Celebrity chef Mario Batali has long been known for the bright orange Crocs he once wore everywhere, and for celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Fallon often running alongside him. But to the employees who worked in his restaurant empire, he was known for something else.
“He would hug you or kiss you or put his arms around your waist … or touch your hips,” says Trish Nelson, a former server at the now-shuttered New York restaurant the Spotted Pig, where Batali was the lead investor. The new Discovery+ documentary, Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef, which is available now. “We used to call him the red menace.”
Nelson is one of several former employees of Batali’s restaurants who allege in the filing that the restaurateur, once behind dozens of venues, was a TV show co-host The chewing, the face of Eataly and, really, the creator of an entire food empire, had engaged in sexual misconduct over the years. They described instances in which he had said sexually suggestive things to them or become — as one of his former restaurant partners, Steve Crane, put it, “touchy-feely” — or worse.
They described a man with two distinct sides: one who was charming and philanthropic and another who went out after drinking too much. This guy, who came to the surface as the night progressed, was lewd and vulgar. Workers said they felt trapped and unheard because the restaurant industry was not equipped to deal with their reports of sexual misconduct.
Nelson, for example, recalled a night bringing drinks to Batali’s table of seven. He could only carry six drinks, so he assured the seventh person that he would be right back with his. In front of everyone, she said, Batali told her that if she sat on the man’s face, “he would come again and again.” Other women said Batali had grabbed their breasts or rears on multiple occasions.
There were also fans, like Sharelle Klaus, the co-founder of Dry Soda Co., who claimed Batali had 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 into my pants under my underwear and grabbed my ass.”
Eva DeVirgilis, a former hostess at Batali’s Babbo restaurant in New York, was publicly revealed as one of Batali’s accusers in the documentary. She told her story in an interview with 60 minutes in 2018, but her face was hidden then. NOT this time.
DeVirgilis claimed that, in 2005, she agreed to go with Batali to the Spotted Pig after her shift, expecting other people to go. But her boss ended up picking her up in a limousine and whisking her off to a candlelit banquet, where she drank wine and tanned.
“And then I have a moment, a flash, where he’s kissing me really, like, hard. And then I have another flash where I throw up in a toilet. I feel like he’s behind me,” DeVirgilis said. “And then there was nothing. And then I woke up…on a floor, wooden floor. I had no idea where I was.”
Immediately, DeVirgilis said, she thought she’d been drugged because she didn’t usually pass out sick or black while drinking. He also said he found scratches on the inside of her legs and what could have been semen on her skirt. So she went to Mount Sinai Hospital and they made her a rape kit, but she refused to go to the police because she was worried about her chances of getting a job in the industry if she told her story. He gave notice and left Babo.
Batali issued a controversial apology for past behavior in December 2017 after Eater published allegations from four women against him, but he has also denied all allegations of sexual assault. He declined to participate in the new Discovery+ documentary, and Yahoo could not be reached for comment.
But Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef explains that it was only part of the problem in an industry that has long allowed the bad behavior of many to go unchecked. Like many journalists who covered alleged sexual harassment by Batali — Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, 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 disappeared.
New York Attorney General Letitia James eventually investigated the Spotted Pig and the restaurant group Batali co-owned, where she found wrongdoing. While Batali was not charged with a crime in New York, he was charged with indecent assault and battery in Boston for grabbing and kissing Natali Tene at a local bar in 2017.
“I’ve never been touched like that,” Tenet had testified, “like squeezing between my legs, squeezing my vagina to pull me closer to him, like it’s a normal way to grab someone.”
The judge found that Tene had “significant credibility problems” because of the text messages she had sent about the meeting with Batali and because of her conduct as a juror in another case, and Batali was acquitted in May.
He has also settled several civil lawsuits related to sexual abuse in recent years.
Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef currently streaming on Discovery+.