At the end of October, celebrity chef Mario Batali participated in a video with the magazine Fast Company on fighting sexual harassment. “You need a complete workplace free of fear that harbors an excellent feeling of the potential for collaboration and creativity,” he said.
Monday morning, Batali stepped away from his restaurant empire after the website Eater published a story about allegations of his own sexual misconduct. The story details the accounts of four women, three of whom had worked for him, all of whom asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation. They reveal a pattern of groping, sexual innuendo, and other inappropriate and aggressive behavior over the course of several decades. According to one account, Batali began rubbing a woman’s breasts after she spilled wine down her shirt at a party; another alleges that, in multiple incidents, he grabbed an employee from behind and held her to him. “Batali was reprimanded for inappropriate behavior in the workplace as recently as two months ago,” the Eater story says.
Batali was also asked to step down as cohost of ABC’S “The Chew,” and Food Network has “put on hold” plans to relaunch “Molto Mario,” the show that made him famous, according to Variety.
Batali did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment Monday morning. “I apologize to the people I have mistreated and hurt,” he said in a statement. “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.” (This is hardly the first time Batali has been involved in controversy. For instance, in 2011, a gay pastry chef who had been fired from New York’s Babbo filed a discrimination suit against Batali and partner Joseph Bastianich. And in 2012, a suit against the partners alleging tip-skimming led to a $5.25 million settlement.)
Reactions ranged from measured to heartbroken to elated. Batali is best known for New York restaurants like Del Posto, which received four stars from The New York Times when it was reviewed in 2010. He also has many local ties and is behind several Boston businesses: Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca opened in the Seaport in 2015, and in November of last year, Italian megamarket Eataly debuted in Back Bay, including restaurants such as Terra and Il Pesce.
For the latter, Eataly collaborated with Boston chef Barbara Lynch. Lynch did not return a phone call Monday morning, but later e-mailed a statement: “As I’ve expressed many times before, this is an especially tough industry for women to excel in,” she said. “I have never reported directly to Mario, and have not experienced the behavior described by the media. The allegations as described are horrifying, unacceptable and inexcusable. I commend the women who’ve had the courage to come forward; their brave voices will bring change to the restaurant industry. I’m glad to see that Mario has accepted responsibility for his actions.”
Batali is a minority shareholder in Eataly USA. Reached by phone, Eataly chef de cuisine Daniel Bazzinotti declined to comment, but Eataly released an official statement saying that sexual harassment is unacceptable. “The allegations that surfaced this morning concerning Mario Batali’s behavior toward women were extremely troubling to us. We fully support Mr. Batali’s decision to step away from any active involvement with Eataly,” the statement said.
Away from the world of carefully prepared corporate statements, however, emotions ran high.
Sunday night, food-world celebrity Anthony Bourdain tweeted, “No. Trust me. Monday is really gonna suck.” Monday morning he followed up with the message: “It’s Batali. And it’s bad.” Bourdain’s girlfriend, the actress Asia Argento, is among the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of assault.
Bourdain declined to speak by phone but sent a text message. “I’m still in the rage, sorrow, nausea retrospection stage and this is clearly a developing story. I’ve been out of the biz and mostly out of the country for the past 17 years and really have no direct information and nothing to add beyond self serving emotional reaction,” he wrote.
“Top Chef” host and chef Tom Colicchio replied to Bourdain’s tweet Monday with one of his own: “And no one should be surprised.”
Some were, however. “He was always a very gracious boss for me and I appreciated working for him. I’m in shock,” said Caroline Conrad, who worked for Batali for eight years and was general manager at Boston’s Babbo. (She now works for a wine-importing company.) “Coming from someone who was in upper management, working for Mario and as a woman, he was always good to me. He provided me with lots of opportunities. In no way were lines crossed with me.”
Within New York restaurant-industry circles, many seemed aware of Batali’s reputation. “Women called him ‘The Red Menace,’” cookbook author Alison Roman said via Twitter.
As Colicchio implies, Batali’s alleged behavior was something of an open secret — and, if true, those around him allowed it to continue for years. “I feel fantastic about this because we all know this [expletive] is happening,” said chef and food writer Allison Robicelli. “Why is XYZ still getting stars and reviews, and meanwhile everyone knows about this? . . . We keep giving space to these very, very bad men, and they know they can get away with it. They know we all know. And they know they’re so powerful no one will ever call them out or do anything about it and everyone will still love them no matter what. That’s why this is a huge, huge thing for us today.”
Recent investigations have revealed a persistent culture of sexual harassment and abuse within the restaurant industry, but the Batali story is something different, Robicelli said: He represents power, and exposing him exposes the tip of an iceberg. “Batali and certain men of his caliber are the ones who are leading the culture. They’re untouchable. They know they will continue to get hotel deals, investments, all of these great things on the backs of other people.
“Those major groups that have the millions of dollars — tens of millions, hundreds of millions — that have the hedge-fund daddies, the lawyers, you know you’ll never be able to go up against them on an $8-an-hour salary. [But now] we’ve got you. We’re mobilizing against you. If Batali can go down, you can’t do this anymore.”Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.