It was a February day during Mardi Gras in New Orleans when Brett Anderson was approached with a tip he needed to follow up on. Anderson, a career restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune, had been informed a former employee at the prominent Besh Restaurant Group had a story to tell.
The tip would eventually lead to an eight-month investigation by Anderson and his colleagues that uncovered allegations of sexual harassment made by 25 women. Their accounts described a pervasive culture of harassment and coercion perpetrated by former hometown hero John Besh, his business partner Octavio Mantilla, and supervisors throughout the company. The fallout from The Times-Picayune’s report was swift for Besh and his namesake group — and the tremors still resonate more than a month after publication.
But the story had an even greater impact in the restaurant world, where institutionalized misogyny and imbalanced power dynamics result in high rates of sexual harassment. Anderson’s exposé proved to be the first domino, inspiring other reporters to dedicate themselves to uncovering similar stories. Now, to a degree, the industry is finally having a reckoning, as more perpetrators are outed. Since the Besh story, women have come forward to speak out about their experiences, leading to the firings of prominent chefs such as Cosmo Goss of Publican in Chicago and accusations against former Jean-Georges pastry chef and TV host Johnny Iuzzini, among others.
It takes a journalist with integrity, patience, and resources to take this kind of story and see it through to publication — all the while ensuring its accuracy and that it will hold up to the intense scrutiny of the court of public opinion. Riding on that is not only the reputation of the reporter, but also their sources, the accused, and their families. “There’s a lot of these different energies coming at you,” Anderson says of the experience. “That was new to me — where you’re just the sum between the hammer and the anvil as this story’s coming out. That was the hardest part.”
Anderson, a two-time James Beard Award-winner for his writing and reporting, isn’t a stranger when it comes to covering emotional topics. During his early days in New Orleans (he’s approaching his 17th year with the Times-Picayune), Anderson chronicled Gulf Coast restaurants in the wake of both the BP Oil Spill and Hurricane Katrina. Those assignments required many more months of work than the Besh report, Anderson says, but investigating the allegations against the Besh Restaurant Group would require a greater amount of attention and a new set of skills beyond his prior experience.
“I had never worked on a story where the establishment of trust between myself and the sources was as important and necessary as it was in this piece,” Anderson says.
What’s more remarkable is that the women who spoke to Anderson on the record did so months before the Harvey Weinstein revelations caused a rush of sexual harassment claims against prominent men across multiple industries. That makes them all the braver for sharing their experiences, Anderson says.
What Anderson compiled is also particularly impressive given the strapped resources of modern newsrooms — particularly for local media. He credits his supportive colleagues on the restaurant beat for allowing him time to pursue the project, as well as the expertise of investigations editor Manuel Torres. In his many interviews, Anderson approached each source with a willingness to listen and an appropriate amount of journalistic skepticism. Anderson acknowledges this balance was particularly delicate given the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that many of the women felt their stories had been ignored in the past. That approach eventually lead to a story that will continue to drive further change across the industry.
It’s that delicate balance — and the fear of publishing a something flawed — that Anderson says other reporters should be cautious of as they work to unmask harassment and abuse the restaurant industry. “Putting out a story that includes accusations such as the ones that the Besh story included, and then ultimately having something wrong with it, will have a chilling effect across the culture,” he says. “That’s what kept me up at night. And I encourage people who might be doing this sort of writing, that’s what should keep them up at night, too.”