Estela Co-Owner Thomas Carter Allegedly Created ‘A Culture of Fear’

By the time she started working for the restaurateur Thomas Carter in 2015, Emily* had experienced her share of tough bosses in the restaurant industry. “A lot of guys in this industry are hard to work with,” she said. “You don’t get to this position by being the good guy.” And Matter House, the restaurant group that Carter founded with the chef Ignacio Mattos, was a company that plenty of people wanted to work for, ever since Estela, the pair’s first restaurant, became one of the toughest reservations in New York City, thanks to a combination of Mattos’s unnervingly good cooking and Carter’s talent for creating a quietly fashionable dining-room scene.

Emily, who asked that her real name, former job title, and former place of employment remain undisclosed due to fears of retribution, was well-versed in industry dysfunction, but she still wasn’t prepared for the comments she claims that Carter made about her body and personal life. There was the time, she alleged, that Carter told her, “Your tits look great; you must be on your period.” Or, if she happened to have a bruise or red mark on her skin, she alleged that Carter “would say something like, ‘Oh, did [your boyfriend] give it to you really rough last night?’”

And then there were the comments that Carter allegedly made about some of his other female employees, like the Flora Bar manager who had dated the restaurant’s chef and then another coworker. When Carter found out, Emily alleged, he began making disparaging comments about the manager. Sarah*, another former Matter House employee who asked that her real name, former title, and specific place of employment not be noted, remembered it too: “I specifically remember him saying that she had STDs, probably had herpes, and that she was promiscuous,” she said. “It would be, like, across the line, with people standing there. He was vocal and loud.”

Although the manager declined to comment for this story, Sarah remembered how upset the manager was after one particular encounter with Carter: According to both Sarah and another former coworker to whom the manager confided at the time, the manager had called out sick with pinkeye; when she returned to work, Carter trailed her around the restaurant, suggesting that she had gotten pinkeye “from a sexual act, from [her boyfriend] getting bodily fluids in her eye,” Sarah said. “He would be openly joking about this.” Not long after that, the manager left the company. (According to a Matter House spokesperson, Carter “does not recall making the comment. If it did occur, it was unfortunate and inappropriate, and he said that he would deeply regret it if it occurred and would sincerely apologize.”)

Thomas Carter isn’t the most recognizable restaurateur in New York, but he is among its most influential. A former sommelier at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Ducasse, he is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of wine along with his exacting palate and attention to detail; a W story found Carter discussing a shoe store that Marcel Breuer designed in the 1930s as the inspiration for Flora Bar’s light fixtures. As the man in charge of the front of house for all of Matter House’s critically lauded restaurants — Estela, which opened in 2013; Cafe Altro Paradiso, which opened in early 2016; and Flora Bar, also opened in 2016 — he’s equally adept at captivating investors, the food media, and the fashion crowd. Married to Alex Vallis, formerly an editor at Food & Wine, he, together with Mattos, once helped Rachel Comey throw a New York Fashion Week dinner party, and both he and Mattos have appeared in advertisements for Club Monaco and J.Crew. And, most famously, the Obamas chose to dine at Estela during one of their jaunts to New York in 2014.

But according to interviews with more than 30 former Matter House employees who worked for the company between 2013 and 2018, Carter’s alleged pattern of conduct has badly compromised the culture at his restaurants. Both women and men said that Carter subjected them to sexualized and otherwise inappropriate comments about their appearances and personal lives, as well as about female guests and his own sex life. The majority of these people requested anonymity due to fears of retribution within the tight-knit restaurant industry, though each of their claims was corroborated by at least one other person; pseudonyms are denoted with asterisks.

Four women and one man described quitting because of Carter’s behavior. Five former employees remembered listening to Carter talk about the size of his penis. Others recalled being demeaned in front of guests and staff, or watching Carter demean their coworkers; several said that “fucking retard” was a favorite insult. And many described working for a man whose volatile and unpredictable moods created what one former Matter House employee called “a culture of fear.”

“It is not a gender-specific offense with Thomas,” Nathan Lithgow, a former Cafe Altro Paradiso sommelier who was employed at the restaurant for several months in 2016, said. “I’m a heterosexual male, and he’s said things to me like, ‘You need to tighten up your vagina.’ I worked in a kitchen and I’ve been called worse things, but with Thomas, it’s a question of power dynamics.”

