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Check, please

Famed chef Roberto Donna continues to be plagued by debts, walkouts, and lawsuits.

5:30 PM, Aug 25, 2011 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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There were people who had high hopes for Roberto Donna. The James Beard award winner and onetime Iron Chef America contestant was in the midst of making a comeback (after settling lawsuits against him and making deals with the tax authorities), having opened Galileo III in downtown D.C. But as Tim Carman writes in yesterday's Washington Post, things only seem to be getting worse.

In February, a judge ordered RCR [owner of Galileo III] to pay $137,693.98 in back rent, and in June, [building owner] SRI filed an official writ of restitution to evict Galileo III.... Chef de cuisine Claudio Sandri, who also cooked for Donna at Bebo Trattoria, was the first high-profile employee to go; he departed around November to take a job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Contract pastry chefs Wendi James and Joshua Jarvis decided to split in late December. Night manager Walter Gianfranchi and hostess Maria Baldo left in March. Bar manager and beverage director Chris Cunningham said goodbye in April. Other waiters and cooks followed suit.

That's just for starters. The main complaint from the staff seems to revolve around the paychecks. Carman reports:

Cunningham had to push management for his paychecks. They always had excuses for why they couldn’t pay, he said. When he did get a check, typically handwritten, Cunningham was frequently told either to cash it right then or to wait for a specific day.

But even when told what day to cash it, Cunningham would sometimes discover there wasn’t enough money in the account to cover his check and the others issued for the same day. Experience taught him to rush to the bank on the assigned cashing day to make sure he’d be among the first to get paid. “I’d get my check, and I’d [race] across the street and cash it,” said Cunningham.... “They were holding you hostage on every paycheck,” pastry chef James said flatly.

But the hostages found ways to retaliate:

The frustration over paychecks sometimes led to dramatic measures by the staff. They would threaten to quit or not come in to work until management cut them a check. The cooks and dishwashers also had another way to rebel, said James: They would leave the kitchen a mess at the end of their shift. “It was the dirtiest kitchen I ever worked in,” she said. “The line cooks were like, ‘If I wasn’t getting paid, I wouldn’t clean [the kitchen].’ ”

I once met a former longtime employee of Donna's who now has a more stable job at another downtown restaurant. He had a great respect for the chef as a chef but shook his head and simply said, "He has problems." And the problems I've cited above from Carman's piece are just a sampling. According to the author, "Donna’s court-ordered debt in ... three cases alone stands at more than $1 million; he has paid, as of mid-August, just $7,115."

Back in the day, a place like this would mysteriously catch on fire like the Bamboo Lounge in Goodfellas.

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