Chef Batali investigated as #MeToo spotlight returns

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CEO of Food Bank Margarett Purvis, TV personality Ayesha Curry and chef Mario Batali pose for a selfie during Family Ice Cream Fun-dae hosted by Batali and Curry at Private Park at Hudson on Oct. 14, 2017. — AFP

NEW YORK — Celebrity chef Mario Batali is under investigation for an alleged sexual assault dating back to 2005, police said on Monday, as a report emerged of a inquiry into to a second assault accusation against him in 2004.

“I vehemently deny any allegations of sexual assault,” Batali said in a statement issued by his representative Linden Zakula. “My past behavior has been deeply inappropriate and I am sincerely remorseful for my actions.”

Batali said he was not attempting a professional comeback and added, “My only focus is finding a personal path forward where I can continue in my charitable endeavors — helping the underprivileged and those in need.”

The chef, who owns numerous restaurants, has been accused of drugging and sexually assaulting an employee at one of his restaurants in 2005, according to a report on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes program that aired on Sunday.

The New York City Police Department confirmed in an e-mail on Monday that it was investigating the 2005 allegation.

Batali is one of dozens of high-profile men who have been fired or resigned from their jobs in politics, media, entertainment and business after facing allegations of sexually harassing or assaulting women and men.

In December, after accusations by four women were reported by online food trade publication Eater New York, ABC Television Network said it had fired Batali from its cooking show, The Chew and Batali stepped away from his restaurant company.

In the 60 Minutes interview, CBS concealed the accuser’s face with shaded lighting. The woman said she was concerned that if her identity was revealed it would hurt her future job prospects in the restaurant industry.

“Who wants to be defined by their worst day in their life?” she asked.

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 is also being investigated over a claim by another woman who said he drugged and raped her a year earlier, The New York Times reported on Monday.

Citing an unidentified source, the newspaper reported that a woman told police two months ago that she had been assaulted by Batali at his Babbo restaurant in 2004.

The Times reported that the New York City Police Department would not confirm the complaint.

The police did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment regarding the matter.

While Batali denies the latest and more serious allegations of assault to CBS, 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.

“Doing this over 20 years there isn’t one place that I haven’t had this kind of an experience,” she told CBS.

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 cofounding 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 restaurateur, 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 5% 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. — Reuters/AFP