Two days after a newspaper investigation revealed allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment at the Besh Restaurant Group, chef John Besh has stepped away from the company he created.
In a letter to restaurant company staff obtained by The Advocate, company executive Shannon White announced that Besh “has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family.”
White announced in the same letter that she has assumed the role of chief executive officer.
A spokesperson for the restaurant group confirmed that the letter was accurate. He could not comment on what Besh intends to do with his ownership stake in the company, which for now is still named the Besh Restaurant Group.
The move came in response to an exposé from NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune writer Brett Anderson documenting allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment from the top down at the company.
That story, posted online Saturday, shared accounts from current or former female employees at the Besh Restaurant Group describing a culture of sexual harassment.
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The report cited two women who had filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, while a number of others said they had quit over an allegedly hostile work environment. One revelation from the story was that the company, which has some 1,200 employees and a dozen restaurants, only recently created a human resources department.
In her letter to the staff Monday, White outlined a number of steps the company is taking related to sexual harassment issues.
She said it has hired an outside expert to “independently investigate whether any unreported claims exist.” It also is creating an employee advisory committee that will “reflect the full diversity of our team members.”
The company’s sexual harassment policy and code of conduct are being revised, and a new employee assistance program is being developed to offer services including counseling and a confidential hotline for employees to report concerns, White wrote.
She also noted that a new employee training program, including “ramped-up efforts in sexual harassment training,” began last week.
“Our goal is to earn your trust and for you to know that we take all concerns seriously,” White wrote.
White started at the company as a server at the CBD Italian restaurant Domenica before moving into management roles. Her elevation to the job of CEO means the company will be led by a woman as it tries to weather the scandal over harassment claims.
The fallout had already begun by Monday. Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, which is home to the restaurant Besh Steak, said it was cutting ties with Besh. The casino plans to rename the restaurant, which remains open.
“The Harrah’s New Orleans management team takes the harassment allegations against the Besh Restaurant Group very seriously, and to the best of our knowledge none of those allegations pertain to Besh Steak,” casino manager Dan Real said in a statement.
In another move Monday, public television station WYES said it will no longer air a pair of cooking shows it produced with Besh.
“In view of the numerous serious allegations made against John Besh and the Besh Restaurant Group and Mr. Besh’s public statements, WYES will no longer air its productions featuring Mr. Besh,” station President and CEO Allan Pizzato said. “WYES would not want any viewers to think that broadcast of those programs represented condonation of actions of the type alleged.”
The chef produced two cooking shows with WYES. “John Besh’s New Orleans” is a 26-episode cooking series that first aired in 2011 and was based on the chef’s cookbook “My New Orleans.” A second series, “Chef John Besh’s Family Table,” was released in 2013. Its 26 episodes, all filmed at Besh’s home kitchen, were based on his cookbook “My Family Table,” which focused on family-style meals.
The article's publication comes at a time when sexual harassment is a leading topic in the national conversation, in particular because of revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, though scandals at Uber and Google — as well as some of President Donald Trump's comments — have also elevated the topic.
The reports documented in the NOLA.com story range from complaints of a hostile work environment to specific allegations against Besh and his business partner, Octavio Mantilla.
One of the women said she had a sexual relationship with Besh that she described as coercive.
Besh, 49, who is married and has four sons, acknowledged the relationship with the woman in a prepared statement but described it as consensual. He said that he regretted his actions.
"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.
He also denied ignoring or encouraging a culture of harassment at his company. But in statements the company conceded some missteps, including a lack of clear complaint procedures for employees.
One of the Besh group's biggest star chefs, Alon Shaya, left the company in September; he now says he was fired for speaking to a reporter about harassment allegations. The Besh group has said the split was based on other issues.
Shaya has said he hopes to buy his namesake Shaya Restaurant from his former partners. He has filed a federal trademark request for the name; the Besh group, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit seeking to protect its own use of that name.
Besh, a native of Slidell, is a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He built a name for himself early in his culinary career on the north shore. In 1999, while the chef at the now-defunct Artesia restaurant in Abita Springs, he was named one of the country’s best new chefs by Food & Wine Magazine.
In 2001 he opened Restaurant August as a high-end Central Business District dining destination. His first expansion came in 2003 with Besh Steak at Harrah's.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Besh had already bought out his original investor at Restaurant August and had formed the Besh Restaurant Group with Mantilla. As New Orleans rebuilt after the storm, the company grew rapidly and emerged as a leader in the city’s resurgent restaurant scene. Besh published cookbooks and became a familiar face on cable network food shows.
Besh Restaurant Group grew to a dozen restaurants and began expanding outside of New Orleans, with restaurants in Baltimore and Nashville, Tennessee. Another is under development in Houston.
The company has drawn wide acclaim. Its chefs and restaurants are regularly shortlisted for James Beard Foundation awards, a high honor in the industry, and they have won many of them in recent years. Along the way the group earned a reputation for developing rising culinary talent, and several of its chefs became partners in individual restaurants within the group.
Besh’s company also has a charitable arm, the John Besh Foundation, which funds culinary school scholarships for aspiring minority chefs from New Orleans and provides other grants. Recently it has been heavily involved in disaster relief, including after this season's devastating hurricanes.
The chef himself has played an active role in events for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He was the featured guest for a 2016 group tour of Israel organized by the Clarion Herald, the archdiocese’s publication, that was dubbed a "Journey of Food and Faith."
In 2016, he and his company helped launch the inaugural Olive Mass, a service held at St. Louis Cathedral and aimed at meeting the spiritual needs of people working in the hospitality industry. The second Olive Mass was celebrated on Sept. 25.
A spokesperson for the archdiocese said it has no upcoming events planned with Besh and had no comment on the latest reports about his company.
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