The Time-lauded “Silence Breakers” movement started in September 2016 with revelations about sexual harassment and assault accusations against Hollywood uber-producer Harvey Weinstein. Although the original New York Times article containing those revelations led to a virtual avalanche of stories about other alleged (and some since confirmed) sexual predators in the film and TV industry, it’s not surprising that those revelations would lead to further accusations in other industries, as well as spotlights on former accusations. For example, we have since seen several politicians accused of sexual harassment and assault, with a renewed interest in the multiple accusations against our own president.
The world of food and restaurants is yet another industry that’s top-heavy on the male side, and now many women are stepping forward to speak out against chefs who have allegedly harassed them. Like the similar list at The A.V. Club, we will continually update this article as more allegations come to light.
So far the most famous chef who has been forced to step away from the spotlight due to sexual assault accusations is Mario Batali. Eater reported that four women allege that Batali groped them; three of them were his former employees. His own Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group first received complaints about him in October. Batali has since stepped down from his company and recently was fired as a host on daytime food-related talk show The Chew. The Food Network has canceled plans to relaunch his star-making series Molto Mario. Various retailers have stopped carrying his products, including Target, and Eataly, which Batali helped bring to the States from Italy. In March 2019, Batali’s other partners bought out his share of their former restaurant group, preventing him from profiting from any of those businesses.
In October, 25 women stepped forward in the New Orleans Times-Picayune to say that John Besh’s restaurants fostered a culture of sexual harassment, citing “uninvited touching,” “comments about physical appearance,” and “repeated requests” to discuss his sex life. He also subsequently stepped down from his restaurant group. Kevin Spacey-like, Besh has since been cut from an upcoming Top Chef episode where he served as guest judge.
Months ago, ABC pulled The Great American Baking Show after judge Johnny Iuzzini also was the subject of harassment claims. Eight employees of the well-known pastry chef have accused Iuzzini of sexually harassing and abusing them while they worked in his restaurants. The A.V. Club stated that “Reported behaviors include touching women on the backside with kitchen implements, and repeatedly sticking his tongue in a woman’s ear.”
And in late 2017, five Latina kitchen workers filed a lawsuit against the national seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s. The Boston Globe reports that the women say that “they were subjected to lewd comments and groping by male employees, including several supervisors.”
As with the accusations against Hollywood powerhouses and U.S. politicians, when stories like these continue to surface in the food industry, we will update this list accordingly.
The Spotted Pig, whose owner Ken Friedman was found guilty earlier this month of sexually harassing his female employees and “maintain[ing] a hostile workplace,” has closed. The New York Times reports that it served its last meal Sunday night. Part of the settlement required that The Spotted Pig share 20 percent of its profits over the next 10 years with 11 former employees; they will also receive a collective $240,000 cash payment, but only if the restaurant is closed outright rather than sold. Some of them are now trying to work out a deal to buy the restaurant.
With the closing of the restaurant, 78 employees lost their jobs. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said she suspected she wouldn’t receive any money from the profit-sharing arrangement. “Today, my main feeling is sadness for the people who lost their jobs, and for the end of something that was a big part of my life,” she said.
An investigation of sexual harassment charges against Ken Friedman, owner and operator of The Spotted Pig in New York City, by the New York attorney general found that Friedman was indeed guilty of all the things he was accused of—or, as a press release puts it, “the restaurant maintained a hostile workplace where numerous female employees were subjected to severe and pervasive incidents of unwanted touching and unwelcomed sexual advances by Friedman.” (There are more specific details in the full report.) And now Friedman will be punished: he has been removed from his position as manager of The Spotted Pig. He’ll also be paying out $240,000 to 11 former employees and 20% of his share of the profits from the restaurant, in which he maintains an ownership stake, for the next 10 years. This sets up a conundrum of sorts: If The Spotted Pig does well and the women receive a larger payout, that means Friedman does, too. Even when these cases are settled, no one really wins.
