US sues star chef Thomas Keller's Bouchon Las Vegas, alleging sexual harassment

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By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A Las Vegas restaurant whose parent is led by Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller was sued on Thursday by a U.S. government agency, which accused managers of sexually harassing female and male employees on a daily basis.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said Bouchon Las Vegas knew or should have known about the "ubiquitous, open, frequent, and consistent" harassment by male and female managers since 2018, and that it created a hostile work environment.

Keller's company, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, is also a defendant. It did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Keller is not a defendant.

The EEOC filed its lawsuit in federal court in Las Vegas. It also filed three other sexual harassment lawsuits on Thursday against restaurants in the Las Vegas area.

Sexual harassment in the dining sector became more widely understood during the #MeToo movement.

Among those accused of wrongdoing were the celebrity chefs Mario Batali and John Besh, and restaurateur Ken Friedman.

The EEOC said the misconduct at Bouchon included sexual advances, sexually charged comments and unwanted advances, primarily by men.

It said the sexually harassing behavior included asking female employees to have oral sex in locations such as a walk-in freezer, and throwing objects such as ice onto them.

The EEOC also said the restaurant retaliated against victims who complained.

It sued on behalf of Carol Zavala, a former hostess who said her manager brushed his body against hers, touched her stomach, yanked her arm and caused bruises, and once tripped her because she refused his advances.

After filing a police report, Zavala was forced to interact with her manager, leaving her no choice but to quit in April 2019, the EEOC said.

The complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Zavala and other victims, and an injunction against violations of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Keller's company has 10 restaurants and stores, including in California, New York and Miami.

Two of its restaurants have three Michelin stars: The French Laundry in Northern California's Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City.

The case is EEOC v KVP LP et al, U.S. District Court, District of Nevada, No. 23-01308.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)