Top Wellington chef left with a bad taste in his mouth after stoush with restaurateur

A stoush in Wellington’s hospitality sector soured to the point a restaurateur accused a high profile chef of “playing games” with him and using a burn injury as an excuse not to come to work.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has issued a decision on a case taken by highly rated former Hippopotamus Restaurant chef Laurent Loudeac.

He argued he was unjustifiably dismissed by John David, who is the owner-manager of Eat restaurant.

The ERA agreed Loudeac was unjustifiably dismissed and suffered significant loss as a result.

But it ruled that David’s company was actually Loudeac’s employer, rather than him personally, so any liability for his actions would need to be taken through David’s 2018 Holdings Limited.

The decision said that in May 2018 David was looking at buying the then Felix Cafe and was in discussions about entering a joint venture with Loudeac to open Eat at the site.

By August Loudeac had resigned from Hippopotamus on the basis Eat would be opening in September.

But Loudeac said he was interviewing for kitchen staff with no plan on paper about the restaurant.

A week before opening no supplier account was set up and pre-launch dinner ingredients were charged to his separate business account.

Loudeac purchased plates for the restaurant with his own credit card thinking he would be reimbursed later.

The restaurant opened as planned although not everything was ready and no employment or partnership agreement had been drawn up.

Their relationship began to sour. Loudeac felt there was a lack or organisation and that David micromanaged everything, even his kitchen.

That November Loudeac burnt his hand while at work and took the day off to recover.

David said he felt Loudeac was playing games with him and the injury was being used as an excuse not to come into work.

At the beginning of December 2018 Loudeac received a draft partnership agreement but there were aspects he disagreed with.

A meeting between them followed where David advised matters were taking too long and he no longer wanted to enter into a partnership agreement.

An employment agreement was however finally produced, but by this stage Loudeac’s health was suffering.

He had been diagnosed with stress and anxiety and was given a medical certificate for a week off, but hadn’t wanted to take the leave because he thought David would react badly.

The day after the meeting took place, Loudeac’s wife sent through the medical certificate advising he would not be at work.

The next day David texted saying: “I have given you the employment agreement and want that back as soon as possible. If not before Monday consider yourself fired.”

A follow up text message from David then said: “As you have not communicated with me any sooner, you jeopardised the business and have put pressure on everyone, you are no longer required to work here any longer.”

Loudeac then received a letter confirming the dismissal, listing reasons why he was unsuitable, which were never previously raised with him nor was he given the opportunity to respond to them.

David said he felt Loudeac had left, was not going to return, and was not interested in making the arrangement work.

Receiving the text messages whilst on sick leave hit Loudeac hard and he found the letter “soul destroying”.

ERA member Geoff O’Sullivan said Loudeac’s evidence of this effect was compelling.

He said criticism levelled against Loudeac were not soundly based and were not conclusions an employer acting reasonably could reach.

An award of damages against Loudeac’s employer would have been significant had the company been party to ERA proceedings, O’Sullivan said.

However, O’Sullivan said evidence clearly showed David’s company was the employer and not him personally.

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