Top Chef Canada runner-up sues Hawksworth group over chef's bonus

·3 min read
Phil Scarfone, the former head chef of Nightingale, is pictured in a handout photo from 2019. Scarfone has filed a lawsuit against the Hawksworth Group claiming he was not paid a portion of the bonus he was owed after appearing on Top Chef Canada. (Hawksworth Communications/Handout - image credit)
Phil Scarfone, the former head chef of Nightingale, is pictured in a handout photo from 2019. Scarfone has filed a lawsuit against the Hawksworth Group claiming he was not paid a portion of the bonus he was owed after appearing on Top Chef Canada. (Hawksworth Communications/Handout - image credit)

A celebrated local chef and Top Chef Canada runner-up is suing one of the most well-known, fine dining restaurant groups in Vancouver, claiming he hasn't been paid the full bonus they agreed upon after he appeared on the show.

Phil Scarfone, the former head chef at Hawksworth's lively Nightingale restaurant, filed the lawsuit against the company in Vancouver provincial court on Friday.

The court documents allege Hawksworth fired Scarfone nearly two years ago and shorted him tens of thousands of dollars on his bonus.

"That refusal and Hawksworth's purported termination of the annual bonus is in breach of the bonus agreement and was done in bad faith," the lawsuit says.

None of the allegations has been proven and the company has not yet filed a response in court.

Top Chef Canada appearance

Scarfone had been with the Hawksworth group for eight years before he appeared on the Food Network's Top Chef Canada competition.

Already an established chef by his 20s, Scarfone joined the group in 2011 and "played a significant role" in crafting recipes and opening the elite Hawksworth Restaurant that June, according to the court documents.

He worked under David Hawksworth, a mentor and one of the most recognizable names in Vancouver's upscale culinary scene.

It was Hawksworth who chose Scarfone to lead the kitchen at Nightingale — a new, more casual venture — when it opened in the industrial Marine Building near the financial district in 2016, the lawsuit claims.

Scarfone appeared on Top Chef Canada's seventh season in 2018. Fourteen contestants from across the country competed against each other in culinary challenges for a top prize of $100,000.

He placed second, losing only to fellow B.C.-based chef Paul Moran.

Back at Nightingale, according to the lawsuit, Scarfone negotiated a new bonus in January 2019 because of the "considerable" publicity he would bring to the restaurant and the company by being on the show.

He alleges he and the company agreed the bonus would include $15,000 a year and $3,750 per quarter if Nightingale did better than expected.

Scarfone said they also agreed to a specific "annual bonus" — 10 per cent of the difference when the food and beverage revenue was higher than what they'd budgeted for the year.

He would be eligible for the bonus every Jan. 1, Scarfone claims in the court documents.

Scarfone fired after already resigning: lawsuit

Eleven months after making the deal, Scarfone resigned from Nightingale.

He said he gave six weeks notice and said his last day would be Jan. 15, 2020.

But at 11:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, half an hour before Scarfone became eligible for his bonus, he claims Hawksworth emailed him a memo saying the "annual bonus" had been included in the agreement by mistake.

Scarfone said he was fired two days later, even though he'd already resigned.

"Hawksworth does not have the right to terminate the annual bonus," the lawsuit says. "The manner of Hawksworth's exercise of the termination clause ... was in breach of Hawksworth's duty to act honestly."

The chef's last day at Nightingale stayed the same.

The claim said Scarfone was paid the first two parts of his bonus, but not the annual bonus.

It doesn't say exactly how much it would've been worth — the 10 per cent can only be calculated with propriety information on Nightingale's revenue in 2019 — but Scarfone is asking for the maximum amount of money that can be awarded in small claims court in B.C.

He has claimed $35,000 for breach of contract.

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