One of the longest-running Chicago restaurant sagas in recent history is inching closer to its final chapter, as a federal judge on Tuesday morning sentenced Attila Gyulai, the co-owner of Embeya, to three years of probation without any additional jail time. Judge Harry D. Leinenweber cited Gyulai’s five months seven in a Spanish jail, plus his additional eight months of house arrest he served in Chicago, according to Crain’s.
Embeya was a fancy West Loop restaurant that closed four years ago. Authorities arrested Gyulai in December 2018 in Spain after he evaded capture for 10 months. Upon his extradition, Gyulai pled guilty in November to one count of wire fraud as prosecutors claim Gyulai cheated Embeya’s chef Thai Dang and his older brother, Kenny, out of at least $300,000.
Before fleeing the country, a special grand jury in 2017 indicted Gyulai on four felony counts of wire fraud. Gyulai pled guilty to one of those counts. That count combined allegations from a previous count, claiming Gyulai “fraudulently misappropriated Embeya’s funds for his own personal benefit.” Guilty of a felony and a first-time offender, before Tuesday’s court appearance, prosecutors figured Gyulai would face a prison sentence of 15 to 21 months and a maximum $600,000 fine.
The Dangs said Gyulai failed to share financial information with them. Gyulai’s scheme ran from 2014 to July 2016, according to court documents. Both Vietnamese immigrants, Thai Dang recruited Kenny Dang in 2011 to invest in the restaurant. The Dangs would invest about $500,000, according to the indictment, while Gyulai and wife Komal Patel invested about $140,000. (Patel has not been charged by authorities.) Gyulai retained 46.5 percent ownership of the restaurant, with Patel retaining 10 percent, according to the complaint. The Dangs retained 15.5 percent, while an unnamed shareholder retained 28 percent.
Thai Dang, a budding superstar chef, introduced his brother to Patel and Gyulai. Thai Dang and Gyulai worked together at the former Elysian Hotel (now Waldorf Astoria Chicago) in Gold Coast. Kenny Dang wasn’t involved in the restaurant’s operations. After opening in 2012, Embeya — an upscale restaurant where chef Dang cooked contemporary Vietnamese cuisine — racked up acclaim both locally and nationally.
But the relationship between chef and owner soured, and in March 2015, Gyulai fired Thai Dang. In October 2015, chef sued Gyulai, alleging he was owed $90,000 in salary. A Cook County judge in November 2016 would eventually rule in favor of Thai Dang, according to court records.
In March 2016 — before the judge’s ruling on the salary lawsuit and three months before the restaurant would close permanently — the Dang brothers filed another lawsuit against Gyulai. This time, they accused him of him making $200,000 in unauthorized payments to himself using restaurant accounts. In May 2017, another Cook County judge ruled in favor of the Dangs and awarded them more than $1.4 million, according to court records. Those lawsuits attracted the attention of federal authorities and led to the indictment, which was filed in February 2018.
Thai and wife Danielle Dang, in June 2017, opened HaiSous, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Pilsen, one the the city’s best. Last year, they opening a stall inside Time Out Market Chicago. The Dangs, who both worked at Embeya — Danielle was the beverage director — claimed that Gyulai and Patel left them with a litany of unpaid fines from Embeya that nearly crippled plans for the Pilsen restaurant.
“Let’s hope the judge throws the book at Attila tomorrow morning. Because they will do it again,” Danielle Dang posted Monday on Facebook.
The same post featured a video with Danielle Dang questioning her brother-in-law about how Gyulai’s actions affected him. Kenny Dang spoke about how arriving in America was “a gift from God” and how he dreamed for a better life for himself and his family.
According to the federal complaint, the Dangs didn’t know that Gyulai had pledged Kenny Dang’s home in Virginia as collateral on a $985,000 Small Business Administration loan. After the restaurant closed, the bank foreclosed on Dang’s house as Patel and Gyulai had fled the country.
“He was the one who [took] away my life,” Kenny Dang said in the video. “I cried, I cried like I never cried before.”
Danielle Dang teased they may eventually write a book about their ordeal, “but nothing’s on the horizon.” The Dangs have about $800,000 left in loan payments to Ridgestone Bank (now Byline Bank), she told Eater. If that’s not repaid, the bank could take a second house (also in Virginia) from Kenny Dang, Danielle Dang added. That’s where several members of Dang’s family, all immigrants from Vietnam, now live.
Cook County circuit court records show the bank also repossessed a River West condo belonging to Gyulai while he was out of the country. Authorities deemed Gyulai, a 48-year-old Hungarian native, a flight risk, but released him from custody conditionally in mid-2019 and allowed him to live at a friend’s home.