Mario Batali and the Dark Side of Celebrity Kitchens: What His Downfall Means for Notoriously Toxic Restaurant Culture

Mario Batali, who announced Monday he will "step away" from his various ventures, is the most famous culinary name to be held accountable for his unacceptable actions behind the scenes

By Natalie Finn Dec 11, 2017 10:20 PMTags

Who else was left with a bad taste in their mouth this morning?

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali is the latest powerful man to be "stepping away" from an empire he built in light of sexual misconduct allegations, the announcement coming Monday after Eater New York published the accounts of four women who claim they were harassed by the married father of two. The accusers chose to remain anonymous.

While the nation has become understandably focused on rooting out the degrading behavior that has casually been embedded in entertainment, media, government and almost all businesses since the inception of women and men sharing the same working space, the restaurant world hadn't yet been put under quite as harsh a microscope—though some of the oldest tropes of sexual harassment start with the expletive-spouting chefs, or the waitress-pinching restaurant manager who's always propositioning the underlings.

But the #MeToo movement, as evidenced by the women who spoke out in 2017 being named Time's Person of the Year, is leaving no old-way-of-doing-things unturned.

Batali isn't the first name-brand chef to be accused of misconduct since women (and men) have started waking up to a climate that, slowly but surely, is proving more welcoming for those with stories to tell—but as a sought-after chef-to-the-stars who recently called longtime friend Gwyneth Paltrow his "favorite sous chef," he's far and away the most famous.

Hannah Thomson

A former Iron Chef America star himself, Batali's presence helped build the Food Network into what it is today; the Batali Bastianich Hospitality Group, in which he's partners with restaurateur and MasterChef alum Joe Bastianich, owns or co-owns nine restaurants in New York, as well as spots in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong and other locales; he's released numerous cookbooks and has a signature cookware line; he frequents the late-night talk circuit and has had cameos on the likes of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons; and most recently he's been a co-host on ABC's food-centric talk show The Chew.

Until today. Food Network told Fox News that they take "matters like this very seriously," and plans to relaunch the chef's hit cooking show Molto Mario, which originally ran from 1996 until 2004, are now on hold. And The Chew is down a host.

"We have asked Mario Batali to step away from The Chew while we review the allegations that have just recently come to our attention," ABC said in a statement obtained by E! News. "ABC takes matters like this very seriously as we are committed to a safe work environment. While we are unaware of any type of inappropriate behavior involving him and anyone affiliated with the show, we will swiftly address any alleged violations of our standards of conduct."

Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images

This is the first morning-show shake-up of this kind to hit ABC, which has watched NBC fire Matt Lauer and CBS fire Charlie Rose in recent weeks after both were accused of varying degrees of sexual harassment and misconduct.

In his own statement, Batali apologized to those he had "mistreated and hurt." Unlike many of the public apologies we've been privy to for the last few months, Batali at least didn't claim to not remember the incidents in question in the same way as his accusers.

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Fast Company

"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," the 57-year-old chef said. "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."

Before Batali was personally taken to task, the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group had been sued for harboring an inhospitable working environment before: According to Eater NY, B&B received an official complaint about Batali's behavior in October, which resulted in him being reprimanded and ordered to undergo training. A former pastry chef at Babbo claimed in a lawsuit filed in May that he had been subjected to anti-gay slurs while working at the restaurant and then managers conspired to fire him when he complained. In 2012, their company Pasta Resources Inc. settled a class action suit brought against them over wages and hour violations for a reported $5.25 million, with the amount to be split among staffers at eight of their restaurants.

ABC/Mark Bourdillion

ABC did almost find itself in a sticky spot when, last month, award-winning pastry chef Jimmy Iuzzini, a former judge on Bravo's Top Chef: Just Desserts and now a judge on The Great American Baking Show, was accused of potentially drug-addled sexual harassment and verbal abuse by four former employees.

The allegations originated in a report and dated back to between 2009 and 2011, toward the end of Iuzzini's nine-year run as executive pastry chef at NYC's famed Jean-Georges.

According to Mic, Iuzzini said in a statement that he was "shattered and heartbroken at the thought that any of my actions left members of my team feeling hurt or degraded" and he was "deeply sorry to those who felt hurt." He categorically denied the most serious allegations, however.

"I certainly deny the allegations, as presented to me, that I ever had a drug problem, threw an empty nitrogen canister at anyone or that I left Jean-Georges on anything other than good terms (I provided three months' notice and maintain a good relationship with chef and mentor Jean-Georges to this day). Many of the other allegations are inaccurate, others I do not recall and none were meant to hurt people," his statement continued. "Nonetheless, I must take responsibility if any of the members of my team felt uncomfortable by my words or actions, regardless of my intent or recollection. I must hear that what the women making the accusations are telling me and recognize I caused pain. I have strived to be a good mentor over the course of my career, and I now understand that I failed some people. To me, that is unacceptable."

