clock menu more-arrow no yes
A chef poses with an apron and drinks in his hands.
Acadia chef and owner Ryan McCaskey poses at the Chicago Gourmet food festival.
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Filed under:

Acadia Chef Accused of Spearheading Retaliatory Harassment Campaign Against Former Server

The campaign is allegedly retaliation for accusations made about the culture at the Michelin-starred restaurant through the Instagram account The86dlist

For nine years, Acadia has been a culinary beacon for Chicago’s South Side. At the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the city south of Roosevelt Road and east of the Dan Ryan Expressway, chef Ryan McCaskey’s high-level cooking and inspiring personal story have drawn diners from throughout the city and across the country to feast on intricately plated dishes inside the luxe space. When the pandemic struck and fine dining restaurants everywhere took a hit, like many, Acadia briefly pivoted to takeout, spotlighting its casual burgers and lobster mac and cheese. But in August, with no warning or public announcement, Acadia seemingly shuttered — even its website vanished from the internet.

It soon appeared that Acadia might be following a pattern, one established in the early months of the pandemic that has repeated itself around the country: Restaurant workers, shut out of their jobs, channel their frustrations onto Instagram and Twitter, revealing stories of difficult and in some cases harrowing workplace environments in some of the country’s most celebrated kitchens and dining rooms. In response, chefs and owners apologize (or not) and walk away, or shut down their COVID-19-stricken business entirely.

Acadia’s story, however, has diverged from that familiar one. On September 14, a Cook County judge granted a former Acadia server an emergency “no-contact” order against McCaskey after the worker accused the chef of a campaign of harassment that includes impersonating the worker’s dead brother using social media and email.

McCaskey, through his attorney, denied the allegations made in the no-contact order, but did not respond to repeated requests for comment about any of the allegations made about Acadia, its work culture, or his behavior there.

In Chicago, it’s hard to separate the uprising of the city’s restaurant workers from the emergence of @The86dlist, an anonymous Instagram account that quickly became an aggregator for these tales. (“Eighty-six” is kitchen slang for when a restaurant has run out of an item or has eliminated it from its menu.) A few times a week, the account dropped clusters of anonymized allegations about toxic restaurant workplaces; industry workers sent their tales to the account’s anonymous operator and eagerly waited to see if their story — and their coworkers’ stories — would make the cut. Since debuting in June, the account has accumulated more than 23,000 followers, becoming a platform for holding restaurant owners, managers, and chefs accountable via public shaming. Fat Rice, an award-winning restaurant in Logan Square, closed in June after the account shared stories from former workers, led by cook Joey Pham, about the behavior of chef and co-owner Abe Conlon.

The exterior of a colorful restaurant taken from across the street.
Acadia had been open since 2011.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In late July, it was Acadia’s turn in the rotation. An Instagram slideshow about the Michelin-starred restaurant covered everything from its workplace culture to its ownership. Some statements were obviously unverified: For example, one slide claims McCaskey is a member of the family that owns the Chicago Bears, which is inaccurate. While he shares the same surname, McCaskey was born in Vietnam and grew up in suburban Chicago, where he was adopted as part of a U.S. government effort to place orphaned Vietnamese children with American families. His parents are Ray and Judith McCaskey, who are known for their philanthropic efforts and have no relation to the family who owns the Bears; Ray is the former CEO of the parent company of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Since August, Eater Chicago has spoken with more than a dozen former Acadia employees and members of the restaurant industry — chefs, restaurant owners, and public relations representatives — who worked with McCaskey and spoke under the condition of anonymity, worried about retaliation. They confirm a number of the allegations posted by The86dlist about the chef and restaurant. Numerous former employees say that he made women uncomfortable. Multiple women who worked at the restaurant say they felt pressured to dote on McCaskey — to accept his invitations to appear as his dates at industry events, promptly reply to late-night text messages, and provide him with personal updates on their dating lives. If they didn’t respond the way he wanted, they claim, he made their jobs more difficult. Former employees allege that he regularly talked about workers behind their backs, often using homophobic slurs. Several former staffers also say that McCaskey hired strippers to perform at after-hour parties inside of the restaurant as team-building exercises on multiple occasions, and intensely pressured staffers to participate.

The86dlist’s Instagram post was a breakthrough moment for workers who had struggled with their experiences at Acadia because it showed that “we are all in kind of the same boat,” said one former Acadia staffer who spent two years at the restaurant. “Until this came out, we felt isolated and alone … but now it’s like we’re telling the same story.”

