Scandal in Outerspace: Three Chefs Leave Restaurant Amid Management Issues

On July 7, the pop-ups’ three chefs pulled out of their residencies at Outerspace, part of the popular East Williamsburg event space 99 Scott.

Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns of Ha’s Đặc Biệt and Chinchakriya Un of Kreung Cambodia took to Instagram to formally announce the end of their Southeast Asian tasting menu for Outerspace.

Exterior of 99 Scott with map of different businesses within it posted on the front.
Outside one of 99 Scott’s many entrances; a layout of its labyrinthine grounds attached to the facade.

The decision came a day after Pete Wells posted a glowing review in the New York Times calling it “the restaurant of the summer.” Bushwick Daily also covered the pop-up. 

Per Kreung’s Instagram post, the creative team’s exodus had little to do with that review and all to do with the mistreatment they and their staff faced while at 99 Scott. “When we are ready, the chefs will speak on why we left Outerspace,” the post reads. 

“I will speak of culture vultures dressed in normcore who move slowly through BK. I will talk about out dated [sic] power dynamics. I will elaborate on exploitation. I will talk about internalized misogyny,” it continued. 

Un has been cooking the flavors of Cambodia for years. Her family are among the 100,000 refugees that settled in the United States after the Khmer Rouge decimated the country and displaced millions. One of the most devastating regimes in human history, the Cambodian genocide led to an estimated 1.5 to 2 million deaths between 1975 and 1979.

Her cuisine relays the palate of a people that were nearly wiped out completely. Sharing a border and kitchen are Ha and Burns of Ha’s Đặc Biệt, the beloved Vietnamese pop-up that spent some time in Ridgewood in late 2019. The three first met during their Outerspace collaboration.

After Kreung and Ha’s Đặc Biệt’s departure went viral, Chef Luis Herrera spoke out about the poor experiences he and Chef Conner Updegrave had with Stellberger and McIver during last year’s Outerspace pop-up.

During Herrera’s time at Outerspace, other accusations were leveled against the owners and management, including Adrianna Varedi, former manager of Mission Chinese who took on oversight of front-of-house operations for Outerspace in June 2020 and was brought back on in a “non-managerial role” for this summer’s pop-up. 

In 2017, Varedi was a defendant in a 2017 class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Mission Chinese staff that alleged racial discrimination, harassment and failures by Mission Chinese to pay overtime and minimum wage to staff. Employees that complained about racial discrimination were allegedly “either terminated or treated so miserably that they often [had] no choice but to leave.”

Per an in-depth Eater article, the issues highlighted by Ha, Burns, Un, Herrera and Updegrave are merely a verse in the chorus of complaints against Outerspace. Other former staff allege problems with fair compensation, safe working conditions, mismanagement and exploitation. 

Hall made of shipping containers attached to 99 Scott.
A hallway made of shipping containers attached to 99 Scott. 

Among these grievances are several instances of Stellberger and McIver hosting buyout events, privately renting out the entire restaurant during the height of the pandemic. Such gatherings, especially given the timeline of these events (last summer and fall), were dangerous per CDC guidelines

Stellberger and McIver told Eater the events were not traditional buyouts but “invitation-only nights where each table paid for their meal the same as when the restaurant was open to the public.” They continue, “[The restaurant] followed all relevant health and safety protocols, including COVID-19 protocols, and we advised our guests of these protocols.”

On Instagram, Outerspace released its own statement in the wake of the scandal. “We have some good news and sad news to share from Outerspace,” the post begins. 

It goes on to discuss the glowing New York Times review and subsequent departure of both chef teams. “We also want to thank the chefs for their hard work and energy they brought to the project” it finishes. 

Stellberger and McIver have retained the counsel of ‘Trident DMG,’ a crisis management firm based out of Washington, D.C. The group is handling communications for the restaurant at this time. 

Kreung Cambodia and Ha’s Đặc Biệt are now continuing their collaboration elsewhere and will be cooking this Friday and Saturday night starting at 5 p.m. at Grimm Artisanal Ales in Williamsburg. Though neither have expounded upon their decision to leave, many industry professionals have spoken out in support of the move. 

In Ha’s announcement of the new pop-up on Instagram, he writes “We were flooded with offers to help/spaces to use/with shared stories & unfortunately similar experiences. Stepping away from these outdated places & systems that operate off of greed & desperation, dangling money with the guise of ‘you are lucky to be here’, is a shift!” 

Both the chefs and Outerspace’s management declined requests for comment on this story.

Top photo by Andrew Karpan. All other photos by Hannah Lane.

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