McDonald’s workers in Michigan have filed a class action lawsuit in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union alleging a pervasive culture of sexual harassment across its restaurants. According to the filing, McDonald’s “permits a toxic work culture from the very top,” as complaints of sexual harassment went unaddressed by management. The complaints center around a McDonald’s location near Lansing, Michigan, where a plaintiff says she was repeatedly propositioned for sex, groped, physically confined, and called sexually related obscenities on the job; the suit alleges management ignored her complaints as well as those of several other workers. Former McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was recently fired for having a consensual relationship with an employee in violation of company policy; he is not accused of sexual harassment as part of this suit.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s largest restaurant group, has been sued for sexual harassment, Eater Chicago reports. Emily Wong, a former publicist, filed suit last week against Ryan Arnold, a former LEYE divisional wine director, for sexual assault and has filed another suit against the company itself for firing her in retaliation after she reported the incident. She’s seeking excess of $50,000 in damages, plus excess of $50,000 in punitive damages.
According to Wong’s complaint, the assault occurred on November 5, 2018, in Arnold’s apartment where the two had met to discuss a media inquiry and a possible upcoming trip to New Zealand on behalf of a winemaker. There was consensual kissing, but after Wong told him she wasn’t interested in continuing, Arnold put his hands down her pants and assaulted her. Wong left the apartment, but she didn’t file a police report because, she told Eater, “as a publicist, she worried how the story would be spun and wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny.” A week later, though, after Arnold began showing what the court complaint calls “malicious intent” toward Wong, she reported the incident to HR. A week after that, LEYE placed Wong on paid leave and assigned other employees to take over her work duties.
Arnold has since left LEYE and moved to Austin, Texas, where in March he took a job with McGuire Moorman Hospitality. McGuire Moorman told Eater Austin that it was unaware of the incident when it hired Arnold and has put him on a leave of absence while it conducts its own internal investigation.
In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, Arnold’s lawyer called the allegations “absolutely untrue.” In another statement, LEYE declined to comment on the lawsuit but said, “we took every appropriate step to investigate and respond to Ms. Wong’s concerns the moment they were brought to our attention.”
The Associated Press reported that Eataly USA has bought out Mario Batali’s remaining minority interest in the company. The Italian restaurant and grocer chain has six locations in the U.S. including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Batali was charged in May on accusations he groped a woman at a Boston restaurant in 2017. Batali’s next court date is scheduled for August 30.
The highest-profile chef to be accused of sexual assault and harassment, Mario Batali, is expected to be arraigned in Boston tomorrow on charges of indecent assault and battery stemming from a March 2017 incident, NBC News reports. According to a criminal complaint, a woman alleges Batali groped and kissed her without her consent as she posed to take a selfie with him outside a restaurant.
CNN reports today that the NYPD has closed two sexual assault investigations into the accusations against Mario Batali without filing charges. Of the two investigations by the NYPD’s Special Victims Division, one was not within the statute of limitations, “and the NYPD was not able to develop probable cause in either of the two cases.” WBNG-TV in New York states that Batali “denies sexually assaulting anyone, but has admitted to what he called ‘deeply inappropriate’ behavior.” The NYPD started investigating after a May 2018 60 Minutes report that included accusations against Batali. A law enforcement official told CNN that the department doesn’t have any open cases into Batali; the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Last we wrote about Mike Isabella, the restaurant group of the Top Chef alumnus was having trouble staying afloat after allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against the D.C.-based chef. Today, The Washingtonian reports that Mike Isabella Concepts has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning the restaurant group will cease to operate and liquidate all assets on Dec. 27. Isabella told a U.S. Bankruptcy Court: “I am facing the sad realization that I no longer believe that any restaurant associated with my name can recover from the negative press that has enveloped me for nearly the entirety of 2018.” At its height, Isabella owned a dozen restaurants and, according to The Washingtonian, was a $40 million business. The paper also has a deep dive on the spectacular collapse of the Isabella empire.
Two fast-food chains are in the headlines today as McDonald’s and Del Taco are accused of improperly handling sexual harassment claims. A federal lawsuit filed yesterday against Del Taco by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states the male supervisors were allowed to harass younger female employees without discipline. The LA Times reports that even after the EEOC brought such claims to the company’s attention, Del Taco didn’t take action. In some cases, managers retaliated against the women lodging these complaints by cutting their work hours. Del Taco said in a statement that they take this matter seriously and has launched an investigation: “Based on the findings of that investigation, we will take action as appropriate. Del Taco is committed to providing a safe environment for all employees and customers, free from harassment of any kind. ”
In a separate story, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities today planned to walk off the job to demand better safeguards against sexual harassment in the workplace, Nation’s Restaurant News reports. The protest, organized by the labor group Fight For $15, demands McDonald’s institute mandatory sexual-harassment training and develop a system for filing harassment claims. In May, employees filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging widespread on-the-job sexual harassment.
