Food

Former Mirabelle Chef Frank Ruta Fights Ex-Employer on Non-Compete Lawsuit

The veteran chef says "backroom, secretive plotting" led to his ouster.

Frank Ruta (right) at Mirabelle. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Restaurateur Hakan Ilhan sued the former chef behind his luxe downtown restaurant Mirabelle in September for allegedly violating a non-compete agreement. But in the latest legal filing, Frank Ruta, who’s since accepted an executive chef position at forthcoming fine-dining restaurant Annabelle in Dupont Circle, says the contract is void because he was fired.

In his lawsuit, Ilhan says he required Ruta to sign a non-compete agreement in September 2016 in order to protect his $2 million investment in the much-hyped restaurant near the White House. The contract restricted Ruta from working in a similar restaurant—”including but not limited to American, French, Italian cousins [sic]”—within 10 miles of Mirabelle for two years after the termination of his employment. The non-compete also prohibited him from soliciting customers or staff for a similar business, and the lawsuit claims Ruta solicited Mirabelle’s lead bartender and chef de cuisine after he went to work for a competitor.

But in his answer to the complaint, Ruta cites a provision in the contract that he says gives him an out: “If the employer decides to change direction/concept of the business and Frank Ruta’s employment would no longer be necessary, then this non-compete document will be null and void.”

Ruta tells Washingtonian that he negotiated that provision during his initial employment discussions. “I said, ‘Well, if I leave, I think that you can expect to be protected. But if you make the change and you decide that my services are no longer needed, then this should be null and void. And he agreed to that,” Ruta says. “That was it. It was not an arm-twisting conversation.”

Ilhan did immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ruta left Mirabelle in July 2018 amid a big shakeup of the restaurant’s top talent. At the time, former wine director-turned-general manager Jennifer Knowles told Washingtonian the departures of Ruta and pastry chef Aggie Chin were “purely a business decision.” She cited “an inability to consistently meet food and labor costs” and an often half-empty dining room.

After Ruta’s departure, the restaurant brought in a new chef and management team and changed focus from French cuisine to a new menu that included New England and Mid-Atlantic influences.

In his legal response, Ruta accuses Ilhan and other former Mirabelle staff of months of “backroom, secretive plotting” leading to his ouster. He declined to elaborate further, saying “I don’t want to go back and live through that.”

Ruta says he was taken aback when he learned of the lawsuit from reporters.

“He went on with his business there, and I should be able to go on with my business,” Ruta says. “At the end of the day, Annabelle opening at the Nora space is not going to affect anything at 16th and I. And me being the chef at that restaurant is not going to affect anything at 16th and I. So I don’t really see what possible good could come out of this for anybody.”

In the lawsuit, Ilhan takes issue with the fact that Ruta is working for a restaurant with a “confusingly similar” name, saying it will “create confusion among the consuming public and have a significant negative impact upon Mirabelle’s business.” Ruta notes that his new employer, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, decided on the name Annabelle months before he was hired.

“DC’s a pretty tight-knit community chef-wise… it just doesn’t seem to make any sense to upset all of that,” Ruta says. “It seems like a bully in the school yard. It doesn’t really do the school any good. It doesn’t do the kids out at recess any good.”

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Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.