The first years of the #MeToo movement were all about revelations. Since October 2017, when the New York Times published its bombshell report on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuse, women in virtually every industry have come forward with stories about men abusing their power. And while the accusations haven’t — and shouldn’t — come to an end, the tone of conversations around #MeToo has shifted toward one of reflection at how far we’ve come (or not) in the two years since the movement started.
Some of 2019’s conversations asked how much we might still not know: Books by journalists Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey lifted the veil on how the Weinstein story broke, bringing to light the significant number of roadblocks that often prevent bad actions from reaching public view. Other reflections considered the wider, societal impact of these accusations: It was the year everyone came to understand the term “cancel culture,” and the year some asked whether it was a good thing after all. Some questioned out loud whether #MeToo had become too far-reaching — like when it came to figures like former Sen. Al Franken. Others criticized the comeback narratives implicit in those questions.
In this moment, when many asked where we go from here, the bad men of the hospitality industry’s #MeToo movement made moves that seem to reflect a similar uncertainty. In March, Mario Batali officially, finally divested from the restaurant group he shared with Joe Bastianich, more than a year after stepping away from his restaurants following sexual misconduct allegations. (Batali’s payout is unknown, and the restaurant group remains in business with Bastianich, who isn’t blameless — when the accusations against Batali came out, staffers called Bastianich “sleazy” and noted he had a lot to do with creating a “boys’ club” culture at the restaurants.) And by October, people noticed when Batali’s team updated his website with a new photo and a “coming soon” banner, which a Batali representative chalked up to webmaster error.
In August, after months of silence, Ken Friedman, who was accused of a range of sexual misconduct spanning years, acknowledged that he might possibly have to leave the Spotted Pig in order for the restaurant to survive. Friedman merely thinking about leaving in order to clean up the Spotted Pig’s reputation was treated as news. It felt like the most we could hope for from the man who never even stepped away from his restaurants (the usual response to accusations of sexual misconduct).
The nagging feeling that we wouldn’t be seeing the last of men like Batali and Friedman has been present since the first accusations of wrongdoing — a feeling that looks likely to bear out, with men in other industries setting a disappointing precedent for comebacks. This year, comedian Louis C.K., who was accused of sexual misconduct by five women, launched a stand-up tour to “accelerate his comeback,” as a New York Times headline put it. Weinstein, arguably the most notorious of these men, appeared in public, at a comedy club, to apparent support from some in his industry.
The chefs and restaurateurs implicated during #MeToo certainly seem to be holding out hope for a similar arc. This year, Friedman not only continued to profit from the Spotted Pig, he also tried to start a new business: He filed for a liquor license for an antiques shop in North Fork, Long Island, with a plan to partner with Jennilee Morris and Jess Dunne of North Fork Roasting Company, a beloved local coffee shop.
Bay Area chef Charlie Hallowell opened Berkeley restaurant Western Pacific late last year after selling the restaurants that were the settings for alleged sexual harassment. At the time, Hallowell issued a public apology letter that laid out a 12-step plan to return to restaurants, including a suggestion that he sit in a dunk tank as penance. Food media derisively called it a comeback plan, and by framing it as such, may have opened the window for that to actually happen. In October 2019, NPR’s All Things Considered produced a segment on Hallowell’s desire for a “second chance.”
But if the past year made it clear that comeback attempts are inevitable, it might have also proved that success is not. Thankfully, the public — and public perception of these men — has the power to influence career trajectories. The NPR piece about Hallowell prompted backlash from people in the industry who felt that the attention paid to Hallowell held up his redemption narrative at the expense of his victims. Hospitality is, at the end of the day, about the customers, and in 2019, customers can make their opinions heard by choosing where to spend their money. It, along with the public forum of social media, can often feel like the only recourse consumers have against those in power.
Social media outcry prompted Morris and Dunne of North Fork Roasting Company to part ways with Friedman. In November, Hallowell sold Western Pacific, and although the exact reason is unclear, Zeina Razek, a former employee of Hallowell’s Boot and Shoe Service and Penrose, surmised that the accusations played a role, telling Eater SF: “Diners will ultimately vote with their dollars, and I think they’re making a pretty powerful statement that our community does not want to support those businesses with unethical and unhealthy working environments.” The lack of media coverage may have played a role here, too: No Bay Area paper covered the restaurant, positively or negatively.
Former D.C. restaurateur Mike Isabella took a different tack to reentering the industry after a sexual harassment lawsuit and the subsequent collapse of his restaurant empire: He quietly went to work for someone else far away from the setting of his downfall. News broke in late November that the onetime Top Chef star helped open Blasé Bistro and Martini Bar in Sarasota, Florida. As a consultant, he designed the menu and now regularly works at the restaurant, according to its co-owner Cynthia Breslin. While Isabella’s press presence since the allegation vacillated between defiance (blaming the press for his restaurants’ bankruptcy) and remorse (he eventually apologized for his behavior in September), he’s prioritized keeping a low profile in his attempt to rejoin the restaurant industry — his name wasn’t mentioned in any of the press leading up to the restaurant’s opening, nor does it appear on the restaurant’s website.
True returns to public view by these men are merely threats right now. And while the industry has changed to be less hospitable to the men #MeToo has toppled, the restaurant industry’s #MeToo moment isn’t over. In early November, the New York Times reported that rising star sommelier Anthony Cailan was accused of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by multiple women (Cailan has denied the accusations). More shocking than the accusations themselves — it is hard to be shocked anymore — were the reactions of Cailan’s peers in the industry; the report essentially revealed that systemic abuse persists in the sommelier community, even post #MeToo.
Perhaps the real comebacks from the bad men of the restaurant industry will come in 2020, and while anticipating them may be a waste of time, energy, and digital space, it’s also hard to look away. No one, I should hope, wants to see Mario Batali open another restaurant (or really do anything where they’d actually have to see him) ever again, but after witnessing the biggest industry figures fall like never before, it’s natural to wonder, what happens next? We can hope the answer, when it comes to the futures of these men, is “nothing,” but given the weak displays of remorse and reckoning we’ve seen thus far, I’m bracing for more disappointment.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.