Celebrity chef John Besh has allowed a culture of sexual harassment to fester at his restaurants, according to more than two dozen current and former female employees of the Besh Restaurant Group who told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that they personally had been subjected to harassment.
In a lengthy article, the website reported that at least two women who said they had been victimized 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. In all, 25 current and former employees complained of abusive behavior.
One of the women told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that she had a sexual relationship with Besh that she described as coercive. In the EEOC complaint described in the article, the woman — who is not named in the piece and declined to be interviewed — said she had accompanied Besh on a work trip to Los Angeles in 2015, and she said Besh had encouraged her to drink heavily at an event there. Afterward, she said, he came to her hotel room and engaged in oral sex with the woman, who described herself as “barely conscious” at the time.
The split between chefs Alon Shaya and John Besh has moved from the dining room to the courthouse.
Besh, 49, who is married, acknowledged the relationship with the woman in an interview with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune but denied it was coercive. He said in a statement that he regretted his actions and said he was trying to repair his marriage.
He also denied turning a blind eye to — or even encouraging — a culture of harassment at his company, which includes a dozen restaurants in New Orleans; Baltimore; and Nashville, Tennessee. Besh Restaurant Group employs about 1,200 people, according to the article.
But the company conceded some missteps, including a lack of clear complaint procedures for aggrieved employees. The Besh Restaurant Group only recently created a human resources department; according to the article, its first director started on the job last week.
In a prepared statement sent to the Advocate in response to the report, Besh said: "Two years ago, I deeply hurt those I love by thoughtlessly engaging in a consensual relationship with one member of my team. 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. 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.
"I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings. This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father. But it should not taint our incredible team of more than 1,000 employees, nor undermine our unyielding commitment to treating everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of gender, race, age and sexual preference."
The NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune piece described Besh as far from the only aggressor at the company. Several women also complained to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that they had been groped by Besh’s business partner, Octavio Mantilla, who denied those claims.
The two top executives set the tone for the company, several women interviewed by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune said. Various other male supervisors also engaged in harassing behavior, they said.
One woman quoted in the article compared the corporate culture at Besh Restaurant Group to "Mad Men," the television show that depicted the rampant sexism of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Several women used the term "bro culture" to describe the workplace.
Besh countered that the company has a large number of female managers and has made an effort to promote women into positions of authority. Roughly 60 of 140 managers in the company are women, Besh told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
One of the company's restaurants, the Central Business District bakery and cafe Willa Jean, is led by a female chef, who is also a partner in the restaurant.
The article's publication comes at a time when sexual harassment is a main topic in the national conversation. A flurry of revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's predations has largely sparked the discussion, though scandals at Uber and Google — as well as some of President Donald Trump's comments — also have played a key role.
The restaurant industry has long been seen as a hotbed of sexism and harassment. In 2014, a report from the employee advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found widespread sexual harassment issues in the industry. According to the report, some 37 percent of sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC originated in the restaurant industry, which employs just 7 percent of American women.
"The highly sexualized environment in which restaurant workers labor impacts every major workplace relationship, with restaurant workers reporting high levels of harassing behaviors from restaurant management (66 percent), co-workers (80 percent) and customers (78 percent)," according to the center's report.
The article also lands amid an increasingly bitter public dispute between Besh and one of his former chefs/partners, Alon Shaya, that is partly related to the sexual harassment imbroglio. Shaya, who ran the Shaya Restaurant, Domenica and Pizza Domenica, split with the Besh Restaurant Group last month.
Shaya apparently spoke with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reporter and restaurant critic Brett Anderson some time before the split, and he expressed concerns over the Besh Restaurant Group's corporate culture. Shaya told Anderson he felt he was dismissed for speaking up, but Besh Restaurant Group officials said the split had much deeper roots.
Meanwhile, some of the women interviewed in the NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune article said the restaurants overseen by Shaya were not immune from the sexist culture that pervaded the rest of the company's restaurants.
Shaya has since formed his own culinary company, Pomegranate Hospitality, and has hired away a former top chef and manager from the restaurant Shaya. The chef said he hopes to buy the restaurant and run it himself. But on Friday, attorneys for Shaya Restaurant filed a lawsuit in federal court against its namesake chef, seeking a judgment to protect the trademark Shaya for use by the Besh Restaurant Group.