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Ex-Kinship employee alleges Michelin-starred chef used racist language

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For almost a week, a former food runner at Kinship and Métier has been standing outside the Michelin-starred restaurants, trying to warn passersby and potential diners about the James Beard Award-winning chef Eric Ziebold, whom she claims used racist language in her presence.

Klyn Jones, the former food runner, accused Ziebold of using the phrase “stupid n—–” in a conversation between the two about racism in the workplace. Jones has not accused the chef of calling her the phrase directly, but she said he used it at least four times during their May conversation. A video of Jones’s sidewalk protest, taken by a passerby on Saturday, was posted on TikTok and quickly went viral. It has been viewed more than 2.3 million times.

“There is no context that would make the use of a slur in the workplace appropriate or acceptable,” Jones said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It’s hurtful and conveys a deep lack of respect. I hope my protest and statement brings more awareness to these far too common instances of racial harm so they don’t occur in the future.”

In a statement to The Post, Ziebold acknowledged that he repeated the phrase after Jones used it in their conversation. “While addressing the concerns of a team member feeling safe in our restaurant, I was asked a question,” Ziebold said. “While stating I would find the proposed behavior unacceptable, I regretfully repeated their word in my response. I should have been more sensitive while trying to assure our team member that I was committed to an environment where they would feel safe.”

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Jones, 25, is Black and a graduate of Howard University. Ziebold, 50, is White and the chef at Métier and Kinship, two of the most decorated fine-dining establishments in the District. He owns both restaurants with his wife/partner, Célia Laurent. Before Kinship/Métier, Ziebold was the chef behind the four-star CityZen inside the Mandarin Oriental, which followed a run as a trusted chef for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York.

Neither Jones nor Ziebold would grant interviews to The Post for this story, but neither disputes that they took part in a one-on-one discussion at the restaurant in early May. According to two people with knowledge of the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation, Jones wanted to talk to Ziebold about racist incidents she had previously endured at restaurants, including one in which a diner at Kinship allegedly made a racist joke to her.

Another incident, in Chicago, involved a diner who apparently told Jones she was a “stupid n—–.” Jones wanted to know how Ziebold would handle a similar situation at Kinship/Métier.

Daniel Lobsenz, who was general manager during this incident, said Ziebold didn’t feel like his use of the word was racist. Lobsenz added that Ziebold has never had a racist complaint lodged against him before Jones filed hers.

“Kinship has always operated under a core set of values advocating diversity, equity and a feeling of respect and belonging,” Ziebold said in his statement to The Post. “I apologize to those I’ve hurt and will strive to do better in the future.”

Some have argued, according to a 2017 Washington City Paper report, that Ziebold’s kitchens can be demeaning and bullying environments.

Shortly after her one-on-one discussion with Ziebold in May, Jones told a fellow employee about the incident. The employee, who no longer works at Kinship/Métier, confirmed to The Post that Jones confided that Ziebold had allegedly used the racist phrase multiple times in their conversation.

“According to her, he starts to say, ‘Oh, my God, somebody called you ‘stupid n—–’? I would never call you a ‘stupid n—–,’ ” the former employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the industry and fears retaliation.

“She has to interrupt him and be like, ‘Okay, you don’t have to keep repeating it to me. I understand that you are getting what I’m saying,’ ” the employee continued. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand why you would let something like ‘stupid n—–’ bother you.’ ”

The former employee said that by that point, Jones felt so uncomfortable she broke off the conversation with Ziebold.

Because Kinship/Métier has no human resources department, the job of investigating Jones’s complaint against Ziebold fell to Lobsenz, the former general manager, who took individual statements from both Jones and Ziebold. He also mediated other meetings between the two.

Lobsenz says he learned via multiple interviews with both parties that Jones repeatedly asked Ziebold how he would respond if someone in his restaurants were to describe her using the racist phrase. In his response, Ziebold allegedly told Jones that he would have a problem with a diner using the n-word, Lobsenz said. The chef used the phrase “n-word” and not the racist term itself, Lobsenz learned in his investigation. It was his sense that Jones was inviting Ziebold to say the racist word, “to make it clear that it would be unacceptable,” he said.

Later, during a meeting with Jones, Lobsenz said the former food runner “said the words, ‘I asked [Ziebold] the question until I got the answer I wanted.’ ” Lobsenz says he interpreted the comment to mean Ziebold “was baited into saying it.”

The racial slur, which is freighted with history, is one of the most charged words in the English language. In recent years, White professors have been investigated, suspended and barred from teaching courses for using the n-word in academic settings.

Jonathan Friedland, the former chief communications officer at Netflix, was fired in 2018 after using the word twice around colleagues, once while attempting to explain the words that offend in comedy. A prominent New York Times science and public health reporter resigned under pressure after he said the word during a newspaper-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru.

The consequences to Ziebold and Kinship have been swift. Yelp has disabled Kinship’s page after an influx of negative comments. Diners have canceled reservations or have been subjected to verbal comments on the sidewalk as they enter the restaurants. Kinship/Métier canceled services on Sunday out of concern for the safety of both guests and employees, according to a company spokesperson. (The restaurants plan to reopen on Wednesday if they can assure the safety of everyone.)

“You see two thousands Google reviews in one day,” Lobsenz said. “People posting pictures of, you know, a dead mouse in a soda cup, so people think that this is a dirty restaurant. Obviously, none of these people ate at the restaurant, so they’re just bombing it.”

The accusations against Ziebold have had an impact on employees of Kinship/Métier, both past and present. Some have cut off contact with Jones. Others are supporting Jones, whose last day of work at Kinship/Métier was in early June.

“I want to thank every single person who believed me, stopped to talk to me and chose to patronize another establishment as a result of my protest. I get overwhelmed easily and never wanted to take drastic action,” Jones said in a statement to The Post.

“I was looking for an apology from my former employer for his repeated use of offensive, vulgar and racist language,” Jones added. “Too often these things get swept under the rug in the restaurant industry. My goal was to inform patrons (most specifically Black patrons) of what happened so they could make informed decisions on whether they still wanted to support this business.”

A current captain, who describes himself as a person of color, is struck by one thing: that Jones is on the sidewalk by herself, with no other Kinship/Métier employee supporting her protest.

“If I felt that I was working in a place where there was some sort of racism existing or bias because of color or creed, I would be standing outside with her,” said the captain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation.

“The fact that there’s no past employees or other employees … that are sharing their own personal experiences of racism within the workplaces, I think it speaks volumes,” he added.

Regardless of who is supporting her, Jones told The Post that she has filed a hostile workplace complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also said in her statement that, as of Tuesday, she has waited more than 100 days for an apology from Ziebold. Lobsenz told The Post that the chef apologized weeks earlier to Jones.

In a text to The Post, Jones wrote of Ziebold’s earlier apology: “He said, ‘sorry you feel that way’ and ‘sorry I repeated what you said,’ which I felt was a flippant dismissal of my point.”

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