Celebrity chef Mario Batali is the latest man in power to face sexual misconduct allegations: according to a report from Eater, at least four women have accused the chef of “inappropriate touching”—behavior that has spanned at least two decades.
Eater reports that an official complaint—the first—against Batali was lodged in October 2017 with Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, the company that Batali owns in part with Joe Bastianich and others. The allegations lodged against Batali stretch back to the beginning of his career, and include a wide range of sexual misconduct, from inappropriate comments and sexual innuendoes to physically grabbing the breasts of his female employees.
According to one of Batali’s victims, much of his alleged abuse took place at Pó, a restaurant in the West Village in New York. Steve Crane, who co-owned the restaurant with Batali, was told by many women staffers during his tenure there that Batali had been inappropriate with them, “snapping bra straps” and the like. One server described in truly uncomfortable detail how Batali treated her while under his employ.
The former server alleges that on multiple occasions Batali grabbed her from behind “like a linebacker, like a disgusting bear hug,” and pressed her body against his. In hours of interviews with Eater, she described nearly two years of inappropriate behavior. The grabbing would often occur while they were alone in a cramped passageway between the dining room and the kitchen, she alleged. “He would breathe on me—and sometimes take a deep inhale, like he was smelling me,” she recalled.
When Crane asked Batali to stop, Batali would become more aggressive, the server alleged; some female staff eventually started asking Crane to not confront Batali with their complaints, she added. (Crane confirmed that after some women would complain, they would ask him not to confront Batali because he would only be more aggressive toward them.)
Even more astonishing is this: when Lee McGrath started at Pó after Batali left, Crane reportedly told him “Don’t even think about messing with the waitresses—they’ve been through hell with Mario.” That an employer would have to warn a new superior to not “mess” with their staff seems insane, but Crane was likely accounting for the deeply-embedded culture of casual harassment that permeates the hospitality industry. Removed from that world, the details of Batali’s alleged misconduct are disgusting—the actions of a man who, like many others before him, are well aware that the power balance tips in their favor. Unfortunately, for anyone who’s ever worked in the hospitality industry, Batali’s alleged actions and general inappropriateness are familiar.
Eater briefly alludes to the “bawdy” restaurant culture of the ’90s not as a means of explaining away why a grown man would grab an employee’s breasts unbidden, but as context for why this kind of behavior flourished for so long. Servers and other hospitality staff are often working mostly for tips, placing them in a vulnerable position where they must stay on the good side of whomever is scheduling the shifts in order to continue to make money and keep their jobs. According to a report from CBS News, the power employers hold over their employees’ livelihoods in this industry is direct:
In a 2011 lawsuit against a Maryland yacht club, Victoria Tillbery reported that a boss had told her she would “never have to worry about your shifts” if she let him perform oral sex on her. She refused, and after she reported her allegations to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her job started making her do her prep duties during shifts and not before them. That took her away from waiting tables and earning tips.
Similarly, some restaurants purport to sell not just food but also an experience, employing servers who either fit a certain look or act a certain way, paving the way for a culture of looks-based discrimination and sexual harassment. Getting a drink at a fancy cocktail bar with a cutesy, Prohibition-era name, $17 cocktails, and a mixed nut bar snack that costs more than a pound of dry roasted almonds at Whole Foods is certainly an “experience,” but is it any less of an experience if the servers are dressed for comfort and practicality, and hired because they’re competent, efficient employees? Is the food better or the cocktails more delicious if they’re served by a woman wearing a flapper dress and jazz shoes?
As far as celebrity chefs go, Batali is one of the most well-known—a veteran of the Food Network in its infancy, the chef behind restaurants like Babbo, Otto, and Del Posto, and most recently, part of the group that responsible for Eataly, a massive Italian food hall with locations in five cities in the United States. A brush with Batali could be immensely beneficial to someone’s career, and repercussions from speaking out against him equally damaging. Being a chef is exalted much like being, say, a movie producer or a funny man or a director is. Male creativity, genius or mediocre, is often rewarded with praise that is often not commensurate with its actual quality.
Like chef John Besh before him, Batali is going through the motions of a repentant sexual predator. He has stepped down from The Chew, the TV show he co-hosts on ABC; he has also stepped away from the day to day operations of B&B Hospitality Group and has trotted out an apology that accepts responsibility—more humble than Louis C.K.’s, but still lackluster. One could argue that there is no apology that’s really appropriate for this kind of behavior—that the apology is really nothing more than a balm for the predator, another box ticked on the “Sexual Predator Redemption” checklist. With that new set of standards in mind, this apology is standard.
Batali’s statement in full:
“I apologize to the people I have mistreated and hurt. Although the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted. That behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused to my peers, employees, customers, friends and family.
“I have work to do to try to regain the trust of those I have hurt and disappointed. For this reason, I am going to step away from day-to-day operations of my businesses. We built these restaurants so that our guests could have fun and indulge, but I took that too far in my own behavior. I won’t make that mistake again. I want any place I am associated with to feel comfortable and safe for the people who work or dine there.
“I know my actions have disappointed many people. The successes I have enjoyed are owned by everyone on my team. The failures are mine alone. To the people who have been at my side during this time — my family, my partners, my employees, my friends, my fans — I am grateful for your support and hopeful that I can regain your respect and trust. I will spend the next period of time trying to do that.”