Matthew Kenney is a man of dubious reputation: talented chef, disastrous businessman. And extremely successful. He was one of the first in the world to focus on plant-based cuisine and is now considered a pioneer in the field. In his three decades of gastronomic work, the American chef has had a hand in more than 50 restaurants in more than a dozen countries around the world. It’s an empire built on unpaid bills, bounced paychecks, a barrage of lawsuits, racism and misogyny. Now Kenney’s dirty dealings are finally in danger of blowing up in his face.

After the “LA Times” first reported on the background to the sudden wave of bankruptcies surrounding Kenney’s restaurant empire, the “New York Times” has now followed suit. The paper spoke to more than 60 of Kenney’s former employees, cheated investors and frustrated business partners. They paint a picture of a management that acted opaquely and ruthlessly. And tell of a man who was primarily concerned with one thing – himself.

While employees, landlords and the tax office waited for money, he had a tepid life and enjoyed the luxury life of a celebrated star chef. He is said to have paid at least part of the rent on his house in Los Angeles, at least $20,000 a month, with company money, as well as household help, pool cleaning and expensive dental treatments. An accusation that Kenney firmly rejected in an interview with the “LA Times”: “That’s not true. […] I don’t do anything outside the company. Not one thing.”

On the other hand, unpaid bills and lawsuits piled up. The New York Times reports on dozens of lawsuits in several states in which Kenney and his companies have already been sued. The allegations are varied. In New York State, the 59-year-old is said to have failed to pay back taxes amounting to $1.2 million. In Boston, a restaurant accumulated rent debts of $230,000 within three months alone, even though the restaurant had earned hundreds of thousands at the same time.

Kenney’s struggle to pay bills isn’t a new problem – it’s a common thread throughout his career. And that’s been the case since the 90s. Even Donald Trump, also a former landlord, is said to have become acquainted with Kenney’s payment practices during his early years in the industry. And the scandal surrounding the New York raw food restaurant “Pure Food And Wine”, which he opened with his then partner Sarma Melngailis in the early 2000s, was unraveled in detail in the Netflix series “Bad Vegan”. But none of this fell on the chef’s feet. He kept going, even expanding. Kenney never had any difficulty finding investors.

He was considered a pioneer of veganism who was committed to making the world a better place. His supposed fight for animal rights and mindful eating has caused many like-minded investors and employees to willingly overlook other shortcomings such as past missteps and financial warning signs, as they reported to the NYT. “No one I know who has ever dealt with Matthew has ever come away unscathed,” said Peter Cassell, who ran one of Kenney’s restaurants about 20 years ago.

They now believe that Kenney exploited their commitment to veganism for his own purposes. They have almost written off the money they invested. There are a lot of extremely rich people in the world of veganism and animal rights, Richard Weintraub, a plant food investor and real estate developer from Los Angeles, told the paper: “We really want to trust and believe that these people have the same interests.”

Little by little, Kenney built up an empire in which, as research by the New York Times shows, there was a lot of cheating. As a matter of course, money was moved from one restaurant to another, the gap was filled in one place and a new one was created somewhere else. The result: suppliers and employees could not be paid. Kenney admitted some of the allegations to the LA Times. “I’m aware of some of these issues,” he said, adding that some partners had been unwilling to provide additional capital. “We did what we could.”

Employees whose paychecks bounced were actually regularly put off by saying that they were waiting for necessary investor money, reported Rebecca Rubel, who temporarily headed the human resources department at Matthew Kenney Cuisine, to the “NYT”. The problem: It never really worked. And not only that. Tips are also said to have been unlawfully withheld, according to an allegation in a class action lawsuit from 2021 that has not yet been concluded.

But questionable handling of finances is not the only accusation that the star chef has to put up with. The long list of alleged offenses also includes allegations of racist and misogynistic behavior, which is documented, among other things, in text messages. In a 2021 lawsuit, a former company executive accused Kenney of discrimination. The working environment was characterized by racist terms being used “for Asian business partners and Jewish employees”, and the N-word was also used.

Kenney is said not to have treated women any better. Aside from his preference for very young women, he is said to have had several affairs with employees, including a 19-year-old when he was already in his 50s. According to reports, he not only cheated on his long-time partner and later employee Charlotte MacKinnon on a regular basis, but his employees were also given explicit instructions not to mention his girlfriend on dates in restaurants and vice versa. Text messages also provide evidence of abusive behavior in which, for example, he inquired about the sexual behavior of a colored employee and criticized the personal hygiene of previous sexual partners in graphic terms.

When asked by the NYT, Matthew Kenney described the reporting as “despicable” and having nothing to do with reality. Regarding the statements in the text messages, he said that “those words don’t even sound like they were written or spoken by me.”

Of the more than 50 restaurants around the world that Matthew Kenney Cusine had a hand in, at least 17 have closed since the end of 2021. In an interview with the LA Times, he spoke of how his innate optimism delayed “painful decisions” like closing underperforming restaurants. And that “after 25 or 30 years of optimism […] he will no longer act like that.” At the same time, Kenney is doing what he has been doing for decades. When one restaurant closes, he opens another elsewhere with other investors. His latest baby: a restaurant in Times Square that opened its doors in March.

Quelle: Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Eater