One of South Florida's hottest restaurant companies is suing a prominent former chef, alleging deceit, betrayal, and incompetence. In a steamy lawsuit filed this past Tuesday that reads like an epic novel, 50 Eggs Restaurant Company LLC alleges Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, known to most Miami restaurantgoers as Chef Bee, "would break out in hives if he had to cook" and "did not know how to run a professional kitchen."
See also: Khong's Chef Bee Headed to Oishi Thai
Bee is the former chef at Khong River House in South Beach. He departed suddenly last month, saying he wanted to return to Oishi Thai, a North Miami place he founded in 2005. 50 Eggs owns not only Khong, which has received national acclaim, but also Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and Swine Southern Table & Bar, two of the region's hottest eateries.
"I am personally and professionally disappointed in Bee's decisions, all of which forced us to this point," says 50 Eggs CEO John Kunkel. "It is truly unfortunate that Bee forced us to seek the help of a court of law to teach him the difference between right and wrong."
The 45-page lawsuit, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, drew a strong response from Bee, whose lawyers call the claims preposterous. "[Kunkel] promised me this would be good for my family company," he said. "After two months, he broke that promise."
The lawsuit and response provide a stunning look at what happened backstage at the innovative restaurant that was a semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant; the award recognizes establishments that are "likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come." When Khong River House opened in December 2012, the restaurant gained an instant following thanks to its warm and inviting décor, innovative cocktail program, and authentic Thai street food. Though the news release announcing the opening of the restaurant listed a team of three chefs in the kitchen, it was the executive chef -- Bee -- who became the breakout star, quickly gaining celebrity status with a seminar spot at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Prior to his stint at Khong River House, Bee was a sous-chef at Nobu Miami Beach and then worked under Kevin Cory at Siam River before opening his own restaurant, Oishi Thai, in 2005. The small North Miami spot was listed in New Times' Best of Miami and has a Zagat food rating of 26 out of 30. Then, Bee joined 50 Eggs in what was supposed to be a long and fruitful relationship between a newly minted celebrity and one of the hottest restaurateurs in Miami. But things quickly went sour, leading to the chef's abrupt departure from Khong just six months after the restaurant opened.
Bee returned to Oishi Thai, and Kunkel issued a statement that said, "While Chef Bee handled interviews about the culinary program on behalf of Khong, our recipes are proprietary and belong to the restaurant and our family of chefs at Khong. Chef Bee was no longer acting as part of the family, and so we have parted ways with him." Then, less than a month after the breakup, came the lawsuit. In its first pages, the complaint states:
"A principle of Thai Buddhist culture is to refrain from untrue speech. This lawsuit, unfortunately, is about Chef Bee's untrue speech. 50 Eggs hired Chef Bee because Chef Bee said he and his family were going to have to close down their family-owned restaurant and needed help. 50 Eggs hired Chef Bee because Chef Bee said he knew how to cook authentic northern Thai dishes. In agreeing to hire Chef Bee, 50 Eggs believed Chef Bee's promise that he would protect 50 Eggs's confidential and proprietary information, would not solicit employees, and would not engage in a competing business. What Chef Bee said and promised were untrue. He manipulated a friendship to betray a trust so that he, Oishi Thai, and his investors would see personal gain."
The lawsuit alleges that leading up to the opening of Khong River House, 50 Eggs "made substantial investments in public relations for the restaurant and in making Chef Bee the 'face' of the restaurant." Dozens of heavy-hitters responded. Among them was Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern, who mentioned the executive chef in an article for Delta's in-flight magazine, Sky.
Right before the restaurant opened, "50 Eggs had concerns, in part, that Chef Bee was not contributing to the creation of the recipes, and all of the cooking that would have been expected of Chef Bee was being done by others." Still, the restaurateurs went forward with Bee's employment.