ABC didn't provide a comment to Mic for its article. The Great American Baking Show premiered last week, intact and as scheduled.


More quietly but similar to what just happened with Batali, New Orleans-based restaurateur John Besh—a former contestant on Top Chef Masters who's appeared on numerous culinary series, as well as himself last year on NCIS: New Orleans—stepped down in October (just a few weeks after the Harvey Weinstein story roiled the Hollywood landscape) as head of the Besh Restaurant Group in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. and the Times-Picayune reported that at least 25 women had claimed to have experienced mistreatment while working at his restaurants, some of them from Besh himself.

Besh acknowledged having a consensual relationship with a member of his team two years prior and apologized for any conduct that hurt people.

"Since then I have been seeking to rebuild my marriage and come to terms with my reckless actions given the profound love I have for my wife, my boys and my Catholic faith," he said, per NBC News. "I also regret any harm this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group, and sincerely apologize to anyone past and present who has worked for me who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do."

In March 2016, Napa, Calif., restaurateur, cookbook author, vineyard owner and former Next Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Michael Chiarello was sued by two former servers at his restaurant Coqueta for creating a "hostile, sexually charged and abusive" working environment. In the lawsuit, per Eater San Francisco, the female plaintiffs accused Chiarello of making overtly sexual comments and of telling his managers, with regard to female employees, "'If you don't want to f--k them, don't hire them.'"

Chronicle Books

According to the North Bay Business Journal, Chiarello reached an undisclosed settlement with the women that fall. News of the settlement broke last November after the chef was arrested on suspicion of DUI and possession of a controlled substance. He said in a statement that he was embarrassed and had apologized to family, friends and colleagues, but that he shouldn't face charges; ultimately, no charges were filed against him.

Meanwhile, Johnny Iuzzini's statement to Mic also included his musings about the historically bad environment for women that exists in so many restaurant kitchens and throughout the business, as well as his vow to "continue to learn, continue to do better and continue to strive to be the type of chef who can lead our industry into a culture of respect through example."

And that's it right there—the fact that, while Batali is easily the most prominent person being held accountable to date, restaurant culture has been notoriously toxic for women. And the good guys know that.

While tweeting extensively last night about pal Josh Homme, who kicked a female photographer in the face from the stage at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, Anthony Bourdain also tweeted, "...and Monday, I'm afraid, isn't going to get better. No. Trust me. Monday is really going to suck."

"It's Batali. And it's bad," Bourdain tweeted this morning, to which Tom Colicchio replied, "And no one should be surprised."

Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

Immediately both celeb chefs came under fire on social media for being complicit if they, in fact, weren't surprised. Bourdain—author of the scathing restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential and more famous recently for TV work such as Anthony Bourdain: Without Borders—fired back to a tweet that quoted him being complimentary of Batali in 2015 and instructed Bourdain to spare us the "saint act."

"No saint," he replied. "And I truly felt that way [about Batali as a chef]. No denying it. But keeping secrets? No. Sorry. Didn't."

In a 2015 episode of Bourdain's PBS series The Mind of a Chef, Bourdain, sitting beside Batali, said that he looked to his fellow culinary luminary "in many ways" when it came to navigating the cook-turned-celebrity world. 

"There's no one else who has as elegantly navigated their way from..."—"sleazy line cook," Batali interjected. "To," Bourdain resumed, "cooking, chefing, making your way through many books have you written?"

"Eleven," Batali replied happily.

Courtesy Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

Colicchio redirected his critics to both Bill Buford's 2006 memoir Heat, about working as a "kitchen bitch" at Babbo, Batali's flagship NYC restaurant, and also to a Nov. 8 "open letter to (male) chefs" he penned himself.

"This isn't just a matter of a few bad eggs and ​we all know it," the Top Chef judge and Crafted Hospitality founder wrote. "For every John Besh splashed across Page Six, we can assume hundreds, if not thousands, more with kitchens just like the ones his female employees described. Something's broken here. It's time that chefs and restaurant owners candidly acknowledge the larger culture that hatched all these crummy eggs, and have some hard conversations amongst ourselves that are long overdue."

He doesn't name names, but he calls out the industry as a whole.

