Chef Mario Batali got abusive when drunk, assaulted employee at 2010 Vanity Fair party

Celebrity chef Mario Batali no longer has managerial oversight of his 26 restaurants around the world, though he remains a co-owner. PHOTO: AFP

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - The theme of the party was Magic, Martinis And Mario, and there was an awful lot of the latter two.

It was at Mario Batali's buzzy Los Angeles restaurant Osteria Mozza, the week of the Oscars in March 2010. Vanity Fair publisher Edward Menicheschi was hosting a private dinner for advertisers, and the restaurateur and chef was the main attraction.

Ms Holly Gunderson, the restaurant's special events director, was in charge of making sure the night went smoothly. It was a difficult task, she says, considering that Batali had arrived late, bleary-eyed, off-kilter in his gait, slightly slurring his words and more ruddy-faced than usual - apparently drunk.

As she escorted the chef to greet his guests, he turned to Ms Gunderson, she alleges, and "looked me up and down and he said, you know, with a twinkle in his eye, 'I want to see you naked in my hot tub back in the hotel.' "

She said a few people nearby "looked at me like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe he said that about you.' "

When he walked inside, he took selfies with guests, who were enjoying a magic act and martinis. She said she had brushed off the comment and tried to avoid him the rest of the night, but he found her later, while she was leaning over a high-top table. Batali, she alleges, walked by and grabbed her in the crotch.

He put his hand "between my legs, up and under, so his hand went on my vagina outside of my clothes. And then he moved his hand backward. So, you know, under my butt. And then continued walking."

She said that no one else seemed to notice the assault, and she was so surprised that she did nothing. A friend she had confided in the same week confirmed details of her account to The Washington Post.

Ever since he cooked his way into the rarefied ranks of celebrity chefs, Batali, 57, has cultivated a larger-than-life persona: the hedonistic master of excess who is always up for a good time. Even as he opened dozens of restaurants and racked up lucrative TV and book deals (including for two cookbooks he co-wrote with Post multiplatform editor Jim Webster), partying was always part of the job. After all, no one expects the Orange-Croc-wearing "Molto Mario" to work a crowd with the demeanor of a teetotaling accountant.

But the blurred lines between the businessman and the bon vivant might have been his downfall: After four anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct were published by the website Eater on Monday (Dec 11) morning, Batali's brand was thrown into turmoil.

ABC asked him to step back from co-hosting duties at his daytime talk show, The Chew, and he no longer has managerial oversight of his 26 restaurants around the world, though he remains a co-owner. In the wake of the allegations, the Food Network announced it is putting plans to relaunch his seminal show, Molto Mario, on hold.

In the statement to The Post, Batali said: "I apologise profoundly to the people I have mistreated and hurt. The entire day of events surrounding the party I was the personification of idiocy, a drunken and idiotic fool, with no respect for the staff at Osteria Mozza, the guests nor for the restaurant itself. That behaviour was horribly wrong, shameful and degrading and there are no excuses. I wish I could have the day back and do it right. I take full responsibility for my deplorable actions and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or anguish I caused."

In a statement responding to the Eater allegations on Monday, he seemed to acknowledge that, for him, the boundary between work and play became fuzzy.

"We built these restaurants so that our guests could have fun and indulge, but I took that too far in my own behaviour," he said.

Magic, Martinis And Mario has been a theme of Batali parties, including some that were fundraisers for his foundation, for many years. At the Vanity Fair party in March 2010, Batali had apparently started drinking hours before it started. Early in the afternoon, Vanity Fair's merchandising assistant at the time, Ben Peryer, was tasked with going to the Sunset Marquis hotel to drop off cookbooks for Batali to inscribe as gifts for the guests.

When he arrived, he says, he found Batali poolside, apparently intoxicated - he "consumed multiple drinks" in the 30 minutes Peryer spent with him - and uninterested in signing any cookbooks. Mr Peryer says the chef asked him if he wanted a mojito, and he demurred.

