The CEO of a Culinary School Is Missing. Students Are Now on the Hook for Thousands Paid in Tuition.
Editor’s note: Click here for Entrepreneur's full coverage of PlantLab.
Celebrity chef Matthew Kenney is lauded worldwide for his accomplishments in the vegan food scene. The plant-based food entrepreneur operates 24 restaurants in cities worldwide, from New York City to Al Janabiyah, Bahrain. He’s the author of 13 cookbooks, the developer of online plant-based cooking courses all over the world and the recipient of two James Beard Award nominations.
But Kenney is no stranger to financial trouble -- he’s faced liens and lawsuits in a host of states, including New York, California, Florida, Oklahoma and Maine.
Now, it seems that Kenney’s financial and legal troubles extend to his inner circle. His former colleague Adam Zucker -- now CEO of PlantLab, a collection of culinary schools around the world formerly owned by Kenney -- is missing. No one from the company knows where he is or when he’ll be back, though no reports of a missing person have been filed under that name in 2018, according to the New York Police Department. The most pressing matter: Zucker controls the company’s finances with complete autonomy and, it seems, no oversight whatsoever.
On Wednesday morning, PlantLab’s admissions team sent an email to customers alerting them to Zucker’s absence -- and the cancellation of their upcoming courses, some of which cost up to $6,000.
“It is our regret to inform you that all courses at all locations are canceled until further notice,” the company stated in the email, which was reviewed by Entrepreneur. “The entire team of PlantLab has been unable to contact the CEO, Adam Zucker, since Tuesday, August 21st, 2018 at 11:15 a.m. PST. Adam Zucker is the sole owner of PlantLab and the only person solely responsible for all finances and location payments. Due to these factors, we are unable to continue holding classes.”
One student-to-be in New York, who asked to remain anonymous, paid upwards of $4,500 for upcoming courses in Barcelona and Bali. “I’m disappointed to find out this way, and I hope that I can get my money back,” she said.
Calls and emails on Wednesday to PlantLab and Zucker himself went unanswered. In Zucker’s case, his mobile voicemail was full and could not accept new messages.
In an interview with Entrepreneur, Kenney said he licensed his intellectual property to Zucker via PlantLab more than a year ago. “We have zero involvement,” he said of the company. “I have no clue where he is.”
Matthew Kenney Cuisine said in a statement to Entrepreneur that the company had not been involved with the academy since its sale other than through a licensing agreement that PlantLab has now defaulted on. “We are also facing losses due to PlantLab’s issues and are exploring all of our options at this time,” the company said. “When we have a full understanding of the situation, we will take appropriate action. However, at this time, we have even less knowledge about this situation than the students whose classes are being cancelled and others who are affected by this.”
On Wednesday, PlantLab’s website showed no mention of the company’s turmoil, but clicking “sign up” for a Kenney-branded online course resulted in a 404 error -- page “not found.” The company’s social media accounts made no mention of Zucker’s disappearance at time of writing.
This isn’t the first time culinary students connected to one of Kenney’s current or former businesses have been caught in the crossfire of financial and legal troubles.
In June 2017, Kenney sold assets of Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy -- part of his wide-ranging plant-based empire -- to his former COO and interim CEO, Zucker, who then transferred the culinary schools into a new company with a new name: PlantLab. During the sudden transition, students who had pre-paid up to $5,500 in tuition were notified that their upcoming course had been canceled. It affected about 30 students who were all refunded eventually, Kenney said in an interview with Entrepreneur.
About six months earlier, the future outlook for Kenney and his business was a little different.
In December 2016, a since-deleted Forbes article -- now only available on Matthew Kenney’s website -- ran with the headline: “Meet the Man Building a Billion-Dollar Plant-Based Empire.” In the article, Zucker and Kenney claimed the brand’s restaurant and hospitality businesses would generate $15 million in revenue over the next 12 months, and Kenney said he expected to bring in $100 million in revenue by 2021. At that point, his culinary academy had graduated close to 6,000 students, Kenney told Entrepreneur.
Post-transition to Zucker, PlantLab scrubbed Kenney’s name from the website except for a list of online cooking courses developed by the celebrity chef. In fact, in the “leadership team” section of the new company’s website, only one individual is listed: CEO Adam Zucker. Even there, he’s shrouded in mystery with only one phrase serving as a bio: “From: New York.”