A much-touted South Beach Thai restaurant has sued its former celebrity chef, accusing him of stealing its recipes, employees, customers and even publicity photos when he quit last month to return to his family-owned eatery.
But the chef, Piyarat Potha Arreeratn — better known to Thai food fans as Chef Bee — said through his attorney that the Khong River House is trying to subject him to “a Vulcan mind-wipe to obliterate 20 years of cooking experience.”
50 Eggs Restaurant Company, which owns the Khong River House as well as several other fashionable South Florida eateries, filed suit against Chef Bee in Miami-Dade circuit court, saying that he carried out a “premeditated plan” to loot the company’s trade secrets to benefit his own restaurant.
“He manipulated a friendship to betray a trust,” says the lawsuit, which was filed last week and originally reported in Miami New Times.
Chef Bee wasn’t available to comment. But his attorney, Lawrence Silverman, called the lawsuit “astounding” and said it amounts to a claim that Thai food “was invented on South Beach in the fall of 2012.”
That’s when Khong River opened to much ballyhoo, including an advertising campaign built around Chef Bee’s experience. The restaurant was quickly a hit with both diners and critics, being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation national award for best new restaurant.
But back in the kitchen, the lawsuit said, the scene was an ugly one. Chef Bee, though he had begged for the executive chef job and gotten a $10,000 bonus (as well as a $90,000 annual salary) to sign a contract with 50 Eggs, disappeared shortly before the restaurant’s opening, the lawsuit said. When other executives finally tracked him down, “Chef Bee stated that he just could not get into the kitchen. He stated he would get sick and break out into hives if he had to cook.”
“Because it would have been a disaster to have the ‘face’ of the restaurant pull just days before its grand opening,” the lawsuit said, 50 Eggs made him an “expediter,” a sort of liaison between waiters and the kitchen. But that didn’t work either, the lawsuit said, and with “Chef Bee unable to cook the dishes and unable even to run a professional kitchen,” his duties were reduced to greeting diners and doing media interviews.
50 Eggs tried to give Chef Bee enough training that he could conduct television cooking demonstrations on the restaurant’s behalf, the lawsuit said. But as soon as he finished his training, he quit, the lawsuit said, and returned to Oishi Thai, the North Miami restaurant owned by his family. (Which, the lawsuit said, Chef Bee had promised to close.) Soon Oishi Thai began featuring meals, employees and publicity photos from the Khong River House, the lawsuit said.
Not only that, but Chef Bee announced his restaurant would start serving “Thai street food,” a concept that 50 Eggs shared with Chef Bee previously during his employment at Khong River House, the lawsuit added.
The lawsuit also accuses Chef Bee of planning to open a new restaurant in Coral Gables. His decision to quit the Khong River House “was not really a spur-of-the-moment decision, but rather part of a premeditated plan by Chef Bee to use what 50 Eggs provided to him (e.g. concepts, recipes, inventions, ideas, branding, marketing strategies, training, etc.) and go into competition against 50 Eggs,” the lawsuit said.
Stealing 50 Eggs’ secrets to benefit other restaurants, the lawsuit said, is “an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of Florida law” as well as a non-compete deal that bans Chef Bee from opening a restaurant anywhere in Miami-Dade County within a year of leaving the Khong River House.
The lawsuit concedes that several tiny boxes were left blank in Chef Bee’s contract that had to be checked in order to activate the non-compete deal and other restrictions on the chef’s future business activities. But other documents Chef Bee signed make it clear he knew he was covered by the non-compete clause, the lawsuit said.
Chef Bee’s lawyer, however, said that was nonsense. “They provided a contract to my client. They wanted him to sign it, then and there, and he did,” Silverman said. “The contract didn’t include a non-compete and they never asked him to sign a non-compete.”