The New York outpost of Mission Chinese, a high-end Chinese restaurant, is being sued by four employees who claim the eatery is a “hot bed” of racial discrimination and poor working conditions.
The lawsuit names the owner of the restaurant, celebrity chef Danny Bowien, and managers Jane Hem and Adrianna Varedi, accusing them of being racist towards black and Latinx staff members and retaliating against workers who complained.
The claimants say Mission Chinese was “very, very often a toxic environment” and workers of color often faced physical abuse, like a kitchen staffer burning the arm of a black employee with a spoon dipped in scalding oil. The management also repeatedly ignored complaints about the behavior of the employees.
But what’s jarring is the fact that Mission Chinese portrays itself as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community and people of color. It was this image that made Erin Lang, a queer black woman, take up a job at the restaurant. However, Lang, who was “tired of working in hostile environments, with favoritism and verbal abuse,” soon realized the workplace was not at all what it was hyped up to be.
Lang said she was treated especially badly by Hem, who became assistant general manager in October 2016. She said she was denied promotions and she was given fewer shifts because of her being an African-American. She also said Hem hurled racially insensitive comments at her, saying she wouldn’t want to meet Lang “in a dark alley,” and that her dreadlocks looked like “Grinch’s finger.” Hem also said she looked too “aggressive” and apparently did not smile enough (not surprising, considering the working situation at the restaurant), according to the lawsuit.
Lang also said she was removed from her role as captain in March 2016 after Varedi said the position was being axed. However, just a few months later, the restaurant hired a new captain — this time one who was not African-American.
Latinx employees also suffered racial discrimination, with the kitchen staff calling them “wetbacks” and saying things like they couldn’t wait until President Donald Trump deported them.
The three other plaintiffs — Ilana Engelberg, Zayn Shaikh and Bayley Blaisdell — who are not black, said they did not experience racial discrimination but witnessed it regularly. When they complained, the management either looked the other way or retaliate against the workers the employee who was burned with the spoon was eventually fired), including the ones who complained.
Shortly after the four people went to human resources to lodge complaints, the working environment for all of them worsened. An employee reportedly overheard the two managers saying they would “turn up the screws” and their behavior towards the complainers turned both juvenile and vindictive. Hem and Varedi also withheld Shaikh’s promotion from a food runner position to a server position, which pays more.
When Shaikh confronted them for hiring other servers rather than advancing him to the position, Hem denied the accusation, but then said the racial discrimination complaints had “upset her.” She then tried to talk him into defending her during any forthcoming investigations.
The lawsuit also stated Mission Chinese did not pay the staff the full legal wage, saying the workers were paid the tipped minimum. However, the employees argue they spent 20 percent of their time doing work that did not earn them the bonus. They also said the restaurant cut half-hour break times from their pay even though none of them were allowed to take more than a few minutes break. The plaintiffs are now seeking compensation for the abuses.
Shaikh, who uses gender-neutral pronoun, said Mission Chinese only wanted to reap the benefits of employing diverse people, while mistreating them behind the backs of customers.
“I’ve come to understand that restaurants can treat people very poorly. The reason we’re coming for Mission is that they have this outward image,” Shaikh said to Eater. “They benefit from this image and they benefit from the identities of their employees. I cannot let them make money off of me.”
Shaikh quit the restaurant in January.
Bowien is also mentioned in the suit because the workers believed he knew about the oppressive working conditions but chose to do nothing about then.
The success of the PBS series “The Mind of a Chef” and a multitude of positive reviews has assured Bowien as a rising star and has built the image of Mission Chinese as a liberal and diverse stronghold in the restaurant industry. This success is hugely credited to Angela Dimayuga, a queer woman of color, who remained the restaurant’s head chef for six years — but then quit after she realized there was no place for her in Bowien’s ultimate objective.
Banner / Thumbnail : REUTERS, Bobby Yip