Workers say they were afraid to speak up against McCaskey because they worried he would ruin their prospects of getting a job at another restaurant. He frequently bragged to staff about his connections in the restaurant industry, saying he hung out with elite Chicago chefs like Curtis Duffy and Grant Achatz, and that he wrote recipes with Thomas Keller. Within Chicago’s insular restaurant scene, those who are vocal can be labeled as problematic and blacklisted from future employment. “Our silence is what protects us at restaurants,” says Jess Dawson, a former assistant sous chef at Acadia.

Even as McCaskey appeared generous and professional to the public and other industry luminaries — like his parents, he was involved with charities, and during the summer, he gave away produce to out-of-work industry members — to his former employees, he was controlling, vindictive, and manipulative. Multiple former employees say that he pressured them into attending parties, late-night bar crawls, and drug- and booze-fueled trips to Maine. Because he apparently did not want his employees to feel like he was an authority figure, he encouraged liberal drug use and would make baked goods, like cakes and brownies, spiked with drugs, including ecstasy and cannabis, for the staff, multiple former employees say.

The most striking example of this behavior, staffers say, were the employee parties he held at the restaurant that centered around performances from strippers. A goodbye party for a long-time sous chef, held on March 27, 2018, was apparently one such event. While the performers danced inside of Acadia’s private dining room, the sous chef seemed uncomfortable, and tried to stay in the kitchen. McCaskey, according to workers who attended the party, began bombarding the sous chef and another male employee with homophobic slurs for not wanting to take part.

Multiple staffers say that McCaskey demanded that they participate in the event in one fashion or another. A video seen by Eater Chicago shows workers putting down plastic coverings on the floor to prepare for the party; two former kitchen workers allege that McCaskey ordered them to go to a currency exchange to fetch cash to tip the dancers. Another kitchen staffer said that she was asked by McCaskey to assemble a sex toy known as a “drilldo” for the strippers’ performance. McCaskey also allegedly insisted that staffers, including women, watch the dancers from seats in the front row. They worried that if they declined, McCaskey would retaliate by insulting them or unfairly blaming them for mistakes during the work week.

McCaskey did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the allegations posted on Instagram, the stripper parties, or any other questions about the environment at Acadia.

After the allegations against Acadia became public, a number of anonymous Instagram accounts emerged to defend McCaskey, confronting former workers online. One such account, “roxburysteve” — a reference to the Saturday Night Live sketch — posted several since-deleted pro-McCaskey comments directly under the The86dlist post about Acadia. “I am sure there is a lawsuit coming against the 86list,” one comment read. The86dlist account hasn’t posted since the Acadia allegations went up on July 22, and the operator of the account has not replied to repeated requests for comment.

One person in particular seemed to draw roxburysteve’s ire: a former Acadia server named Cody Nason, whom the account accused of being behind The86dlist’s post. “The person behind all of this is Cody Nason,” began one (since-deleted) comment. “He has attacked other restaurants and chefs with nearly the same accusations.” Another stated, “Unfortunately this industry is all about gossip. If any of this happened then where are the filed complaints? Nothing is on the record. This is Yelp for disgruntled employees.”

Nason, who worked at Acadia as a server from April to October 2019 before leaving to become the floor manager at Yugen, a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in West Loop, says he did in fact supply information about Acadia to The86dlist. Several of Nason’s colleagues knew this, and according to Nason, McCaskey had also figured it out.

According to the petition Nason’s attorneys submitted to obtain the no-contact order against McCaskey, Nason claims that his ex-boss “engaged in a systematic campaign using the Internet to harass and stalk” him in retaliation. The centerpiece of the campaign, Nason claims, was the website CodyNason.com. The site, which appeared August 13 and taken down last week, described Nason as a pedophile, a child rapist, and a convicted sex offender, and claimed that Nason worked for convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It was also littered with homophobic and racist language, including a link to the KKK, and photos of Nason and his deceased older brother.

The harassment, according to the court petition, included setting up Facebook and Instagram accounts to impersonate Nason’s brother. A message sent to Nason from an email account with the display name ”Jaccob Nason” reads, “Why did you let me die? You were never there for me. You were too busy fucking dead boys.”

