Shaya Restaurant wasn't originally going to be called Shaya Restaurant, and Alon Shaya wasn't the first chef considered for the modern Israeli restaurant envisioned by John Besh.

Once the restaurant did take off in 2015 with Shaya at the helm, drawing national recognition as one of the top-ranked new dining spots in the country, Besh and his partners developed plans to capitalize on its success with a casual spin-off called Hummusiya Shaya, which could have set up counter-service hummus joints around town.

All of these details come from a new filing in a federal lawsuit between Besh and Shaya. Now that their partnership has soured, the legal dispute is exposing some of the history and inner workings of a restaurant company and chefs at the top of the New Orleans food world.

The latest motion in the case was filed Tuesday by Besh, his longtime business partner Octavio Mantilla and their company Shaya Restaurant LLC, laying out their version of how Shaya Restaurant was developed and their eventual split with Alon Shaya. The chef was fired from his position leading three of the Besh group’s restaurants in September.

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This legal fight continues on a separate track as Besh and his company contend with allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced last fall.

The case centers on the use of the name Shaya, and motions and requests to the court have been piling up since October. It began when Alon Shaya filed trademark requests to use the name Shaya, prompting the Besh group to file suit blocking him.

In the next round, Alon Shaya asked the court to instead prohibit the Besh group from using the name; he requested an injunction that would strip the name from Shaya Restaurant while the dispute makes its way through court. A pretrial conference for the case is still nearly a year away, set for Jan. 8.

In Tuesday’s filing, the Besh group asks the court to deny that injunction and essentially allow it to continue using the name Shaya Restaurant.

Naming names

The Besh group argues that Alon Shaya doesn’t have a valid claim to the business' name, and it submitted business documents and agreements from earlier in their partnership showing the name and its future use were matters of discussion between them.

Besh, Mantilla and Shaya formed the company Shaya Restaurant LLC in 2014. The company’s operating agreement stipulated that any two members could buy out the third member with or without that member’s consent.

“Mr. Shaya unequivocally was aware of that provision and that, if his interests were redeemed, Shaya Restaurant would continue without him,” wrote Raymond Landry, an attorney for the Besh restaurant group who is a witness in this case.

An injunction against using the name Shaya would mean closing the restaurant for six months to a year while they developed a new concept there, the Besh group said.

The filings reference the investigation by nola.com that reported claims of sexual harassment against Besh and Mantilla personally and their company as a whole. Besh stepped down from his leadership role in the company soon after the article was published.

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Tuesday’s filing notes that the same article raised harassment accusations at restaurants where Alon Shaya was executive chef — namely, Shaya Restaurant and Domenica. They deny Alon Shaya’s earlier claim that he was fired for whistleblowing by speaking with a reporter for the story, and they reject Shaya’s claim that his name has been tarnished by association with Besh.

"Any alleged harm he has suffered as a result of the article can fairly be cast on himself and not Shaya Restaurant’s continued operations," Landry told the court.

The arguments that Besh, Mantilla and their attorney make in the latest motion primarily detail a dissolving business relationship that predates the public revelation of those issues. They are laced with implications of ambition and personal animus between star chefs and a high-profile restaurant company.

Partnerships, problems

In separate declarations within Tuesday's filing, Besh and Mantilla each give a personal account of how Shaya Restaurant came to be.

Their narrative gives them most of the credit for the idea behind Shaya Restaurant and the work that brought it attention and acclaim. They portray Alon Shaya’s role as largely confined to menu development.

This comes in contrast to Alon Shaya’s own argument, filed in a recent court motion, that "(w)ithout Alon Shaya, there would be no 'Shaya' restaurant.”

“Alon Shaya is the guiding force behind the national recognition for Shaya,” Shaya asserted in a December filing. “The credit for the immediate success of Shaya is due to the leadership of Alon Shaya, his hard working team of employees, and his culinary expertise.”

In the Besh group’s telling of Shaya restaurant’s origins, Mantilla was approached in 2014 by the owner of its Magazine Street building who was looking for a replacement for Dominique’s Restaurant, which was closing. Early plans from the Besh group envisioned an Italian restaurant with a different chef, the group told the court, but eventually changed to feature modern Israeli cuisine.

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It says Alon Shaya was “skeptical” about the project, and Besh said he was considering asking another chef to helm the restaurant. His idea was to recruit David Slater, a chef with Emeril Lagasse’s company, and envisioned developing a restaurant with him called Shuk, after a Hebrew word for market. Those plans changed after Shaya “later warmed up to the restaurant concept and our vision for the space and got involved.”

“Not wanting to upset my friend, Emeril Lagasse, we decided not to bring Chef Slater aboard and, instead, decided to build the brand around Alon, who I considered my protégé and friend and who we had invested in so heavily,” Besh said in his filing. “We all agreed to name the restaurant Shaya and formed Shaya Restaurant LLC, with each of us having an equal 1/3 membership interest.”

During 2015, the same year Shaya opened, the Besh group had “casual and informal conversations at times about opening another Shaya outside of Louisiana” but decided instead to keep it a stand-alone to “preserve the unique brand and fame of the Magazine Street restaurant.”

This was around the time the partners began discussing a casual, counter-service spinoff of Shaya, to be called either Hummusiya or Hummusiya Shaya. The company Shaya Restaurant LLC registered both names in 2015 and began discussions with an architect. The first location was tentatively planned in the CBD.

Fraying relations

Before these plans could take root, however, Shaya's partnership with Besh and Mantilla began to fray, and by 2017, they were discussing how to end their partnership.

“Tensions continued to rise during the summer of 2017, however, as Mr. Shaya demanded a separation on his terms, while at the same time he remained largely absent from their three restaurants because he was too busy traveling, self-promoting, and working on his upcoming cookbook, all on BRG’s and Shaya Restaurant’s nickel,” Besh wrote.

Besh describes his early years working with Alon Shaya as a time of mentorship and investment, running through “intense media training” from his company’s PR firm, introductions to “the ‘who’s who’ of the food world” and other efforts aimed at “getting Alon to be noticed as the next rising star.”

The two appeared close. Besh hosted Alon Shaya’s wedding at his Slidell home.

But in his filing, Besh told the court that as Shaya Restaurant gained more acclaim, “Alon grew more and more arrogant and publicly antagonistic toward me and BRG, as a whole.”

Mantilla concurred, telling the court that Shaya’s "attitude toward me and John became combative, insulting and offensive, especially as we had once been good friends."

Besh said that by fall 2016, "the problem escalated," and he addressed it directly with Shaya. 

“It was then that he told me that I had never been a friend or mentor to him and that he wanted out of BRG by purchasing my interest in Shaya Restaurant," Besh wrote. "I listened to his gripes and contempt for me and my company. I also tried to explain that it was BRG who paid for the high lifestyle and that he had grown accustomed to working only 10 days of the last calendar year while we supported his limitless travel and expenses that accrued on ‘research trips.’ Alon’s lavish vacations and time and expenses writing a book about himself were all funded by the group through Alon’s use of a company credit card.”

That cookbook, slated for release this spring, is called “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel.” In their filings, Besh and Mantilla say they have no problem with the use of the Shaya name for the book.

Last fall, Alon Shaya started his own culinary company called Pomegranate Hospitality. He hired away the former chef de cuisine from Shaya Restaurant, Zach Engel, and others from his former restaurant. The company does not now operate a restaurant, but Shaya has said his goal is to open a modern Israeli restaurant in New Orleans.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified Raymond Landry's role in this case. The attorney is not representing either side in this litigation.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.

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