The partnership behind the hotel, including the developers of the $3.6 billion Wharf project, is “desperate to keep the union out of their hotel and did whatever that took, even if it meant parting ways with a star chef, even if it meant disrupting the livelihoods of dozens of workers and their families,” said Paul Schwalb, executive secretary and treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, a union of hospitality workers in the D.C. area.
One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk, said that as part of the deal to walk away from the restaurant, Tien will keep the intellectual property around Moon Rabbit, including the name and his recipes. The same source said the Moon Rabbit signage at the hotel will come down on Tuesday.
In a quote that was part of the joint statement with IHG Hotels and Resorts, Tien said, “I ultimately wanted to offer Moon Rabbit as a standalone concept and look forward to continuing to share Moon Rabbit with diners.” Tien was not available for further comment.
A representative for the hotel said management is exploring options for a new restaurant, which “will be announced in due course.” In the meantime, the hotel will provide food and beverage options to guests, said Karen Cole, spokeswoman for IHG.
Cole denied union organizing had anything to do with the closure of Moon Rabbit and Tien’s departure. “The hotel’s approach to this was in no way impacted by the union’s ongoing efforts to unionize the hotel,” Cole said in the email to The Post.
The closure comes as Tien continues to rack up accolades: He was a James Beard Award semifinalist this year for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. He is also a finalist for Chef of the Year — and Moon Rabbit is a nominee for Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year — at this year’s Rammy Awards from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.
But just as important, Moon Rabbit is Tien’s culinary exploration of his Vietnamese roots, and the restaurant’s apparent demise comes during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month — and just a couple of days after Tien hosted a night market at the Wharf featuring AAPI chefs.
Grace Young, a cookbook author and activist who has been honored for her work to promote America’s Chinatowns and fight anti-Asian violence, heard about Tien’s departure from the hotel at the Dinner on the Dock event that Tien hosted at the Wharf on Friday. The event raised money for Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, the nonprofit organization he founded with chef Tim Ma.
“As an Asian American, it was particularly appalling to see this happen during AAPI Heritage Month and on the very weekend he was putting on two such important events for the Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate movement,” Young said. “I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the timing. … I was blown over by how impressive his food is. At the top of his game, this should’ve been one of the proudest moments of his life. The cruelty is just beyond belief.”
Last month, Food & Wine readers also named Moon Rabbit one of the 10 best restaurants in the United States, right up there with the most famous names in fine dining, including Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Le Bernardin in New York City. The magazine had named him one of its best new chefs in 2018 when he was in charge of the kitchen at Himitsu in Petworth. In 2021, Esquire named Moon Rabbit one of the nation’s best new restaurants.
But the chef’s departure also comes three weeks after the majority of foodservice workers at Moon Rabbit and the hotel filed a petition on May 1 to hold a union election. Schwalb said about 80 percent of the foodservice workers there support forming a union — in hopes of better pay, affordable health care and job security. They also want a union to help hold the hotel accountable for any issues, such as the recent problems over pay and tips, which an IHG representative acknowledged in a DCist report.
One Moon Rabbit employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk, said that “there have been rumors all week, basically, that chef Kevin was getting fired and they were trying to push him out.” The employee said he saw the move as an attempt to disrupt the vote on a union, given that a number of cooks had come specifically to Moon Rabbit to work with Tien.
But the employee said staffers at the hotel and restaurant remain mostly united in their fight to unionize. Before the closing was confirmed, he said he thought only a couple might leave over Tien’s departure.
“I think this has just made us more angry,” said the worker. “I see the vast majority of us staying, for sure.”
A representative for IHG did not respond to a question over the future of its foodservice workers as the hotel restaurant shifts to a new concept. The joint statement from Tien and IHG indicated Moon Rabbit had just run its course:
“The vision behind Moon Rabbit at InterContinental Washington D.C. — The Wharf was to open new doors for diners, to educate them and to excite them, which we absolutely have accomplished. Chef Tien cooks from his soul, showcasing the recipes inspired from his grandmother, and celebrating his diverse heritage.”
“IHG Hotels & Resorts and Chef Kevin Tien will part ways as of Monday, May 22. IHG wishes Chef Tien much continued success in his future endeavors,” the statement continued.
