Shelter Island Chef Marie Eiffel Abused, Stole from Seasonal Workers, Trafficking Lawsuit Claims
Eight seasonal employees working for Marie Eiffel at her eponymous Shelter Island market alleged that the self-described “tastemaker” routinely subjected them to racist comments, sexual harassment, cruelty and wage theft, according to a bombshell federal human trafficking lawsuit leveled against the French restaurateur.
The 69-page lawsuit filed Friday, September 1 in Manhattan federal court alleges an astonishing volume of complaints from the foreign workers against Eiffel ranging from ridiculing Asian employees’ looks, to choking employees in admonishment, to withholding tips for not living up to the terms of their contracts from 2021 to last year.
The employees, mostly women, were all participants in a J-1 summer work program overseen by InterExchange, a visa sponsorship company with an address on Wall Street, that placed them in the popular upscale eatery on the Shelter Island waterfront.
The details in the complaint against Eiffel are often disturbing. She is accused of routinely spanking her employees on the buttocks, groping female employees’ breasts, kissing and choking employees, and making sexually harassing, demeaning, and discriminatory comments about employees’ race and physical features.
“Marie terrorized these international workers and made them afraid to speak up under threat of termination,” said Michael Del Piano, of the Islandia-based law firm of Lewis Johs Avallone Aviles, LLP who is lead counsel in the suit. “J-1 students like (these) plaintiffs are particularly susceptible to exploitation because of their transient status in the United States and unfamiliarity with labor and employment laws in this country.”
The plaintiffs, all students from Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia and Ecuador, paid thousands of dollars to participate in the summer work program sponsored by InterExchange, which is also charged in the lawsuit. The group of eight is seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages from Eiffel.
According to the Shelter Island Reporter, Eiffel on Tuesday night sent their reporter copies of emails from three individuals in this summer’s group of foreign workers, “all expressing gratitude for the experiences they had and praising her.”
One, Nuri Kurmanbek, was quoted by the Reporter as thanking Ms. Eiffel for “such a big opportunity to grow not only as an employee but also as a person. There are million reasons to say thank you to you.
The comments are from this summer’s group of employees, while the group suing Eiffel worked for her in 2021 and 2022.
Eiffel’s Shelter Island market remains open, but an employee answering the phone said Eiffel was not there and would not be commenting. Additionally, messages sent to her via an intermediary asking for comment have not been returned. It was unclear who she had retained as legal representation.
The lawsuit alleges that Eiffel, who referred to one employee as ‘fu*k girl,’ believed her behavior was “funny.” The complaint notes at least one occasion where Marie ordered an employee to record her spanking another employee on the buttocks with a bunch of parsley while she laughed at the camera.
Several employees, both male and female, claim in the court documents that Eiffel “spanked them” on more than 20 separate occasions, often in front of other employees or customers.
Among the more egregious sexual harassment claims, it is alleged that Eiffel slid her finger between the cheeks of the buttocks of one plaintiff and touched her anus, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also roundly paints Eiffel as a racist who made fun of one Asian employee’s eyes, calling them “narrow” and telling another Asian employee that her face was “sad” and “yellow.” Eiffel routinely pulled her eyes to make herself “appear” to be Asian in a mocking manner, and also told another employee, “Asians are not welcomed by white people, just like the blacks,” according to court documents.
It’s also claimed in the suit that she proudly told the employees that she asked a Black customer, her friend, “How does it feel to be on a white rich people’s island?”
Another allegation in the suit recounts when Eiffel asked the J-1 workers to make a dish reflective of their native culture for the purpose of finding new ideas to use in the market.
One plaintiff, who made Korean chicken and rice, said in the lawsuit that Eiffel told her, “What the f*ck is this? It tastes disgusting! Go, get the f*ck out of my kitchen!” Eiffel then approached the employee, put her face close to hers, and allegedly said, “I am warning you, never come into the kitchen if you are not invited, just like never come to my house if I never ask you to. If not, you are fired! You understand? Get out of my sight!”
According to the lawsuit, Marie still asked the employee for the recipe.
Eiffel also withheld cash tips left at the register for employees, as well as debit and credit card tips for herself that were supposed to have been distributed to the plaintiffs, the lawsuit claims.
On one occasion Marie claimed she “lost” the tips and on another occasion she threatened to withhold the cash if they questioned her about the amount of tips that the market received, the court documents state. Eiffel also allegedly threatened to fire any employee who asked about tips.
“Marie took full advantage of the ability to exploit the plaintiffs. She assaulted, abused and demeaned them and took their money while hiding behind the veneer of her popular market and café that catered to the one percent crowd that worships her and her business,” said Del Piano. “These brave workers are taking action against Marie and InterExchange to make sure that this horrible exploitation never happens to other J-1 students again.”
Additionally, the suit accuses InterExchange of being complicit in trafficking due to lack of oversight that subjected the employees to Eiffel’s alleged sexual and physical abuse, discrimination and wage theft.
As alleged in the complaint, InterExchange induced the employees and other international students to pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to participate in the Summer Work Travel program by falsely advertising that employees would be placed in safe working environments suitable for their needs and that InterExchange would monitor their placements.
Instead, the suit alleges that InterExchange paid “lip service” to these obligations and breached the fiduciary duty owed to plaintiffs, meaning the company was complicit by failing to correct the behavior and take action “when it knew or should have known about Eiffel’s heinous actions.”
A call to a contact number listed on the InterExchange website led to a voice recording that said the office is currently closed.
Eiffel, an entrepreneur originally from Paris, has had several retail outlets and restaurant concepts on Shelter Island and elsewhere on the East End, all bearing her name. In 2019, she told a local outlet that in the 1990s, she worked as a successful “adviser” in New York City before moving to the Hamptons.
“I was living the high life, I was that kind of girl,” she told outeast.com.
She has since reinvented herself into a local entrepreneur, market-owner and tastemaker. The same article on outeast.com claimed that Marie Eiffel Market on Shelter Island was a “hub of local social life.” Eiffel said she was often asked by customers about where to find a good plumber or electrician on tight-knit Shelter Island.
Eiffel told the outlet: “I sometimes laugh to myself and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ but it’s so nice. I guess they feel comfortable enough to ask. They feel I’m their next-door neighbor or friend. It’s like a community.”