To the outside world, celebrity chef John Besh has maintained a squeaky-clean, family-friendly reputation over the years.
But as of Saturday, the New Orleans-based chef has been publicly accused of sexual harassment. Besh stepped down from his restaurant group after the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune published an explosive report in which 25 current and former female employees accused Besh of fostering a culture that encouraged sexual harassment. The married father of four is also accused of having a “coercive” sexual relationship with an unnamed female employee. He stepped down from his restaurant group on Monday.
“John has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family,” Shannon White, the new chief executive of the Besh Restaurant Group company, told employees in an email on Monday, according to the The New Orleans Advocate.
1. Who is John Besh?
Besh is a decorated Southern chef and former Marine who served during Desert Storm. The James Beard award-winning chef and prominent cookbook author built up an empire of 12 prominent New Orleans restaurants, including August, Besh Steak, Lüke and Willa Jean.
He was a contestant on “Top Chef Masters” and also appeared on programs like “The Next Iron Chef,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” the “Today Show” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” He also had a show based on his family-friendly cookbook: “Chef John Besh’s Family Table.”
Besh, who once partnered with Michelle Obama on a cooking event in Milan, was also known for his disaster relief work. He helped to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit and, more recently, helped affected communities after Hurricane Harvey recently hit Houston. The New York Times once described him as a man of “telegenic Southern humility and unquestioned generosity.”
But for the women who worked at Besh’s restaurants, his humble public image was entirely different from his private one.
2. The allegations against Besh
An eight-month investigation by the Times-Picayune revealed complaints that Besh conducted a months-long, “long-term unwelcome sexual relationship” with a female employee, according to a complaint the woman (who remained unnamed) filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
During a work trip, Besh reportedly “insisted (she) drink heavily” at a work event and then came into her hotel room that night. The woman said she was “was barely conscious, and easily overwhelmed by JBesh (sic), who engaged in oral sex and fell asleep.” From then on, the chef required the female employee to sleep in the same hotel room on work trips and would “coerce” her “to submit to his sexual overtures.”
The woman shared her story with Madie Robison, an employee at the Besh Restaurant Group (BRG), after her first encounter with Besh:
“I remember driving to work and she called me and sounded scared,” Robison said. “She said, ‘You’re never going to guess what happened. I slept with one of them I think. I woke up and he was in my hotel room and I don’t remember how he got there.’”
Other women who’ve filed complaints said Besh made comments about their appearance, and made uncomfortable and unwanted advances. Dominique Ranieri, a server at a BRG event space, recalled a time when Besh acted inappropriately with her in public.
“He took one of the hors d’oeuvres and shoved it in my mouth in front of everyone,” Ranieri told the Times-Picayune. “It was a complete invasion of my personal space, and he laughed about it, and all of his friends laughed about it. It was like, ‘Look at what I can do to this girl, and she can’t do anything about it.’”
3. Besh’s response to the allegations
Besh responded to the allegations on Saturday in a statement:
Two years ago, I deeply hurt those I love by thoughtlessly engaging in a consensual relationship with one member of my team. Since then I have been seeking to rebuild my marriage and come to terms with my reckless actions given the profound love I have for my wife, my boys and my Catholic faith. I also regret any harm this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group, and sincerely apologize to anyone past and present who has worked for me who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do.
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. But it should not taint our incredible team of more than 1,000 employees, nor undermine our unyielding commitment to treating everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of gender, race, age and sexual preference.
4. Besh’s negative influence on the culture of his restaurants
Besh’s actions trickled down throughout his restaurants, as woman allege they were sexually harassed by employees, like Besh’s business partner, Octavio Mantilla, and forced to work in a “bro” culture that encouraged their inappropriate behavior.
Lindsey Reynolds, a social media manager at BRG, told the Times-Picayune she was “sexually harassed, and verbally assaulted almost every day.” She said that “vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive un-welcomed touching and sexual advances were condoned and sometimes even encouraged by managers and supervisors.”
According to Robison, she experienced many instances of unwanted touching from Mantilla over her two years at the company and was forced to go to uncomfortable company events at pools, where she had to wear a swimsuit. Robison eventually resigned from the company, as she said there was no one to formally complain to at BRG.
“There was no human resources person available, only other supervisors who were either afraid of losing their jobs or saw no benefit in challenging the good old boys club,” she told the Times-Picayune. According to the paper, BRG, which oversees over 1,000 employees, hired its first director of human resources on Oct. 11.
Raymond Landry, general counsel of the Besh Restaurant Group, also issued a statement on Saturday in response to the women’s allegations:
We have learned recently that a number of women in our company feel that we have not had a clear mechanism in place to allow them to voice concerns about receiving the respect they deserve on the job.
I want to assure all of our employees that if even a single person feels this way, it is one person too many and that ends now. While we’ve had a complaint procedure in place that complies with all existing laws, we now recognize that, as a practical matter, we needed to do more than what the law requires and we have revamped our training, education and procedures accordingly.
Now that we have learned of these concerns, 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.
5. This speaks to a larger issue within the restaurant industry
The allegations against Besh show that the culture of sexual harassment extends far beyond people in the entertainment industry. Lately the spotlight has been on film executive Harvey Weinstein after dozens of women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and in some cases, sexual assault, as well as photographer Terry Richardson, who has been accused of sexual harassment and abuse for years.
Besh’s departure has opened the door for more conversations about harassment in the restaurant industry, which has long been recognized as a “boy’s club” that’s exceedingly difficult for women to break into for years.
Besh’s case shatters the image of what many people imagine to be the type of person who commits sexual harassment. He was a Southern “family man” known for his family-oriented cookbooks, television shows and extensive philanthropic work (much like Weinstein’s support for Hillary Clinton and endowment of a Gloria Steinem faculty chair at Rutgers University, which made him outwardly appear to be a feminist).
This is yet another example that demonstrates sexual harassment exists in every industry. It’s a pervasive problem that’s embodied by the likes of Southern chefs in New Orleans and Hollywood heavyweights in California alike.