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Acclaimed Dallas Chef Faces Criticism After Claims of Cultural Appropriation, Abusive Comments Surface

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Mot Hai Ba chef-owner Peja Krstic took to Instagram to apologize for a series of text messages, but his critics say that didn’t go far enough

A dish from chef Peja Krstic’s Mot Hai Ba
Mot Hai Ba/Facebook

Mot Hai Ba chef-owner Peja Krstic has issued a lengthy video apology in response to allegations of verbally abusive behavior, racist comments, and cultural appropriation that started surfacing last week.

The incident that inspired Krstic’s apology kicked off when Tiffany Tran, the owner of Sneakerbaby Macarons and a self-described regular at Mot Hai Ba, pointed out that “banh mi,” the popular Vietnamese sandwich, was misspelled in a since-corrected post on Mot Hai Ba’s Instagram account on June 16. When reached for comment, Tran says that she thought that the person running the social media account would make the correction without acknowledging her comment, but what came next was a slew of text messages from Krstic accusing Tran of “racially profiling” him and “kicking him in the guts” with her post.

In the text messages, which were provided to Eater, Krstic tells Tran that her public call-out on Instagram was “wrong.” Tran also claims that Krstic used the restaurant’s reservation system to obtain her phone number, after which he sent her several text messages. “I feel like shit and I feel very hurt and insulted,” Krstic wrote in the messages. “I would expect a little more understanding but I guess I was wrong. I feel very insulted and racially profiled by y’all. Not cool.”

Tran also says that Krstic called and texted her boyfriend, who was also friendly with Krstic and a regular at the restaurant, and told him that “his girl had gone too far.” After exchanging a series of text messages between herself and Krstic, Tran says that Krstic banned her from coming back to Mot Hai Ba.

“I was hoping that the next day he would cool down and apologize. Maybe he had a rough night and took it out on me. I gave him five days to reach out to me and apologize, and the whole five days I was miserable just sitting on it,” Tran says. “I find it weird that as soon as one person tells their story, all these other stories come out, Tran says. “I got phone calls with people telling me their own story.”

Following this exchange with Tran, Krstic took to Instagram with a video apologizing for the text conversation with Tran, though that conversation had not been made public on social media. Krstic, who is Serbian, acknowledged that he misspelled banh mi, but blamed the “escalation” of the situation on being busy from opening the new Victory Park location of Mot Hai Ba. “I apologize for not reading everything,” Krstic said. “I know I need to eat some crap right now, because I deserve it. I based my conclusion off of something in the first paragraph, which is so wrong.”

After seeing the video, Tran says that she felt that the apology came off as disingenuous. “It’s an eight-minute video, but it’s not an eight-minute apology. It’s a one-and-a-half minute apology with six-and-a-half minutes of self-promotion,” she says. “It really disappointed me that he called it an apology when he didn’t address threatening to sue me, or calling my boyfriend. He never acknowledged doing anything wrong other than being too busy to read my whole text message.”

Following Krstic’s video, Tran issued her own public statement via Instagram. Read it in full below:

View this post on Instagram

Re: peja011’s apology video

A post shared by Tiffany Tran (@nerdy_drinker) on

The incident hit a boiling point on Tuesday, when Sandwich Hag chef Reyna Duong called Krstic out by name, both for his interactions with Tran and criticisms of cultural appropriation. “There is a larger conversation that needs to be had about what Dallas collectively has praised over the years, this includes Dallas media,” Duong wrote on Instagram. “I hope Peja doesn’t threaten to sue me, call me a racist, find my cell phone number to harass me, tell me my career will be ruined, or calls me an “Asian piece of shit” like he has with other Asian folks that has spoken up.”

Chef Donny Sirisavath, who operates Khao Noodle Shop in East Dallas, also alleged on social media that Krstic was verbally abusive toward him earlier this year in an incident at a Dallas bar in February. “It all started because he was trying to poach one of my employees, and I approached him and asked him to not go behind my back and poach my employees,” Sirisavath tells Eater. “He said he didn’t know anything about it, and started verbally abusing me and trying to fight me. He was threatening to kick my ass, telling me I wasn’t anybody in the industry and had no right to be a chef.”

According to Sirisavath, the incident escalated in the parking lot of the bar, which is when he says Krstic called him an “Asian piece of shit.” “I was outside, my wife was in the car, and Peja comes out and starts attacking me and getting up in my face,” Sirisavath says. “I got a little irate, and the bartenders had to literally drag him inside. I’m not the person to have conflict, so I just laughed it off. But when this happened with Tiffany, I knew I couldn’t just sit here and be quiet about it. It was eating me inside. I’m not glad the situation happened, but I’m glad I got to tell my side of the story.”

Read Sirisavath’s statement on Instagram in full below:

Krstic has operated Mot Hai Ba since 2015. He started there as the restaurant’s executive chef, and eventually purchased the Lakewood eatery from original owners Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare in 2016. In his time at Mot Hai Bai, the chef’s cooking has earned both media acclaim and visits from high-profile celebrities like Kanye West.

Krstic has not commented on Sirisavath’s allegations, and did not respond to a request for comment from Eater.

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