Natali Tene was at dinner in Boston when she spotted chef Mario Batali sitting at the bar. She whipped out her phone to take a surreptitious picture of the superstar chef and restaurateur, but he noticed, and beckoned her over to the bar with a wave of the hand.
In court on Monday, Tene testified that she walked up to Batali with an apology, promising to delete the picture. Instead, he suggested they lean in for a selfie together. Tene says she obliged, but realized what was happening when he kept asking her to take another picture while moving his hand down her body. “At a certain point, I was like… there’s no ‘good photo’ here. This is not about photos. This is him touching me, grabbing me and saying, ‘One more, one more.’ But his hand is… on my vagina now. So it was kind of like, this is not ‘one more,’” Tene said in court. “This is something else. This has escalated past a selfie.”
Batali was found not guilty today for indecent assault and battery in the alleged incident on April 1, 2017. It’s a swift conclusion to a two-day trial, in which Batali faced up to two-and-a-half years in jail and registration as a sex offender if found guilty.
Luckily for him, Batali’s lawyers successfully argued that the incident never happened and that Tene was an uncredible plaintiff, largely because she had seemingly joked about the assault in text messages and suggested she could win money by taking Batali to court. Having waived his right to a trial by jury, the verdict came down to Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton, who affirmed in his decision that Tene’s story had holes.
But it’s an anticlimactic break in Batali’s broader tale of toxic machismo, arrogance and entitlement — and it does nothing to negate the stream of stories from victims who describe the same kind of disturbing behavior happening over many years, in many venues. As Eater’s 2017 investigation into Batali uncovered, there is a long trail of people who say they have been groped, humiliated, harassed and creeped out by Batali since he opened his debut restaurant, Pó, in 1993.
Perhaps most sickening of all is the sheer number of people who knew it was happening but didn’t do anything about it, either because they were powerless or wanted to ignore the implications. In 2022, we already know the truth: Numerous women say they were targeted and assaulted by Batali, and a single not-guilty verdict does nothing to wipe away the rot that allowed him to nearly get away with it.
The 2017 revelations came from eight women, whose stories unveiled a pattern of predatory behavior. There’s the tale of the chef who excitedly greeted Batali at an industry gathering in New Orleans, only to recoil in horror as he rubbed his hands on her breasts after she spilled some wine on herself, pretending to “help.” Two other women who worked in Batali’s kitchens for multiple years recall being groped, held and taunted into touching him during work hours. Another former employee recalled checking in on a drunk Batali at a party, only for him to turn and aggressively grope her chest (“Oh, come on,” she remembered him saying when she recoiled backward at his touch).
A different woman, a special events director for one of Batali’s restaurants, recalled to the Washington Post how he told her in 2010 that he wanted to see her “naked in my hot tub” and then, later, grabbed her between the legs while she was bending over — all during a public event.
The somber, graying figure sitting in the courtroom is a far cry from the personality Batali once used to portray — larger-than-life, bombastic in energy, witty with words and naturally magnetic, both in person and on-screen. Beyond his preternatural skill at interpreting regional Italian cuisines, it’s Batali’s personality that propelled him onto TV and made him one of America’s most recognizable food gods. He preened and flexed on shows like Molto Mario, flirting with guests while orating about Italian dishes with Shakespearean flair. At the same time, his restaurant empire grew ever-bigger in the 2000s, putting him in an unprecedented position of power.
Amid a dismayingly large tapestry of sexual misconduct and exploitation cases in the restaurant industry, nothing stands out quite like Batali’s fall from grace. It was a problem that built up for years, and even he cannot deny what he did. “I apologize to the people I have mistreated and hurt. 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,” he told Eater in light of the allegations in 2017. “That behavior was wrong and there are no excuses.”
He knew he had power, and wielded it with specificity. Multiple stories about Batali’s misconduct includes people who express that he could be professional and respectful at work; Batali helped elevate female cooks to leadership positions, mentored young talent and generally fawned over the people he liked. But there’s a reason why so many in the industry were angered by the allegations, but not surprised — Batali was known to push his boundaries with women in his orbit.
This was obvious even back in 2006, when New Yorker writer Bill Buford released Heat, his tale about working in Batali’s kitchen and growing close to the chef. In one now-infamous anecdote, Buford details how Batali eyeballed a server at one of his trattorias and made an advance: “It’s not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over,” Batali said. “For dessert, would you take off your blouse for the others?”
It’s one of a number of uncomfortable, sexually charged moments involving Batali in the book, which uses these anecdotes to frame Batali as endlessly horny but good-natured. And, in the context of 1990s kitchen culture, it makes sense that so many would try to turn a blind eye. It’s a world that, as depicted in Anthony Bourdain’s seminal tell-all Kitchen Confidential, runs on cocaine and tawdry pantry hookups, with women forced to prove their toughness in the face of men looking to harass them out of the kitchen. Drunken, boorish behavior from ne’er-do-wells was, at least to many male chefs, just part of the reality of running a kitchen — akin to bad behavior from rock stars who trash hotels and run with groupies.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, many have said that Batali thrived in this bawdy context, pushing his limits and turning on people who dared get in his way. This explains why so many hesitated to go public with accusations against Batali, fearing he would use his influence to block people’s career paths. “This wasn’t just some dirty jokes. This was mean. This was about asserting power,” one former server told Eater.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to stomach how complicit people in Batali’s life were. That certainly includes business partner Joe Bastianich, who was forced to pay $600,000 with Batali in a settlement over sexual misconduct. It also involves former Pó co-owner Steve Crane, who admitted to hearing multiple allegations about Batali but didn’t act on them because they were business partners. It includes Buford, who said in a 2020 interview that he has “avoided talking about” Batali’s behavior but that “it’s all there” in Heat.
Even the late Bourdain, a longtime friend and collaborator, couldn’t help but reflect after denouncing Batali. “To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse,” he wrote in an essay.
Is Batali remorseful, or just riding out the course of the controversy, hoping to fade away? It’s hard to imagine any meaningful role for him in the food world after all this, especially given that his mea culpa has been limited to a series of media statements and one bizarre email apology that came with, of all things, a recipe for cinnamon rolls.
But what we do know is that sexual misconduct in the kitchen is far from being solved — such is the nature of insidious abuse that thrives in spaces with power hierarchies and egotistical men. He may be “not guilty” in this one instance. Nonetheless, we know what he did — and why we should’ve seen it coming.