Then, in a shocking turn, the lawsuit states Bee would/could not cook:
"50 Eggs asked Chef Bee to explain what was happening as it appeared that Chef Bee was panicking. Chef Bee stated that he just could not get into the kitchen. He stated he would get sick and break out in hives if he had to cook. To 50 Eggs's surprise, Chef Bee stated it was best for him to just pull out of Khong River House."
50 Eggs, fearing a "disaster to have the 'face' of the restaurant pull out just days before its grand opening," told Bee he could expedite instead of cooking. But even that proved troublesome. "Chef Bee did not perform well as an expeditor, and 50 Eggs realized that he did not know how to run a professional kitchen."
Still, the lawsuit claims 50 Eggs "stuck with Chef Bee," stating that "while Chef Bee was a detriment in the kitchen, he did prove to have the right personality when interacting with diners, media, and other visitors. Further, Mr. Kunkel felt he had a personal obligation to stand by Chef Bee."
According to the complaint, 50 Eggs engaged Bee in "extensive restaurant training." Almost immediately afterward, Chef Bee notified Kunkel that he was "resigning his position as executive chef to open a restaurant in Coral Gables," violating his noncompete agreement, which "precluded him from owning, being employed by, or otherwise providing any services to any restaurant located within Miami-Dade County, Florida, for a period of two years." Chef Bee then returned to Oishi Thai, "using media strategies and connections learned at 50 Eggs," which also constitutes a breach of the noncompete provision of the agreement.
The lawsuit demands a trial by jury and seeks unnamed damages.
This past Friday, Short Order spoke with Chef Bee at his family's North Miami restaurant. Accompanied by two attorneys, Bee looked casual in a black shirt and jeans. Before Bee spoke, Lawrence Silverman, one of the lawyers representing the chef, told us: "The contract is supposed to say something different than what it actually says. 50 Eggs prepared a contract for Bee, and he signed what they gave him. Now they believe that they should have asked him to sign other things, and so they're attempting to enforce a noncompete which doesn't exist against him."
Silverman said that when Bee and Kunkel met, "Bee was already involved in a Thai restaurant, and they asked him to come aboard and assist in opening their Thai restaurant. And, apparently as best as we can tell, because John once camped in Thailand, apparently he invented Thai food. My client has run a Thai restaurant for years and hasn't really changed the menu in years on the Thai side. Somehow that's infringing because they've now perfected Thai food. So we'll go to court and we'll battle it out."
Asked about whether he cooked at Khong, Chef Bee replied, "I cooked for 14 hours a day. What am I doing over there for 14 hours -- just joking and walking around? No. I'm on the line."
Bee said he joined Khong River House because he thought it would be mutually beneficial. Then things changed. "The reason why I joined [John Kunkel] was that he promised me that it was going to benefit both of us. I'd cook for him [at Khong], and my restaurant, Oishi Thai, would profit from that as well."
At first, Bee's past experiences at Nobu and Oishi Thai were media talking points, but after a few months at Khong, the Thai chef said that Kunkel "told me to stop talking about Oishi Thai, because people will be confused. That broke my trust."
Chef Bee said that the food he cooks at Oishi Thai has been the same for years and that the menu has not -- as is seemingly alleged -- recently changed to reflect Khong's style. "I've been cooking my family meals, which are authentic Thai street food, for a long, long time. Khong started this concept because [Kunklel] went straight to my kitchen and ate my family meals every time he came here. I'm not copying food from there. I can't stop cooking what I grew up with."
Bee acknowledged that he and Chef Danny, who created the recipes at Khong, also came up with the recipes at Oishi Thai. Chef Danny, who also worked at Khong, was in the kitchen at Oishi Thai when New Times was there. Bee explained, "Danny has been with me since [Oishi] opened nearly nine years ago."
Asked what he wants the outcome of this battle to be, Chef Bee said, "Give me some credit. I'm the chef. These are my recipes, and every recipe has a story behind it. This is my food."
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The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade, Florida, under case number 13-027964-CA-01.