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Celebrity chef John Besh steps down from restaurant group amid sexual harassment allegations

Celebrity chef John Besh stepped down Monday after a report detailed numerous allegations of sexual harassment at his renowned restaurants and company.

The southern Louisiana chef and TV personality left his post with the Besh Restaurant Group after more than two dozen women said they were sexually harassed while working at the company or its eateries.

The allegations, published Saturday by Nola.com/The Times-Picayune, included unwanted touching by male co-workers and bosses, suggestive comments made about women’s appearances and male managers’ attempts to leverage power for sex.

The Times-Picayune investigation also detailed two complaints filed by former employees with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged sexual discrimination and retaliation.

In one complaint, a former employee said Besh "continued to attempt to coerce [her] to submit to his sexual overtures" during a months-long “unwelcome sexual relationship” while she worked for him, according to the Times-Picayune.

In one instance, she said Besh “insisted [she] drink heavily” at a tasting during a work trip to Los Angeles in 2015. Afterward, she said, Besh came to her hotel room and "immediately started to kiss and fondle" her. She said in the complaint, obtained by the Times-Picayune, that she "was barely conscious, and easily overwhelmed by JBesh (sic), who engaged in oral sex and fell asleep" next to her.

When the woman later tried to end the relationship, some employees allegedly engaged in “retaliation,” she said in the complaint.

In a letter to Besh Restaurant Group employees obtained Monday by the Los Angeles Times, company executive Shannon White said Besh “has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family.”

White, who previously served as chief operating officer, said she had assumed the role of chief executive, effective immediately, and that the company was in the process of getting an expert to “independently investigate whether any unreported claims exist.”

Besh said in a statement released before his resignation that he “deeply hurt those I love by thoughtlessly engaging in a consensual relationship with one member of my team” two years ago. Since then, he said, he was seeking to “rebuild my marriage” and come to terms with his “reckless actions.”

“I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings,” he said in the statement. “This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father.”

Besh and his business partner, Octavio Mantilla, told the Times-Picayune that the restaurant group did not previously have a human resources department to process these kinds of claims. A company spokesman told the newspaper that its first-ever HR director came on the job on Oct. 11.

Raymond Landry, general counsel of the Besh Restaurant Group, said in a statement that the company “learned recently that a number of women in our company feel that we have not had a clear mechanism in place to allow them to voice concerns about receiving the respect they deserve on the job.”

“While we’ve had a complaint procedure in place that complies with all existing laws, we now recognize that, as a practical matter, we needed to do more than what the law requires and we have revamped our training, education and procedures accordingly,” he said in the statement.

Besh has a long and much-lauded culinary career. He won the James Beard award for Best Chef of the Southeast in 2006, and his flagship restaurant, August, has been a nominee for several James Beard awards.

Backlash against Besh has been swift.

Harrah’s New Orleans, which has had a Besh Steak restaurant inside the casino since 2003, said it was “terminating its relationship” with Besh Restaurant Group. Harrah’s emphasized that the restaurant’s employees work for Harrah’s, not Besh Restaurant Group. The company also said that none of the allegations in the report pertain to Besh Steak “to the best of our knowledge.”

Harrah’s said the restaurant will remain open under a different name that would be announced soon.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga

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