Nason says he’s been overwhelmed by the messages and that he has temporarily moved out of Chicago because he fears for his safety. In a cease-and-desist letter sent by Nason’s attorney to McCaskey, Nason denies the accusations: “Mr. Nason is not a pedophile; he conducts himself appropriately at work. Your statements are factually and demonstrably false and therefore constitute defamation per se and cast Mr. Nason in a false light.”

On September 14, Cook County Judge Callie Lynn Baird granted a 21-day emergency no-contact order against McCaskey. “Over the last four weeks, [McCaskey] has engaged in a systematic campaign using the internet to harass and stalk [Nason],” the petition for the order reads.

As part of the alleged retaliatory campaign, Nason’s attorneys say in the court petition that McCaskey allegedly used Nason’s brother’s name to post a Yelp review to tarnish the reputation of Nason and Yugen, the restaurant where he worked after leaving Acadia. “The review reads that Mr. Nason is a flirtatious manager who followed a patron to the bathroom, invited customers out for a ‘nightcap at a bar down the street,’ and gave customers his cell phone number in efforts to meet up with them later,” reads the petition. “The Yelp review links directly to CodyNason.com.”

Nason worked with Yugen management to have the post removed from Yelp. Nonetheless, he claims, the situation cost him his job. On August 14, after Nason was terminated at Yugen, CodyNason.com added a banner image reading, “mission accomplished.”

Yugen owner Michael Olszewski says that Nason’s dismissal had nothing to do with McCaskey or the campaign against Nason, and that he’s hired a former FBI agent who specializes in digital forensics to investigate who was behind the website and the Yelp review.

McCaskey, through his attorney, Roger Malavia, denied the allegations. “The allegations are categorically false in each and every single aspect. Not one allegation is true,” a portion of the statement sent to Eater reads. “Our client Ryan McCaskey is distressed and livid that a former employee, Cody Nason, has made false allegations against him in our courts. What is most troubling is that the allegations allege an attempt by our client to destroy Nason’s reputation.

“Please be aware that anyone can go into court WITHOUT NOTICE TO THE OTHER SIDE, raise their right hand and swear out any allegations towards anybody without cross-examination to start an Order of Protection proceeding,” the attorney’s statement continues.

The exterior of a restaurant.
Acadia has been dormant for two months.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times
A typed sign on paper.
A signed placed outside of Acadia earlier this month explaining the restaurant’s closure.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Daliah Saper, Nason’s attorney, says that she sent a cease-and-desist letter to McCaskey dated September 1, hoping to put an end to the matter. Later that day, she received a message via the CodyNason.com domain — also sent to McCaskey’s email address and to Nason — reading, “Bring it on bitches.”

Later that day, the emailer sent racist messages to Saper based on the mistaken assumption that she was of Indian descent, asking if she worked in tech support and how many 7-Eleven stores her family owned.

On September 15, after she provided a statement to Eater, Saper says that she and Nason received another message from the CodyNason.com domain. The message contained two photos, one of a handgun and another of an erect penis. Saper filed a police report in response on September 16.

Last week, Acadia showed its first signs of life in over a month with an official update on its status. “We’ll be back very soon, but for now, due to the pandemic’s impact, we have had to make the difficult decision to close Acadia for the next month or so,” a paper sign on the restaurant reads. “We are going to take the opportunity to regroup and concentrate on the future when the picture is hopefully clearer. We eagerly anticipate being able to open our patio and inside dining again and are excited to unveil Acadia as we move into the future!”

McCaskey’s attorney offered a more detailed accounting for its absence and a timeline on its return in a statement to Eater: “Acadia decided to temporarily freeze social media as the direction and culture of social media has sadly gone beyond promoting a business or telling light hearted stories,” he wrote. “When we do reopen we plan on telling these narratives and accomplishments through our website. After 27 years in the business, donating to and being a part of 17 different charities, Chef Ryan believes it’s really important to continue to give back and help the community as much as he can through his businesses. Once things are more certain and Chef Ryan is vindicated, Acadia plans on being back with the best food, service and atmosphere in Chicago.”

A hearing on the no-contact order is scheduled for October 5.

Acadia

1639 South Wabash Avenue, , IL 60616 (312) 360-9500 Visit Website
Chicago Restaurant Openings

Buddy Guy’s Legends and Four More Restaurant and Bar Openings

Eater Inside

RH Brings the Scene to the Suburbs With a Glassed Rooftop Restaurant

Labor

El Milagro Locks Workers Out of Tortilla Factory After They Protest Unfair Treatment

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Chicago newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world