The Boston Police Department is investigating claims Mario Batali groped a woman in a Boston bar last year, Eater reports. The 28-year-old woman, a former fan of the chef, claims Batali touched her breasts and buttocks and forcibly kissed her as she tried to take a photo with him. As reported earlier this week, Batali is also under investigation in New York for his role in alleged sexual abuse and harassment at The Spotted Pig.
The New York attorney general’s office on Monday issued subpoenas as part of investigation into reports of sexual harassment at The Spotted Pig restaurant. The New York Times reports the office of attorney general Barbara D. Underwood seeks records pertaining to the restaurant’s holding company, its majority owner Ken Friedman, and chef Mario Batali, who was an investor in the restaurant. Allegations of sexual coercion, harassment, and abuse at The Spotted Pig first came to national attention in December 2017.
Seemingly more bad news for Mike Isabella, who as noted in the previous update, was sued in March by a former manager for sexual harassment. Three of Isabella’s restaurants have closed in the wake of the allegations, The Washingtonian reports, and now comes word that the most ambitious of Isabella’s projects—a 41,000-square-foot food hall called Isabella Eatery in McLean, Virginia—is having trouble saving afloat. According to The Washingtonian, employee checks have bounced, staff have been laid off, and kitchens within the hall have closed or been consolidated. Isabella told the paper: “We’re not closing, it’s been a slow summer.”
The Washington Post reports that “The Nationals parted ways with Mike Isabella in the wake of news that the celebrity chef and four of his business partners were named in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed Monday by a former top manager at his company, Mike Isabella Concepts.” Isabella appeared in Top Chef season six, and season eight’s Top Chef: All Stars. The Washington baseball team is exploring options to replace Isabella’s three restaurants in the ballpark. According to The Post, “In the lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court, Chloe Caras alleges Isabella and his partners commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission. ... Isabella and his partners denied the allegations.”
A Vox analysis of sexual harassment reports filed to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year found that 11 women filed a lawsuit against an Illinois IHOP franchise, alleging escalating harassment from a general manager, two cooks, and a culture of indifference from management.
The analysis goes on to find that more than 60 workers at IHOP and Applebee’s in eight states have filed sexual harassment lawsuits since 2010. Both restaurant chains are owned by the same company, but these lawsuits were filed against individual franchisees.
“Women who worked at these restaurants described toxic work environments where female servers said they are expected to tolerate aggressive groping and sexual requests from their co-workers as part of the job,” Vox reports. “When they complained, supervisors allegedly ignored them or told them to put up with it.” These 60 women brought just a couple of the 5,000 sexual harassment suits filed to the EEOC by hotel and restaurant workers between 2005 and 2010, making the hospitality sector the industry with the highest number of such complaints, per a Center for American Progress analysis.
Just after Christmas, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell had also stepped away from his businesses after 17 women accused him of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Hallowell’s restaurant group includes Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Penrose. The Chronicle conducted a multitude of interviews with employees at all three restaurants, who described “a demoralizing work environment where his indecent propositions and abuse of his power were the norm, along with a near-constant stream of sexually explicit language.”
In light of all these recent accusations against chefs, The New York Times published an essay today titled “Scandals Keep Breaking, But Restaurateurs Have Yet To Own Up.” In it, Times restaurant critic Pete Wells declares, “if the restaurant industry is having a reckoning, it is an excruciatingly slow one,” noting that these famous chefs are usually only called out after extensive reports like the Chronicle’s about Hallowell. He added, “For the most part, chefs are acting as if the sudden willingness of women to talk about what the industry is really like for them is just a temporary condition, that it will blow over soon enough and the party will start up again,” citing Mario Batali’s bizarre inclusion of a cinnamon roll recipe at the bottom of his official apology as an indicator of how seriously the chef was taking his situation. Wells called it “one of the more bizarre non sequiturs in the history of cooking.”
Hopefully taking it more seriously: The James Beard Foundation, whose awards for excellence in U.S. cuisine, culinary media, and culinary education are considered “the Oscars of food.” Last month, as its awards committee called for this year’s nominations, the foundation advised its voters that “When considering the candidacy of a person or restaurant, bear in mind that award winners are held up as role models. If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations.”