When the New York Times story about Ken Friedman’s alleged misconduct broke in December of last year, some of Carter’s employees say that they felt a spark of recognition, even though their former boss never crossed a physical line, or acted in any way that suggested he would. Nevertheless, despite the differences between Friedman’s alleged behavior and Carter’s, two sources said that within days, he began asking employees — both current and former — if they thought anyone would talk to the press.

“It’s such a gray area, because he isn’t someone who texts people late at night or asks for photos,” Marnie*, a former employee who worked at more than one Matter House restaurant, told Eater. “People have always talked about Batali and how much of a menace he is, and everyone has always known how Ken is creepy,” she said. That, she explained, was not Carter, but nonetheless, “there’s this real feeling that Thomas does emotional damage to people without having to touch them.” She continued, “The behavior is just extremely toxic and corrosive of people’s self-esteem and feeling of well-being in the workplace, especially as a woman.”

And that behavior, numerous former employees said, left marks. “I think that it’s hard for people to understand that harassment doesn’t have to be physical,” said a former Cafe Altro Paradiso hostess.

In a statement to Eater, Carter said, “During my company’s early days, and during the pressure-filled times of rapid expansion, I spoke to some employees in an abrasive manner. I apologize to them. I was wrong in the way I spoke, and offended others, as well. I never made physical advances or used my authority for inappropriate behavior. In the past few years, I have taken steps to bring my conduct up to the professional standard that has been the hallmark of Matter House restaurants since the beginning. Our company and its professional management has evolved. We have undergone appropriate training, myself included. Today, our culture represents the industry’s highest code of conduct. We have a respectful and professional workplace.”

Some Matter House employees claimed that they got a hint of what was to come during their job interviews: Rob*, a former Estela server, remembered Carter asking him if he “had an aversion to cock.” Other employees were in for a surprise. Jessica* was charmed by Carter during her job interview, but quickly saw a different side of him not long after she began working as a server at Estela in 2013, which she described as “the most toxic environment I’ve ever worked in.”

Jessica, who was 25 at the time, had worked in restaurants before, and was used to the blurred boundaries and cheerful disregard for the rules that governed other workplaces. But she claims that Carter’s constant, invasive comments about her looks and sex life still made her uncomfortable. She alleged that Carter not only commented on how strong her arms looked and joked that he could see her underwear through her pants, he also took “an invested interest” in her sex life, asking who she was sleeping with and telling her that she and her boyfriend “must have amazing sex.” She quit after almost two years at Estela, then left the industry altogether.

“Thomas has a tendency to speak to his staff in a way that makes them feel totally powerless,” said a former employee in a management position. The former employee, who is a gay man, remembered Carter asking him if he “was a top or bottom.” There were also frequent jokes about “‘tits,’ really gross jokes about spraying stuff on them,” he claimed, along with running commentary on women’s weights.

Jocelyn*, a former Estela maitre d’, alleged that Carter would make comments to her about the bodies of women, “like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize so-and-so had such big boobs,’” she said. “He would talk to me all the time about other women’s bodies at the bar, clientele sitting in front of us.” Jocelyn also claimed that one of her friends, a model, stopped visiting her at work because of Carter’s alleged unwelcome attention. (According to a Matter House spokesperson, Carter has “never expressed the desire to have sexual relations with guests.”)

A few female former employees remember a group text exchange that began innocuously enough with a message from Mattos. Hours later, alleged Julie*, a former Estela server, Carter chimed in with a GIF. “He goes, ‘I don’t know why, it just made me think of you guys,’” Julie recalled. “It was a hamster sucking on a little water post thing in a cage, and it said, ‘When she says she doesn’t give head on the first date.’

“Quietly degrading women and making inappropriate commentary was par for the course,” Julie claimed, adding that Carter’s vocal interest in her sex life continued even after she no longer worked at the restaurant. One evening, when she had come to Estela to visit a friend who was still employed there, she alleged that Carter beckoned her over to the table where he was sitting with Mattos and their dates and asked her if she and her friend had had a threesome with a patron who happened to be sitting at the bar. “He said, ‘Did the three of you guys fuck?’ I was humiliated and angry,” Julie said. “I walked out and rage-smoked a cigarette and told myself that I’d never go back to Estela.”

