Cooks Enervated: Bechtold (front) and Seaver in happier times. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The way chef Robert Bechtold explains it, he was just trying to prevent the kitchen staff at Tackle Box from walking out on Friday, May 30, so that they could make it through another busy weekend at the new Georgetown fry shack (Young & Hungry, “Net Gain,” 5/14/08). The cooks were threatening a work stoppage, Bechtold says, when they got their pay and discovered they’d been shorted. The handwritten checks had been cut for one week, not the expected two. Up to that point, Bechtold says, there hadn’t been any problems with pay.

Bechtold says he called the financial officer for Tackle Box’s parent company, GBP LLC, who related the situation to owner Jonathan Umbel. Umbel, Bechtold says, called back the next day and gave the chef a tongue-lashing. The chef remembers the money quote this way: “You stay right the fuck there,” Bechtold quotes Umbel. “I’m coming to get a piece of you and your sous chef [Roger Lemus].”

The situation, predictably, got worse when Umbel arrived at Tackle Box that Saturday, Bechtold says. “Jonathan was angry about me inquiring about pay for the staff,” remembers the chef, who swears he kept his own cool. “He was angry that the staff was asking about pay.” Umbel was so angry, the chef says, that he fired four staffers on the spot, including Bechtold and Lemus. Barton Seaver, the popular Hook chef who oversees the Tackle Box kitchen for Umbel, “didn’t have anything to do with (the firings),” Bechtold says. “He didn’t know about it.”

Once informed, though, Seaver did apparently convince Bechtold to stay on for Saturday’s service. Bechtold also showed up on Sunday, expecting a meeting with Umbel, maybe even an apology. Instead, Bechtold says, “I was just ignored.” The way Bechtold figured it, he was still fired. He left Tackle Box for the last time.

It was a hard split for Bechtold, a father of two who came from New Orleans, where he worked for the James Beard Award-winning chef John Besh. Bechtold says he put in 14-hour days to get the Tackle Box ready for its late-April opening. He spent hours with Seaver developing the sustainable-seafood menu to a point where “everything [was] really tight.” His dismissal was “totally uncalled for,” he says, “and the injustice of it is why I’m speaking out.”

Speaking out is an understatement. On June 2 and 3, Bechtold went on an Internet rampage. He left identical messages on a number of blogs and Web sites, including the Washington Post’s and the Washington City Paper’s. His message read, in part: “Tackle Box in Georgetown is unsustainable to families. After working 6 months for Barton Seaver and giving him every recipie for tackle box, I was let go for asking about the pay for my staff. If any press would like to know the truth about Chef Barton Seaver or Pure hospitality(what a joke) please contact ex chef of tackle box…”

Bechtold did all this, he says, despite the fact that he was told he could face legal action if he spoke out publicly about his situation at Tackle Box.

Umbel quickly grew irritated with me when I contacted him for comment. He preferred to remain mostly off the record. The Tackle Box owner did, for the record, roundly deny “all of Robert Bechtold’s comments,” including the notion that Umbel threatened anybody. Since discovering the accounting mistake, Umbel says Bechtold and the other Tackle Box staffers have been paid in full. “And we think we have overpaid” Bechtold, Umbel adds.

What’s more, the other three cooks, including Lemus, have returned to work. Tackle Box management denies that the kitchen team was fired in the first place, as Bechtold contends. One manager says they all left on their own accord. Seaver wouldn’t confirm that because of potential litigation, and Lemus recently told me another story altogether while sitting at a Tackle Box picnic table—that he got permission to leave on Saturday when he told Umbel that he was “a little tired.”

Whatever the facts here, Umbel did allow this about his former chef: “Robert Bechtold was given a chance of a lifetime and was unable to meet the company’s needs.…We are very happy to go in a new direction.” When I asked Seaver if he would ever take Bechtold back, he paused for a long beat and said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

Still searching for insight on this dust-up, I contacted Besh, who was in New York to attend the Beard Awards and work on his latest cookbook. The celebrity chef had to rack his brain to remember that Bechtold worked for him briefly at Restaurant August and Besh Steakhouse in New Orleans before moving to a restaurant at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, where Besh served as a consultant. “I can’t think of too many great things to say,” Besh tells me about Bechtold. “He was a good cook but couldn’t work with people.”

“Nothing about him is smooth or well-heeled,” Besh adds. “I think he has a chip on his shoulder about that.” Then Besh advises me to “stay far away from that one.”

Then again, maybe Bechtold just served as a mirror for Umbel, one that his former boss didn’t like looking into. In April, Danielle Crapps was hired as a prep cook by Bechtold, who happens to be her next-door neighbor, though they’re not friends. Crapps worked two weeks at Tackle Box, doing odd jobs around the construction site to help get the restaurant open. She was fired on April 24, before the place even opened. Crapps had to wait more than six weeks before she was paid her back wages of $611. “They included a letter blaming the delay on Rob,” Crapps wrote in an e-mail.

Crapps describes herself as a reasonable person, who understands that you have to play nice with the boss, even when it’s clear the boss doesn’t like you. She recalls the day, early on, when Umbel shouted her down for trying to assist some construction workers to whom he had just given instructions. “He yelled, ‘I was not talking to you,’” Crapps says. “From that moment on, he didn’t like me.”

Umbel is “just a very abrasive and, I would say, mean person,” Crapps adds. “I would not wish him upon my worst enemy.”

It seems this drama is headed to court, where a judge will have to separate fact from friction. In the meantime, Seaver and Umbel have removed all the items that Bechtold contributed to the Tackle Box menu and hired Jason Tepper, former chef at La Miche in Bethesda, to serve as director of operations at the fry shack.

It’s the sort of bold employee hire you wouldn’t expect from a company that may be struggling financially, which is an easy conclusion to draw from Bechtold’s and Crapps’ monetary anecdotes. When I ask Seaver whether the company is solid, he politely refuses to comment. “For good or for worse, that’s not something for the public domain,” he says.

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