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Mario Batali apologizes for sexual misconduct, steps away from his restaurant empire

Mario Batali apologizes for sexual misconduct, steps away from his restaurant empire
Chef Mario Batali, shown in 2006, said he will step away from the day-to-day operations of his businesses after allegations of sexual misconduct. (Tina Fineberg / Associated Press)

Celebrity chef Mario Batali stepped away from the day-to-day operations of his culinary empire and from the ABC show "The Chew" on Monday, as allegations emerged that he committed sexual misconduct spanning at least two decades.

In the investigation by food website Eater, four women — three of whom have worked for Batali — said he touched them inappropriately.

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Batali did not deny the allegations, saying in a statement that "although the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted."

"That behavior was wrong and there are no excuses," he said. "I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused to my peers, employees, customers, friends and family."

The revelation had immediate consequences for Batali's television career, but it's unclear whether his other ventures will be affected. His brand spans dozens of restaurants in six U.S. states and Singapore, and his name is attached to several culinary products, such as a line of pasta, sauces, oil, vinegar and slow-cured meats. Batali, the author of 13 cookbooks, has a strong presence in Los Angeles, including his Mozza restaurants and the Eataly marketplace that opened at the Westfield Century City mall last month.

According to Eater, a woman who worked for Batali in the late 1990s said he came up behind her in the dining room, "put his hand on half of my butt and he squeezed it." Another former Batali employee said he repeatedly grabbed her from behind and held her tight against his body. Another former worker said he grabbed her breasts during an industry party a few years after she stopped working for him. One woman who never worked for Batali said the chef rubbed her breasts at a party about 10 years ago after someone spilled wine down her shirt.

Eater did not publish the women's names.

Reaction by TV executives was swift. Batali has co-hosted the ABC daytime cooking and talk show "The Chew" since it launched in 2011; on Monday, the network said that it asked him to step away from the show while it reviews the allegations against him. During his absence, it will not air reruns that feature him.

Food Network said it was putting plans to relaunch Batali's show "Molto Mario" on hold.

Eataly USA — which counts Batali as a minority shareholder — called the allegations about the chef's behavior toward women "extremely troubling" and said it fully supported his decision to step away from active involvement with Eataly. In addition to its Los Angeles store, the company has locations in New York, Chicago and Boston.

Nancy Silverton, who co-owns several restaurants with Batali and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, said the chef visited the team at their Mozza location in Los Angeles only once or twice a year.

"We've never had a complaint against Mario," she said. "When he had dinner with his friends in the private dining room, there was always a lot of air guitar but nothing more than that."

Silverton — co-owner of Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, Newport Beach and Singapore, and Mozza2Go and Chi Spacca in Los Angeles — said she agreed with Batali's decision to remove himself from operations at all the restaurants, noting that he did not deny the allegations.

"But it is sad for the industry," she said. "He was a mentor to all. He taught so many of us how to cook and how to eat."

Silverton runs the restaurants under the distant supervision of Batali and Bastianich. She said she sets the tone at Mozza.

"When I go in today to talk to the staff, I'm going to tell them that we will remain a harassment-free zone, that nothing will change," she said.

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Seattle-raised Batali revolutionized the idea of Italian fine dining in America, taking it from its proprietor-driven status quo to a place where the chef's vision reigned supreme, wines were likely to come from ambitious young winemakers, offal was as common as veal chops, and the dining room echoed with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley cranked up to 10.

Early in his career, he cooked for notoriously difficult chef Marco Pierre White in London. He first came to prominence at Po, a small trattoria in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood. He gained mainstream recognition with the 1997 debut of his TV show "Molto Mario" on Food Network. A year later, he and Bastianich opened the New York restaurant Babbo.

Batali and Bastianich would end up opening 30 businesses together, including several popular restaurants in Las Vegas.

In 2002, Batali was recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as the best chef in New York City.

B&B Hospitality Group, which provides back-office and operational services to 24 restaurants owned by Batali, Bastianich and others, said Monday that it took the allegations "very seriously."

The company said it has had systematic policies and training about sexual harassment for more than 10 years, and that all members of management, including Batali, have participated in that training.

A company spokesman said B&B received one complaint in October from an employee at one of the restaurants, reporting inappropriate behavior by Batali. The company investigated the report, reprimanded Batali and required him to get additional training from outside legal counsel, which the spokesman said Batali did.

The spokesman also said Batali volunteered not to visit the restaurant listed in the complaint. He declined to identify the restaurant or describe the inappropriate behavior.

Chef Mary Sue Milliken, of Border Grill restaurant and Food Network's "Too Hot Tamales" fame, said the restaurant industry has been "rife with edgy, bad behavior for a long time."

In October, celebrity chef and New Orleans restaurateur John Besh stepped down from his company after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual harassment.

"I'm thrilled that this is becoming something that is going to have to get looked at more closely," Milliken said.

Milliken, who said she has known Batali for "ages," said business at the Mozza restaurants and Eataly probably would not experience much fallout.

"I think that really depends on the culture that he's created [at those businesses], and what I've seen of it, it's really strong and really positive," she said. "But it's a dark day for us. It's sad. I didn't expect to have this cloud hanging over me, and to be sick to my stomach."

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Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with comment from Mary Sue Milliken, more information about Mario Batali's career and additional details.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from Nancy Silverton and Eataly USA.

10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Batali's culinary products, restaurants and cookbooks.

9:20 a.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes from Batali's statement, clarification of one of the women's allegations and details of a complaint about Batali's behavior received by B&B Hospitality Group in October.

This article was originally published at 7:50 a.m.

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