Food

Mirabelle Owner Settles Non-Compete Lawsuit With Ex-Chef Frank Ruta

Ruta will continue to work at modern American restaurant Annabelle

Frank Ruta (right) with pastry chef Aggie chin at Mirabelle. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

In September, Mirabelle owner Hakan Ilhan sued his former chef Frank Ruta for allegedly violating a non-compete agreement by accepting a position at competing fine-dining restaurant Annabelle. This week, the two parties settled the lawsuit. Ruta will continue to work at Ashok Bajaj‘s modern American restaurant in Dupont Circle and has agreed not to recruit any staff from his ex-employer, Ilhan says. No money exchanged hands.

“I’m thankful that Hakan and I were able to amicably resolve the lawsuit and that I can continue my work at Annabelle. Now we can both move forward doing what we enjoy doing. His professionalism is appreciated,” Ruta says in an emailed statement. He declined to comment further.

Ilhan says it was never his intention to stop Ruta from working, but he was triggered to file the lawsuit after Ruta allegedly sought to poach Mirabelle’s lead bartender and chef de cuisine. According to the lawsuit, Ruta signed a non-compete agreement that restricted the chef from working in a similar restaurant within ten miles of Mirabelle for two years after the termination of his employment. It also prohibited him from soliciting customers or staff for a similar business.

“We really wanted to protect our business and file a lawsuit before it really got out of hand, approaching more of my staff,” Ilhan says. “And I think we achieved what we wanted to do.”

In his legal response, Ruta argued the non-compete was void because he was fired. He cited a provision in the contract that reads: “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 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. In court filings, Ruta accused Ilhan and other former Mirabelle staff of months of “backroom, secretive plotting” leading to his ouster.

The lawsuit also took issue with the fact that Ruta went to work for a restaurant with a “confusingly similar” name. Ruta, however, noted that owner Bajaj decided on the name Annabelle months before he was hired.

“It’s time to move on,” Ilhan says. “We wish him good luck.”

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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.