John Besh, the New Orleans celebrity chef whose dining empire totals more than 12 restaurants throughout the South, and his business partner, Octavio Mantilla, have fostered a culture that encourages rampant sexual harassment, employees say.
According to an eight-month-long investigation by the Times-Picayune which was released today, 25 current and former employees of the Besh Restaurant Group claimed to be victims of sexual harassment while on the job. Those voices join two official complaints filed in recent months with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: In one complaint, an employee alleges “I, and other similarly situated females, were harassed, sexually harassed, and verbally assaulted almost every day,” with “un-welcomed touching and sexual advances” that were “condoned and sometimes encouraged by managers and supervisors.”
In another EEOC complaint, a former employee says she engaged in a “long-term unwelcome sexual relationship” with Besh, alleging he once “engaged in oral sex” with her during a time when she “was barely conscious.” The same complainant also says she experienced retaliation on the job when she attempted to end the relationship.
Nine women gave permission for their names to be published in the Times-Pic piece; per author/restaurant critic Brett Anderson, they and the other women who came forward “described a company where several male co-workers and bosses touched female employees without consent, made suggestive comments about their appearance and — in a few cases — tried to leverage positions of authority for sex.” Some of those experiences occurred at the Besh restaurants under the auspices of chef Alon Shaya, who’s currently in the middle of a nasty split with the Besh Group.
In a statement given to the Times-Pic, Raymond Landry, Besh Restaurant Group's general counsel, said that the group learned recently that not all employees feel an adequate system is in place to ensure they “receiv[e] the respect they deserve” on the job. A spokesperson also tells the Times-Pic that the Besh Group, which currently employs 1,200 people, has never received an internal complaint about sexual harassment.
But “now that we have learned of these concerns,” Landry continues, “we believe going forward that everyone at our company will be fully aware of the clear procedures that are now in place to safeguard against anyone feeling that his or her concerns will not be heard and addressed free from retaliation.” They note the company’s first-ever human resources director started work on October 11 of this year.
Besh, in his own statement, admits to conducting “a consensual relationship” with an employee, and called his behavior “unacceptable.” He continues: “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.”
Sexual harassment has long been known to be a problem in the restaurant industry. In 2014, a study by worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United found that 80 percent of female restaurant employees reporting experiencing on-the-job harassment from other employees; that number remained at the staggering 66 percent when applied to harassment from their managers. In the fast-food industry specifically, 40 percent of women reported experiencing “unwanted sexual behavior” at work, with 28 percent reporting “multiple incidents of harassment.”
In total, according to the 2014 ROC report, “while seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third (an eye-opening 37%) of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry.” As the report points out, many victims of harassment often do not come forward fearing loss of income, public humiliation, or retaliation in the form of being passed over for promotions; some who spoke to the Times-Pic about the Besh Group reported experiencing the latter two, or say the ongoing behavior forced them to quit.
In recent months, more women have been speaking out about on-the-job abuse. Recent sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed against high-profile chefs like Corey Lee and Julian Medina. And the news about the Besh Group comes as a wave of sexual harassment allegations become public following an expose on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein earlier this month; it will surely not be the last report in the restaurant industry.
• John Besh restaurants fostered culture of sexual harassment, 25 women say [Times-Pic]
• Statements by John Besh and his company regarding alleged sexual harassment [Times-Pic]
• I Am a Restaurant Owner. Why Aren’t My Peers As Disgusted By Sexism As I Am? [E]