Top chef Batali under police probe as #MeToo spotlight returns
by Catherine TRIOMPHE / Agence France-Presse
Allegations of sexual assault against US celebrity chef Mario Batali spotlight once again an industry known for its macho work environment as the #MeToo era claims yet another high-profile American scalp.
New York police confirmed Monday they had opened an investigation into the 57-year-old icon of Italian-American cuisine after a series of disturbing claims were broadcast on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
An anonymous employee of one of Batali’s 26 restaurants accused him of assault in 2005 at “The Spotted Pig,” a celebrity haunt in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village run by one of his friends, and in which he had invested.
The woman alleged that Batali drugged and sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious, waking up to find apparent semen on her skirt.
She said she went to a hospital, but decided not to file a police report, and her “rape kit” from the hospital was not preserved.
Jamie Seet, another “Spotted Pig” employee, said she witnessed a similar incident in 2008 on the restaurant’s security cameras and several employees intervened to prevent the assault.
“I think Mario Batali’s a monster. He has been lauded as this incredible chef and this leader. But behind the scenes he’s hurtful and he does not respect women,” Trish Nelson, a former “Spotted Pig” waitress told 60 Minutes.
“We called him the Red Menace,” she added.
Batali was previously accused of sexual misconduct and harassment last December, leading the restaurant group he co-founded, B&B Hospitality, removing him from operations, and television channel ABC axing him from his cooking show.
He denies the latest and more serious allegations of assault to CBS. But B&B Hospitality called them “chilling and deeply disturbing” and said it was negotiating Batali’s divestment from the company, the terms of which it hoped to be set by July 1.
According to Nelson, harassment is “pervasive throughout” the industry, known for its hierarchical dynamic.
– ‘Brutal, oppressive business’ –
“Doing this over 20 years there isn’t one place that I haven’t had this kind of an experience,” she told CBS.
A flood of allegations leading to the downfall of Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein last October have spawned a public reckoning with sexual misconduct, rocking industries from politics to music to restaurants to finance.
A number of chefs have been publicly accused — but none as famous as Batali.
Raised in Seattle, he apprenticed with London chef Marco Pierre White and trained in Italy before co-founding a culinary and restaurant empire that spanned New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Singapore.
The author of 11 cookbooks and the winner of a clutch of awards, he starred in cooking show “The Chew” and is known for a gregarious personality and informal style of dress consisting of shorts, socks and sandals.
One of the first chefs hit by the #MeToo movement was John Besh, a famous New Orleans restauranteur, accused last October of harassing a dozen women.
In mid-May, Washington-based celebrity chef Mike Isabella — the star of “Top Chef” who owned 11 restaurants in the capital — was sued for sexually harassing a former employee, an accusation he denied.
On the other side of the aisle campaigning against harassment in the restaurant industry, is former chef and food critic Anthony Bourdain — whose partner is Asia Argento, an Italian actress at the forefront of the #MeToo movement.
“I came out of a brutal, oppressive business that was historically unfriendly to women… I knew a lot of women, it turned out, who had stories about their experience, about people I knew, who did not feel I was the sort of person they could confide in,” said Bourdain in a January interview with The Daily Show.
It’s no secret that the restaurant industry remains male dominated. In 2017, female chefs made up less than five percent of the world’s Michelin star recipients, and only two were head chefs at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
But change might be on the horizon. Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guide, says more and more women are entering culinary schools — and it won’t be long before more women end up running kitchens. (AFP)