"My kitchen is hardly perfect," he admitted. "I've let my temper run high and driven the pressure up. I've brushed off the leering without acknowledging its underlying hostility. I once called a journalist a 'rumor-mongering b — -h' for printing gossip that hurt my staff, a gendered slur that I regret. But I count myself lucky: I had a father who wouldn't allow disrespect of my mother, and that lesson sunk in more fully during my formative years than the casual misogyny I saw everywhere else. It made it an easy choice to turn away the high-paying bachelor parties that wanted to rent out the PDR and bring in a stripper, which isn't an environment my servers signed on for. It made it a no-brainer to fire the creep of a staffer who snapped pictures of his female co-workers in their changing room without their consent. And it makes it easy for me to see that it's time for men in the restaurant industry to say to each other: enough."

Bourdain also had a back-and-forth with cookbook author and food and wine journalist Allison Robicelli, who wrote: "I'm not going to tell the stories I know bc they belong to the women where hurt. But I will say the Batali report was the top thing on my Christmas list. I've got some very festive text messages going on right now!

"So no, @Bourdain, today doesn't suck. Today is the most wonderful day of the year for those who have been hurt by Batali, and all the other men just like him. No one is untouchable. We won't be bullied into silence. We expect to be heard from now on."

He replied, "I wish that were true but in this case, I can assure you, from women talking to me with first hand stories, it's not wonderful at all."

Robicelli continued, "But to give some merit to @Bourdain and his statements—today does suck for every man, every restaurant group who built their empire on this (and worse). Because we are coming for every single last one of you motherf--kers."

"And like you," Bourdain responded, "I've been sitting on stories that were not mine to tell. And feeling sick and guilty as f--k I hadn't heard them before...And I don't disagree with anything you are saying other than that this is cause for glee for anybody."

Patrick Wymore / FOX

Meanwhile, a more modern twist in the world of food TV has also been the dramatization of the based-in-reality nasty chef. Long before he was the more mellow steward of global cuisine that he is now, Anthony Bourdain was the picture of the brash, macho chef. Gordon Ramsay built an international TV empire on being a scary, profanity-spewing tyrant in the kitchen (his show Gordon Ramsay's F-Word actually being among the least profane of his many shows) and Joe Bastianich was the MasterChef judge who would unceremoniously throw a contestant's whole plate in the trash and shame them with a stone-cold glance. Food Network fare and shows like Top Chef don't go there, but the judging—the more scathing the better—tends to be the part that viewers really feast on.

But while Hell's Kitchen is now in its 17th season, Ramsay has tempered his brash image with MasterChef Junior (Bastianich also seemed to enjoy showing his softer side on its earlier seasons), which many a fan would now say they prefer to his more fiery antics when faced solely with adult cooks. And the popularity on these shores of the deliciously sedate The Great British Baking Show, featuring the sometimes tart-tongued baker Paul Hollywood, and its American cousin, The Great American Baking Show, prove that unabashed joy and indoor voices can be more than enough for binge-worthy entertainment.

So to everything its fan base, but there's only so much abuse that audiences can stomach as well.

Like sports and home renovation, the line between the culinary and entertainment industries evaporated long ago, and there have been celebrity chefs since Julia Child first mastered the art of French cooking for the masses to enjoy.

But for a society that used to operate (and yes, still operates in many places) on the assumption that women belonged in the kitchen, the inclusion of women in the professional kitchen has always been a battle. Like other battles being fought and won all over, progress has been historically slow but, thanks to Food Network and the popularity of shows like Top Chef, female chefs are inching into the spotlight as well.

While the surge of prominent men getting fired, stepping down and taking leave has triggered a lot of hope among women who've been systematically numbed into having to operate as if their dignity and feelings do not matter, at the end of the day we'll still be left with way more non-famous people who either don't have the built-in platform that celebrities have—or, more likely, the schmuck who hurt them isn't famous, and therefore the media simply will not pay the same amount of attention.

Which is why, whatever happens to Mario Batali's standing in the celebrity-chef and restaurant world, we can't forget that there's a big old industry catering to every taste out there, from fast food to five-star dining, where this sort of behavior is happening every day.

And that's where the personalities like Tom Colicchio, Anthony Bourdain and, presuming he meant what he said, Johnny Iuzzini come into play. They know what goes on in those kitchens and back offices (even if they don't know specifics), they know what they could've done better as bosses, and they have huge followings. Managers and executive chefs should be more concerned that they're going to get fired, than should the wait staff, chefs, busboys, bartenders, hosts, dishwashers and everyone else who toil long hours, whether they're looking to own a restaurant one day or just want to earn their paychecks and go home.

"Right now, I'm just focused on ensuring that our more than 1,000 employees continue to have a safe and positive work environment," Bastianich said today in response to the Batali allegations.

As Batali himself said on The Mind of a Chef, "the food is only 50 percent of the experience." Indeed, restaurants should ideally be a place where women still want to eat after hearing the full story about how their food made it to the table.