When Jocelyn became pregnant in 2015, her own body became the subject of Carter’s scrutiny, she alleged. “He’d say, ‘But you have such a great figure,” she claimed. Not long into her pregnancy, Jocelyn began having hip spasms, and asked Carter if she could have a stool behind the hostess stand; he told her to get a doctor’s note saying that she required one. When she did, Carter refused, saying that a stool would look bad. “He said, ‘How are people going to know you’re pregnant and not just lazy?’” Jocelyn claimed. She perceived his underlying message to be that having a pregnant girl at the front wasn’t “sexy” or “cute.” Through his publicist, Carter stated that he sought to accommodate Jocelyn in various ways, offering “opportunities to take extra breaks, have a place to sit nearby and a flexible schedule,” and that a stool would have been a “fire hazard violation.”

Carter, Jocelyn asserted, took her shifts away the following week — so she could rest and he could better plan the restaurant’s schedule, according to Carter — and started training someone else for the job; he suggested she work in the upstairs office, answering the phone. “I was like, that’s not my job; I don’t want to be up there in a tiny, cold room,” Jocelyn said. So she quit.

A former Estela employee who corroborated Jocelyn’s general account remembered the situation vividly, in part because she, too, was pregnant at the time — and was irked that Carter told her coworkers that she was pregnant before she had announced it. “I think Thomas was smart enough to not abuse both of us equally,” she said of Jocelyn’s circumstances. “It’s really unfortunate that [Jocelyn] got the brunt of the abuse.”

“Instead of just letting me have the stool and live out my time at Estela, where I’d been working almost two years,” Jocelyn said, “I was thrown out like a piece of trash.”

Many of the people Carter hires are industry veterans who understand the intensity of New York’s restaurant culture. And even some of Carter’s detractors said that their former boss had his merits: He could be funny and charismatic, and was an unquestionably skilled restaurateur who cared deeply about the intricate details that made his establishments special. He also, some former employees said, made himself approachable. “I have a place in my heart for the guy,” said Nick*, a former employee who had worked at all three restaurants. “He was often concerned about our happiness. I can think of a few times where he asked, ‘Are you happy? I want to make sure that you have what you need.’”

The issue, many of Carter’s former employees claimed, was when that would give way to a pattern of ingratiating himself with someone, only to turn on them without warning. “He would court you like he was dating you,” Vanessa Dempel, a former Estela server, said. “Then all of a sudden he would start ridiculing you.”

Margaret*, a former Altro Paradiso employee, remembered how Carter spent a significant part of her job interview complimenting her bag and jacket, only to alternately ignore and unnerve her after she started her job. “He’d come up and stare at me and not say anything,” she alleged. “He compliments you and then turns on you and makes you feel like you did something wrong and are really bad at your job, even though you’re not doing anything differently.”

“It’s taking knowledge of the personal and using it against people strategically in order to maintain control and power over them, so there was lots of digging for personal information — anything from asking you where you got that dress to what kind of sex do you and your boyfriend have,” Marnie alleged. “Every day you had no idea what you were walking into emotionally.”

These kinds of mind games, numerous employees claimed, were central to what made Carter’s behavior stick out, even by the restaurant industry’s historically low standards of workplace culture. Nick, who normally takes Adderall to treat his ADHD, said that he went off the medication after Carter “took a lot of offense” at his inability to joke around when he was on it; although Adderall helped Nick concentrate at work, he said, “I was like, I’m better off being able to play with Thomas and sucking a little bit more in my job, because it seemed apparent to me early on that if I wouldn’t play my game with him, then he’d make my life harder.”

“He liked to keep people on edge,” claimed Emily*, who worked for Carter for a little over a year. “It was part of how he bullied people, but he also did it in a way that was playful, so while he would say really hurtful things that would sting, you couldn’t react because if you did, you were overreacting.”

Several former employees, for instance, claimed that “fucking retard” was among Carter’s favorite insults. “I would feel physically sick going [to work] because it was like, ‘What’s he going to say to me today?’” Emily said. “It’s really, really shitty when somebody’s speaking to you that way and calling you a ‘fucking retard.’”

Several employees pointed to the public nature of Carter’s behavior; Nathan Lithgow, the former Altro Paradiso sommelier, remembered being fired in the middle of service as his family sat a few feet away. His dismissal, Lithgow claimed, followed a brief disagreement over who would serve a bottle of wine to a table of Carter’s friends. “He began to badger me. I said, ‘Back off and we’ll be fine,’ and he said, ‘You’re fired, clock out,’” Lithgow said.

