The famous chef Mario Batali has long been known for the bright orange Crocs he wore everywhere, and for celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Fallon, who often came by his side. But to the employees who worked inside his restaurant empire, he was known for something else.
“He would kick you or kiss you or put his arms around your waist … or touch your hips,” says Trish Nelson, a former waitress at the now-closed New York City restaurant, the Spotted Pig, where Batali was the main investor there. New documentary Discovery+, Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef, which is available now. “We called it the red menace.”
Nelson is one of several former employees of Batali’s restaurants who allege in the document that the restaurant, once behind dozens of locations, is a co-host on the television The Chew, the face of Eataly and, in fact, the creator of an entire food empire, engaged in sexual misconduct over the years. They described instances where he had said sexually suggestive things to them or they were – as one of his former restaurant partners, Steve Crane, said, “touchy feely” – or worse.
They described a man with two distinct sides: one who was pleasant and gregarious and another who came out after drinking too much. That man, who emerged as the night went on, was ugly and sleazy. Workers said they felt trapped and unheard, because the restaurant industry was unable to deal with their reports of sexual misconduct.
Nelson, for example, recalled a night when she was bringing drinks to a table of seven at Batali’s. She could only carry six drinks, so she assured the seventh person that she would come back with his own. In front of everyone, she said, Batali told her that if she sat on the man’s face, she would come “over and over again.” Other women said Batali grabbed their breasts or behinds on multiple occasions.
There were also fans, like Sharelle Klaus, co-founder of Dry Soda Co., who alleged that Batali touched them inappropriately in brief encounters.
“He asked me if I wanted a picture with him,” Klaus said. “And as they were taking the picture, he reached his hands down in my pants under my underwear and grabbed my ass.”
Eva DeVirgilis, a former hostess at Batali’s New York City restaurant Babbo, publicly revealed herself as one of Batali’s accusers in the documentary. She told her story in an interview with 60 Minutes in 2018, but his face was then obscured. Not this time.
DeVirgilis alleged that, in 2005, she agreed to go with Batali to the Watchtower after her shift, hoping that others would also go. But her boss ended up picking her up in a limo and whisking her off to a candlelit banquet, where she drank wine and blacked out.
“And then I have a moment, a flash, where he’s kissing me really well, like, hard. And then I have another flash where I’m throwing up in a toilet. I realize that he’s behind me, ” DeVirgilis said. “And then there was nothing. And then I woke up … on a floor, a hardwood floor. I had no idea where I was.”
Right away, DeVirgilis said, she thought she had been drugged, because she didn’t usually get sick or pass out while drinking. She also said that she found scratches on the inside of her legs and something that could be semen on her skirt. So she went to Mount Sinai Hospital and was raped, but refused to go to the police, because she was worried about her potential to get a job in the industry if she told her story. She gave notice and left Babbo.
Batali issued a controversial apology for past behavior in December 2017, as Eater published four women’s accusations against him, but also denied all allegations of sexual assault. He declined to be part of the new Discovery+ documentary, and Yahoo could not reach him for comment.
But Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef he explains that his was only part of the problem in an industry that has long allowed bad behavior by many. As several journalists who covered sexual misconduct alleged by Batali – Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, of the New York Timesand freelancer Irene Plagianos, who wrote about the celebrity chef for Eater – explained in the documentary that their reporting on him came about in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo Movement.
After their reports surfaced in 2017, Batali’s deals ended.
New York Attorney General Letitia James eventually investigated the Spotted Pig and the restaurant group co-owned by Batali, where she found wrongdoing. Although Batali was not charged with a crime in New York, he was charged with indecent assault and battery in Boston for grabbing and forcibly kissing Natali Tene at a local bar in 2017.
“I’ve never been touched like that before,” said Tene, “like squeezing between my legs, squeezing my penis to pull me closer to him, as if that’s a normal way to grab someone.”
The judge found that Tene had “significant credibility issues” because of text messages she sent about the encounter with Batali and because of her conduct as a juror in another case, and Batali was found not guilty in May.
He has also settled several civil lawsuits involving sexual misconduct in recent years.
Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef currently streaming on Discovery+.