A 36-year-old man is suing popular television chef Jeff Smith, “The Frugal Gourmet,” alleging that Smith sexually molested him and other teenage boys in the 1970s.
The suit, filed Thursday, alleges that Smith “pursued a pattern and practice of grooming high-school-age boy employees for sexual intercourse” when he ran a Tacoma food-service business.
Smith denies the allegations in a response also filed in court Thursday. He offered no public response, but his lawyer, Ed Winskill, said, “The allegations of this lawsuit are denied absolutely and categorically” and the suit should be dismissed.
Thursday’s filing is the culmination of more than a year of speculation - much of it aired on talk radio - about potential legal action against Smith. The Seattle Times had investigated claims by the man now suing and others that Smith had molested them years earlier. But the newspaper did not publish a story at that time because people making the allegations were unwilling to go on the record and could not provide sufficient corroborating material.
Thursday’s legal action puts the claims into a public forum in which their truth can be tested in court.
No criminal charges have ever been brought against Smith in relation to such allegations.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiff is referred to as “Boy A” and other alleged victims are called “Boy C” and “Boy S.C.” The plaintiff is named in Smith’s response.
The plaintiff had talked with a Times reporter previously but declined to be named or to participate in a newspaper story. The Times has a policy against naming people who may be victims of sexual assault when they request anonymity.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Mike Shaffer, said his client is suing without his name because of concern about how publicity might affect his parents, who are in ill health.
In the suit, the man claims that when he was 15 years old, he and other male students at Tacoma’s Stadium High School were assigned to work at Smith’s delicatessen and catering business as part of a career-training class. He said he was molested by Smith several times over many months and raped in a back room of the business.
The suit alleges that as a result of the attacks, the plaintiff attempted suicide and continues to suffer mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. He said he discovered last year that all these troubles were the result of Smith’s sexual abuse of him as a child. The man is married and has children.
In the court papers, Shaffer described other victims, including a couple who allegedly say Smith raped their teen son after he hitched a ride with the television personality in Tacoma in 1992.
The couple are not part of the lawsuit. Shaffer predicted they and others will come forward to file separate complaints.
Smith is an ordained Methodist minister, and his Tacoma deli was called the Chaplain’s Pantry. He no longer owns the business.
Shaffer said Smith is “a person who holds himself out as a man of God but who has a history of sexually molesting one child after another.”
Out-of-court deal claimed
The lawsuit says Smith agreed to a $3 million out-of-court settlement with two alleged victims about six years ago.
One of the men who says he took part in that settlement, Clint Smith of Eatonville, Wash., came forward with his claims against Jeff Smith in June 1995 on the controversial radio talk show hosted by Mike Siegel.
(Siegel later was fired by KVI-AM for airing unsubstantiated rumors of sexual misconduct by Seattle Mayor Norm Rice.)
Clint Smith, no relation to Jeff Smith, said he, too, worked at the Chaplain’s Pantry in the 1970s and was sexually assaulted there. He said Jeff Smith agreed to pay him and another man $3 million and had made some payments but abruptly stopped them. Clint Smith was named in papers filed with the lawsuit but is not a party in it.
The plaintiff in the suit said in an interview more than a year ago that when he heard Clint Smith on KVI, it was something he had been waiting to hear for years: confirmation he wasn’t the only person molested by Jeff Smith.
He said he called KVI immediately that day and spoke on the radio without identifying himself. He said the only other person he had talked to was a counselor at his church.
The man told The Times that the experience with Smith “has totally destroyed me.”
‘Ridiculous,’ TV chef says
In a brief interview last year, Jeff Smith said the accusations by Clint Smith and others were “ridiculous” and dismissed the whole matter as an “odd situation.”
He noted that Clint Smith had been convicted and sent to prison for stealing money from him at age 18. He indicated that Clint Smith was seeking revenge.
Clint Smith admitted the theft but has said he took the money to get back at Jeff Smith for having molested him.
Clint Smith was not available to explain his role, if any, in the lawsuit.
Winskill, the defendant’s lawyer, argued in court papers that Clint Smith is behind all the other allegations.
“Clint Smith instigated the action of the other ‘plaintiffs’ to further his own wrongful aims,” Winskill wrote.
Winskill denied that the television performer ever made an out-of-court settlement with Clint Smith.
He asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit and to require the plaintiff to pay Jeff Smith’s court costs and attorney fees “as a sanction for this false and wrongfully brought complaint.”
The lawsuit also names the television chef’s wife, Patti Smith, and two of his companies, The Frugal Gourmet Inc., and Frugal Gourmet Productions Inc. His wife is accused in the suit of knowing about his “compulsive pedophilic compulsions” since the 1970s and doing nothing about them.
In a response filed Thursday in court by her attorney, Patti Smith denies all allegations.
Jeff Smith celebrated his 58th birthday on Wednesday. His show, which mixes humor, warmth and food, is seen nationally by about 15 million public-television viewers.
Smith has published a dozen cookbooks and was the first to have two on The New York Times best-seller list at one time.
He graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 1962 and from Drew University in New Jersey in 1965. He was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 1965 and served as a chaplain and assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma from 1966 to 1972.
He operated the Chaplain’s Pantry from 1972 until 1983, when his TV program began.
Smith lives in Seattle’s Pike Place Market neighborhood.
It is unclear how the lawsuit might affect Smith professionally. His producer, in San Francisco, was not available for comment, nor was his agent. Pat Mallinson, a spokeswoman for KCTS, said the station had no comment.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.