Ex-Kinship worker accuses Michelin star chef of using racist language
“There is no context that would make the use of a workplace slur appropriate or acceptable,” Jones said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It’s hurtful and shows a deep lack of respect. I hope my protest and statement will bring more awareness to these all too common instances of racial prejudice so that they do not happen again in the future.
In a statement to the Post, Ziebold acknowledged he repeated the phrase after Jones used it in their conversation. “While addressing concerns of a team member feeling safe in our restaurant, I was asked a question,” Ziebold said. “While stating that I would find the proposed behavior unacceptable, I reluctantly repeated their word in my response. I should have been more sensitive in trying to assure our team members that I was engaging in an environment where they would feel safe.
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Jones, 25, is black and a graduate of Howard University. Ziebold, 50, is White and the chef of Trade and Kinship, two of the district’s most decorated fine dining establishments. He owns both restaurants with his wife/partner, Célia Laurent. Prior to Kinship/Métier, Ziebold was the chef behind the four-star CityZen inside the Mandarin Oriental, which followed a run as a trusted chef for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York.
Neither Jones nor Ziebold would grant interviews to The Post for this story, but neither disputes taking part in a one-on-one chat at the restaurant in early May. According to two people familiar with the conversation who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation, Jones wanted to tell Ziebold about racist incidents she had previously experienced at restaurants, including one in which a dinner at Kinship allegedly played a racist joke on him.
Another incident, in Chicago, involved a restaurant apparently telling Jones she was a “stupid n—–“. Jones wanted to know how Ziebold would handle a similar situation at Kinship/Metier.
Daniel Lobsenz, who was general manager during that incident, said Ziebold didn’t feel his use of the word was racist. Lobsenz added that Ziebold had never filed a racist complaint against him before Jones filed his.
“Kinship has always operated under a set of core values that advocate diversity, equity, and a sense of respect and belonging,” Ziebold said in his statement to the Post. “I apologize to those I have hurt and will strive to do better in the future.”
Some have argued, according to a 2017 Washington City Paper report, that Ziebold kitchens can be degrading and intimidating environments.
Shortly after his one-on-one chat with Ziebold in May, Jones told a colleague about the incident. The employee, who no longer works at Kinship/Métier, confirmed to the Post that Jones confided that Ziebold allegedly used the racist phrase several times in their conversation.
“According to her, he starts going, ‘Oh my God, did someone call you ‘stupid n—–‘? I would never call you a ‘stupid n—–‘,” the former employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity as she still works in the industry and fears retaliation.
“She has to interrupt him and say, ‘Okay, you don’t have to tell me again. I understand that you understand what I’m saying,’ the employee continued. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand why you would let something like ‘stupid n—–‘ bother you.’ ”
The former employee said that at this point Jones felt so uncomfortable that she cut off the conversation with Ziebold.
Because Kinship/Métier has no human resources department, the task of investigating Jones’ complaint against Ziebold fell to Lobsenz, the former chief executive, who took individual statements from Jones and Ziebold. He also refereed other meetings between the two.
Lobsenz says he learned through multiple interviews with both parties that Jones repeatedly asked Ziebold how he would react if someone in his restaurants described her using the racist phrase. In his response, Ziebold allegedly told Jones he would have a problem with a restaurant using the n-word, Lobsenz said. The leader used the phrase “n-word” and not the racist term itself, Lobsenz learned in his investigation. He felt Jones was inviting Ziebold to say the racist word, “to make it clear that it would be unacceptable,” he said.
Later, in a meeting with Jones, Lobsenz said the former catering courier “said the words, ‘I asked [Ziebold] the question until I got the answer I wanted. Lobsenz says he took the comment to mean that Ziebold “was made to say it.”
The racial slur, steeped in history, is one of the most charged words in the English language. In recent years, White professors have been investigated, suspended and barred from class for using the n-word in an academic setting.
Jonathan Friedland, the former director of communications at Netflix, was fired in 2018 after he used the word twice around colleagues, once when trying to explain offensive words in comedy. A prominent New York Times science and public health reporter has resigned under pressure after saying the word during a newspaper-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru.
The consequences for Ziebold and Kinship were swift. Yelp deactivated Kinship’s page after an influx of negative reviews. Diners have canceled reservations or been the subject of verbal comments on the sidewalk upon entering restaurants. Kinship/Métier canceled services on Sunday out of concern for customer and employee safety, according to a company spokesperson. (Restaurants plan to reopen on Wednesday if they can keep everyone safe.)
“You see two thousand Google reviews in one day,” Lobsenz said. “People post pictures of, you know, a dead mouse in a soda cup, so people think it’s a dirty restaurant. Obviously none of these people ate at the restaurant, so they bombard.
The charges against Ziebold have impacted Kinship/Métier employees, past and present. Some have cut off contact with Jones. Others back Jones, whose last day at Kinship/Metier was in early June.
“I want to thank everyone who believed me, stopped to talk to me, and chose to attend another establishment as a result of my protest. I get easily overwhelmed and have never wanted to take drastic action,” Jones said in a statement to the Post.
“I was seeking an apology from my former employer for his repeated use of offensive, vulgar and racist language,” Jones added. “Too often these things get swept under the rug in the restaurant industry. My goal was to let customers (especially black customers) know what happened so they could make informed decisions. as to whether they still wanted to support this company.
A current captain, who describes himself as a person of color, is struck by one thing: that Jones is alone on the sidewalk, with no other Kinship/Trade employee supporting her protest.
“If I felt I worked in a place where there was any kind of racism or prejudice because of color or creed, I would stand outside with her,” said the captain, who spoke on the cover of d anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
“The fact that there are no former employees or other employees… who share their own personal experiences of racism in the workplace, I think says a lot,” he added. .
Regardless of who supports her, Jones told the Post that she filed a hostile workplace complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also said in her statement that since Tuesday she has waited over 100 days for an apology from Ziebold. Lobsenz told the Post that the chef had apologized weeks earlier to Jones.
In a text to the Post, Jones wrote of Ziebold’s earlier apology: “He said, ‘sorry, you feel like that,’ and ‘sorry, I repeated what you said,’ which, to my opinion, was a flippant dismissal of my point.”