini stuck his tongue in her ear in the pastry kitchen one night in 2011, and did so again on “three or four” more occasions. The woman, who declined to be identified, said she never reported the incident beyond sharing it with a friend. She resigned later that year. “I left because of the way [Iuzzini] treated me,” she told Mic.
The same female pastry chef claimed that Iuzzini would also touch employees’ butts with kitchen utensils like spoons or knives.
“He would stand behind you really closely and breathe on your neck,” the first female pastry chef alleged to the outlet. “I think he did things to make people uncomfortable, and to see what he could get away with.”
Another chef who worked in the kitchen under Iuzzini echoed the pastry chef’s allegations, adding, “He used to say, ‘If I hit you with my hand, it’s harassment, but if I hit you with an object, it’s a mistake,’ ” she said. She also said Iuzzini once allegedly “simulated having sex with” her. “He didn’t actually grind up on my butt, but his hands were on my hips,” she said. “He did it for five seconds and ran out.”
All four former female employees also alleged that Iuzzini — a judge on upcoming series The Great American Baking Show — could be verbally abusive. Sources told Mic that Iuzzini once allegedly threw a small, empty liquid nitrogen canister at a female employee.
In his statement to Mic, Iuzzini denied throwing the empty nitrogen cannister, and stated, “Many of the other allegations are inaccurate, others I do not recall and none were meant to hurt people.” (Iuzzini’s rep declined to comment further to PEOPLE.)
He also denied allegations that management at Jean-Georges knew about the behavior, and it was what lead to his departure.
“Nonetheless, I must take responsibility if any of the members of my team felt uncomfortable by my words or actions, regardless of my intent or recollection,” he said. “I must hear that what the women making the accusations are telling me and recognize I caused pain. I have strived to be a good mentor over the course of my career, and I now understand that I failed some people. To me, that is unacceptable.”
Iuzzini said that he began working in kitchens as a teenager, a time in which, he said, “behavior was more bawdy than professional.”
“There were dirty jokes and vulgar remarks, times where people would lose their tempers and it was deemed permissible since four-star kitchens are high-stress jobs,” he told Mic. ” This was the behavior I learned as a boy, and for too many years participated in during my restaurant career. And it was wrong.”
He further apologized to “people who I have hurt,” saying, ” I cannot even begin to address how sorry I feel not only about what may have transpired, but about the fact they did not feel comfortable coming to me as their superior and letting me know how they felt.”
“That is a failure of mine as a mentor, as a leader. I hope that anyone who felt wronged by me will reach out to me and give me the opportunity to apologize to them personally. I assure you that I will continue to learn, continue to do better and continue to strive to be the type of chef who can lead our industry into a culture of respect through example.”