Batali under investigation as #MeToo spotlight returns

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New York (AFP)

The #MeToo movement has made its way into the kitchen once again -- as fresh accusations against celebrity chef Mario Batali put the spotlight once more on an industry known for its macho work environment.

The New York Police Department confirmed Monday it had opened an investigation into allegations against the icon of Italian-American cuisine, broadcast Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes."

An anonymous employee of one of Batali's 26 restaurants accused him of assault in 2005 at "The Spotted Pig" in New York's Greenwich Village, a celebrity hotspot run by one of his friends, and in which he had invested.

The woman alleged that Batalil drugged her and sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious -- saying she found what appeared to be semen on her skirt when she woke up.

She said she went to a hospital, but decided not to file a police report, and her "rape kit" from the hospital was not preserved.

Another employee at "The Spotted Pig," Jamie Seet, recalled than in 2008, she witnessed a similar incident on the restaurant's security cameras and several employees intervened to prevent the attack.

Batali, 57, was previously accused in December of sexual assault and harassment -- allegations that led to the restaurant group he co-founded, B&B Hospitality, removing him from operations, and television channel ABC taking him off his cooking show.

But the latest allegations, which he denied to CBS, are even more serious -- with B&B Hospitality calling them "chilling and deeply disturbing."

The group also announced it was negotiating Batali's divestment from the company, the terms of which it hoped to be set by July 1.

According to a former waitress at one of Batali's establishments, harassment is "pervasive throughout" the industry, known for its hierarchical dynamic.

"Doing this over 20 years there isn't one place that I haven't had this kind of an experience," she told CBS.

Since the flood of allegations against disgraced Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, the issue has surfaced in several industries.

A number of chefs have been the subject of allegations -- but none as famous as Batali.

Co-owner of a score of restaurants, star of cooking show "The Chew" and author of several cookery books, he is known for his gregarious personality and informal style of dress consisting of shorts, socks and sandals.

- 'Brutal, oppressive business' -

One of the first chefs embroiled in scandal was John Besh, a famous New Orelans restauranteur, accused last October of harassing a dozen women.

In mid-May, Washington-based celebrity chef Mike Isabella -- the star of "Top Chef" who owned 11 restaurants in the capital -- was sued for sexually harassing a former employee, an accusation he denied.

Among those pushing against harassment in the restaurant industry, meanwhile, is former chef and food critic Anthony Bourdain -- whose partner is Asia Argento, an Italian actress at the forefront of the #MeToo movement.

"I came out of a brutal, oppressive business that was historically unfriendly to women ... I knew a lot of women, it turned out, who had stories about their experience, about people I knew, who did not feel I was the sort of person they could confide in," said Bourdain in a January interview with The Daily Show.

It's no secret that the restaurant industry remains a masculine affair. In 2017, female chefs represented less than five percent of the world's Michelin star recipients, and only two made it to the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

But change might be on the horizon. Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guide, says more and more women are entering culinary schools -- and it won't be long before they enter professional kitchens.