Lithgow admitted that he had clashed with Carter before; Carter, he claimed, used to refer to him as “dickhead” and once turned down a friend of his for possible employment because, Carter said, she had a “slutty face.” Lithgow said that his abrupt firing was shocking, but not entirely a surprise; he sees it as part and parcel of Carter’s management style. “The reason I’m happy to talk about it,” he said, “is because no one who actually buys into the altruism of hospitality should be made to feel that way.”

The alleged difficulties of working for Carter were exacerbated, numerous employees said, by the lack of accountability for the behavior they claim to have witnessed. In the restaurant’s early days, there was no human resources person to turn to; although Matter House began using a third-party HR company in 2015, there was a sense, several employees said, that making complaints wouldn’t amount to much. “Very few people working a four-day-a-week serving job are going to have the wherewithal to take on someone like Thomas Carter legally,” Marnie said. “That’s what it would take, because there’s no one above him.” (According to a Matter House spokesperson, Carter “has never been the subject of any HR complaint, lawsuit, or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission action.”)

There is, however, Mattos, and the question of his awareness of the environment that Carter created. While the chef largely confines his operations to the kitchen, employees said, he and Carter are close enough that most people interviewed for this story believe that he is fully aware of his business partner’s issues. “No one’s not aware of how [Carter] behaves,” a former Estela server said.

“Ignacio’s absolutely aware of it; it’s not even a question,” Emily said. “He’s a very smart man and he knows exactly who Thomas is.” Both men, former employees said, are extremely driven; they have famously intense personalities and can be highly demanding of their staff. The two have reportedly even come to blows with each other: According to two former employees who witnessed the incident, Carter and Mattos once got into a physical argument that ended when Carter accidentally hit a door and broke his pinky finger. (According to a Matter House spokesperson, Carter “never punched” Mattos.)

In a statement to Eater, Mattos said, “Our company has experienced success, as well as growing pains. I am sorry to learn of these allegations, and apologize on behalf of myself and Thomas, to anyone who was the recipient of harsh language in the workplace. We have had professional HR resources in place since 2015, and no sexual harassment claims have ever been filed against Thomas or myself. We have a terrific culture and environment and have employee turnover well below the industry norm. We attract the best employees in the hospitality business. I believe the best days are ahead.”

Although most of the people interviewed for this story claimed that Carter was largely responsible for creating a dysfunctional workplace, some also said that restaurant-industry culture further enabled that dysfunction: the put-up-and-shut-up mentality native to generations of industry workers, and the normalization of language and behavior that wouldn’t fly in the average office.

“It used to be if someone was like, ‘I don’t like how this restaurant feels,’ it was a sign of weakness, like, our system will crush them and we’ll replace them,” said one former Matter House employee. “You become intoxicated. It’s just serving food, so the only way you get a bunch of people to care is with this intensity, this weird, vague kind of discipline.” The former employee, who worked in a management position, is himself trying to reckon with his own behavior, which he said he now regrets. “As someone who’s been so close to these gross dudes for so long,” he said, “maybe you become a gross dude yourself.”

Still, most of the people interviewed for this story believed that the broader context of restaurant culture did not bear responsibility for their experiences at Matter House; even if it could render certain forms of problematic behavior mundane, they said, nothing could normalize Thomas Carter’s treatment of them. “Yes, people that own restaurants are notoriously difficult people, and there are some crude jokes that are around because of the nature of [the industry],” said Margaret, who has worked in restaurants for six years. “But I’ve never experienced, as an adult, anything like that.”

Some former Matter House employees are still trying to come to terms with what their experiences say about the nature of the restaurant business and how power works within it, even after #MeToo. In an industry that is frequently informal and even chaotic, the question of who can help you with a problem doesn’t always have a straightforward answer. “The people you appeal to are the very people who are invested in making sure your complaint isn’t heard,” Marnie said of her experience in the industry.

And some Matter House alumni aren’t sticking around to see how the industry will evolve; they’ve left it altogether. “I was not okay after I left this job,” Sarah said. “I left the restaurant industry, the thing that I love the most.”

Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the restaurant world can contact Eater at [email protected] or via these secure methods.

Rebecca Flint Marx is a Brooklyn-based writer who has won both a James Beard and an IACP award for her work.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler

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