The statement, along with Tien’s quote, were virtually interchangeable with the one that chef Kwame Onwuachi provided when he decided to leave Kith and Kin, his Afro-Caribbean restaurant that was previously in the same space at the hotel on the Wharf. Last year, Onwuachi opened his latest restaurant, Tatiana, which was recently named the best restaurant in New York by the New York Times.
Local 25 is still formulating its next moves, based on what the hotel plans to do with the workers who rely on the restaurant for a paycheck. On Monday there were people handing out leaflets outside Moon Rabbit. The union has also filed a wage theft claim with the D.C. Department of Employment Services. It provided The Post with a copy of the complaint. Several servers and bartenders provided evidence in the complaint.
“Most shifts, I work as a server,” noted an employee in the complaint. “However, I also work as a bartender one to two nights per week. My hourly server rate is $9.34 per hour and the hourly bartender rate is $21.69 per hour. For most of the time I’ve worked at Moon Rabbit, I was paid the server hourly rate, even when I bartended. When I noticed the error in March 2023, I brought it up with my managers several times. My managers made me feel like a burden for asking about it.”
Cole, the IHG spokeswoman, said the hotel is not aware of any wage violations, “but will cooperate with any agency.”
The union is calling for a boycott of the Wharf hotel and other hotels operated in the area by IHG, including the Willard InterContinental, the Kimpton George Hotel and the Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria.
The InterContinental on the Wharf is a partnership between IHG, the Carr Companies, Hoffman & Associates and Madison Marquette. The latter two groups are the master developers behind the Wharf project, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies from the D.C. government. Local 25 plans to take its case to the D.C. Council, which authorized the subsidies.
The union said it is not in the “interest of D.C. taxpayers to fund this kind of developer going forward,” Schwalb said. “I hope that Chairman [Phil] Mendelson is outraged about it. I hope that Charles Allen, who represents this district, is outraged about it.”
“If this is the disdain with which they hold their workers — many of whom are residents of the District — they should go elsewhere when they look for subsidies, not to the District,” Schwalb added about the developers of the Wharf hotel.
A representative for Mendelson (D) said the D.C. Council chairman was out of town and not available for immediate comment. The developers did not respond to requests for comment. But Mendelson’s office forwarded a letter that the chairman and seven members of the D.C. Council sent to the InterContinental Washington’s owners earlier this month.
“We unequivocally support the right of workers to organize without harassment or unnecessary delay,” the chair and council members wrote. “The InterContinental should ensure a fair and swift process for them to choose whether to form a union, free from coercion or intimidation.”
Council member Allen (D-Ward 6) also sent a statement. It read, in part: “If reports are true and Moon Rabbit is being closed by the InterContinental due to its employees’ unionization efforts, this is a massive mistake by management to shutter a business led by a chef who has helped lead the Wharf’s success and has been a dedicated and active member of the DC community. . .It is that kind of creativity that separates the District’s food scene in the region and shows why the InterContinental is making a mistake.”
In 2017, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute — which says that it “shapes racially just tax, budget and policy decisions” — issued an analysis that said, “The District of Columbia’s economic development efforts — including the enormous Wharf project — too often support creation of low-wage jobs with minimal benefits, because they do not link large public subsidies with requirements to create high-quality jobs.”
“This means that DC is failing to use its substantial economic development investments to reduce the city’s large income gaps or to ensure that benefits of DC’s growing prosperity are shared widely,” the institute added.
Local 25 was expected to take part in a hearing on Monday with representatives of the InterContinental Washington, who apparently want to push back the vote on a union. Schwalb says that workers will continue to fight for unionization.
“They are committed to seeing the union come in at the InterContinental, and they will not be bullied or dissuaded from that by any group of developers, no matter how powerful,” Schwalb said. “They will see this fight through to the end.”
After the Dinner on the Dock event on Friday, Tien assembled his staff and the event’s guest chefs, got on both knees, and bowed so reverently that he touched the dock’s planks in full sight of diners who were still departing. During a toast later in the hotel lobby among the same crowd, he said, “No matter where we are in the country, we’re always here for each other.”
On Sunday, Tien rented a U-Haul and packed it with kitchen equipment from Moon Rabbit that he had paid for out of pocket, including two electric griddles, two mixers, a prep table and a mini freezer. He also packed up personal items, including a photo of his 7-month-old son.
Reporter Emily Heil and freelance writer Richard Morgan contributed to this report.