Ex-chef claims hostile work environment, discrimination at Virago

Iron Fork winner files federal suit after discharge

Updated at 7:55P with full response from M Street attorney

The former executive chef at Virago has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming a discrimination and a hostile work environment at the lauded Nashville restaurant.

Jessica Benefield — the winner of this year's Nashville Scene "Iron Fork" competition — was fired as executive chef from the popular Gulch eatery June 21, the day she sent an email to the director of human resources for M Street Entertainment, the holding company for Virago and a number of other restaurants. In her email, Benefield complained about "actions toward women" by Chris Hyndman, M Street's COO.

In the email and in her complaint, Benefield says Hyndman regularly verbally abused female employees and commented on their physical appearance — rating them as "far-away hot," "up-close-and-personal hot" or "dirty 19-year-old hot." Benefield, the only female executive chef in the M Street organization, says she was subjected to scrutiny not shared by her male counterparts.

According to a court filing, Benefield was fired the same day she sent the email. According to her separation notice, Benefield was fired for an "inability to manager and operate restaurant efficiently," "refusal to cooperate in the implementation of necessary operational and management procedures," and "making false and malicious statements regarding superiors."

The suit — read it in full here — claims Benefield had never been reprimanded previously for poor management or refusal to cooperate. Indeed, her only performance review, from September 2012, rated her as "excels," lauds her as "the most committed culinarian on campus," and resulted in a 20 percent raise.

Benefield is claiming violations of the Civil Rights Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act, plus retaliatory discharge and tortious interference. She seeks front and back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and attorney's fees.

M Street attorney Peter Curry said his client hadn't been served with the complaint as of mid-day Thursday, but he is aware of the nature of the allegations.

"Based on what we have learned of Ms. Benefield's complaint, it's not founded in fact at all, and the company plans to contest the allegations in the complaint and is confident it will prove these allegations false," he said.

The plantiff's attorneys are Anne Hunter Williams and Jonathan Street of The Higgins Firm.

UPDATED — After reviewing the complaint, Curry sent this more in-depth response:

  Ms. Benefield was terminated for lack of management skills and insubordination. This will be proven at trial. It is unfortunate that she has chosen to file a lawsuit based on false accusations. This suit is nothing more than an opportunistic attempt by Ms. Benefield to embarrass Mr. Hyndman and to force a monetary settlement. This will not prove to be the case. Mr. Hyndman will continue to reject all attempts at extortion. When the facts are established, this lawsuit will be shown to be baseless. The company and Mr. Hyndman intend to vigorously defend against this malicious action to prove that the allegations are untrue. In Mr. Hyndman’s 13 years of successful ownership and operations in the restaurant business, neither Mr. Hyndman nor his company has ever been accused of discrimination or harassment of any nature. In fact, five of Virago Restaurant’s eight  managers are female, including its General Manager. Mr. Hyndman is proud of the fact that virtually all of his managers have been promoted from within. Virago continues to be an outstanding member of the Nashville business community, and an excellent workplace for its employees.