Again, he says, Batali pressured him, and he again declined. And then, he says, the chef issued what seemed like an ultimatum, albeit a funny one: "He very forcefully screams, 'Drink or die!' "

The young staffer realised he was not going to get his books signed unless he followed the command, so he ordered a mojito and had a few sips, before leaving the books, still unsigned, by Batali's pool chair.

Ms Melanie Altarescu, then the associated director of integrated marketing for Vanity Fair, and a supervisor recounted that Mr Peryer told them his story.

Later, Ms Altarescu was waiting for Batali to arrive. She was in charge of organising transportation for the VIPs that night and was poised to greet the celebrity chef when his car finally pulled up. Batali "basically somersaulted out of the car," said Ms Altarescu. "He just clearly was a disaster. But having a great time."

At the end of the night, Ms Altarescu had the job of wrangling him into his car, and when he did, she says, he called out to her: "You're gonna get in the car, and we're gonna make out." When she declined, she says, he grabbed her sleeve from the window and said, "You're making a big mistake. You should get in the car and we should make out." His grip was not hard enough to hurt her arm, she says, and she broke away. She told colleagues about the experience, and Mr Peryer and the supervisor confirmed her account to The Post.

"It was super leery," Ms Altarescu said. "It was not like a joke. It was gnarly, and he seemed super-serious about it."

Neither of the Vanity Fair employees complained formally about Batali's behavior, but they say they did tell the supervisor. "There was no formal complaint, and this is the first we're hearing about it," a spokesman for Vanity Fair said to The Post.

Ms Gunderson also did not complain ("If there had been an HR department, I was not aware of it") and left the job a few weeks later because she was offered a better position at another restaurant. A spokesman for B&B Hospitality Group, the parent company of Mozza and the other restaurants Batali co-owns with Joe Bastianich, said the company at the time had an HR director and a "strong sexual harassment policy then in place for reporting complaints".

In a statement to The Post, the company also said: "These accounts are appalling. Mr Batali is no longer involved in operations, and he has agreed to stay away from the restaurants. The company is reinforcing for our employees that everyone deserves respect and a workplace free of discrimination and harassment. In light of these reports, we are continuing to assess our practices to make sure we have the best policies in place to offer our employees that environment."

In addition to the people involved in the Vanity Fair party, The Post spoke to two former restaurant employees who allege that Batali made inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact with them.

"I apologise to the people I have mistreated and hurt," Batali said in a statement to The Post about each of the allegations.

"Though I don't remember this specific account, there is no question I have behaved terribly. There are no excuses. I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused."

One woman who worked for Batali in the late 1990s and early 2000s said one incident occurred in his New York restaurant Babbo, when the chef approached her from behind.

"As he walked by me, he grabbed my ass hard, squeezed, and kept (walking) and didn't say anything," said the woman, who worked then for Batali in a management role and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the restaurant industry and fears reprisal.

She confronted Batali about it later, she said, and he brushed her off. "He said, 'What are you, a lesbian?' " the woman recalled.

A second incident happened when she was in a confined space with Batali and needed him to move so she could use the restroom. When she asked him to allow her to get by, he stayed put. "He said something to the effect of, 'If you want to get out, you have to go over me,' " she said. She wound up having to climb over her boss, an awkward maneuver that required her to straddle his lap, she said.

She told her sister shortly after each incident, and her sister confirmed the woman's description of the incidents to The Post.

Batali's fame and his clout within the restaurant industry may explain why the women didn't speak out earlier about his alleged behavior. Freelance food writer Andrea Strong recalled writing a feature story in Time Out New York in the early 2000s that Batali perceived to be a slight to him.

"He called me on my cell, and he was in a rage," she said. "He was yelling and cursing at me. He said, 'I am waging a jihad against you - you will never eat in my restaurants. I am going to take you down.' "

Her then-editor recalled that Strong told her about the call shortly after she said it happened and described it similarly to The Post.

The call left her shaken, Strong said, though Batali never followed through on his threats. "I remember being very intimidated at the time," she said. "I remember how afraid I was, thinking, 'What does this mean for my career?' He's a very powerful guy."

To Batali, employees weren't just people on his payroll. According to several former workers, they were the drinking buddies he expected to pal around with the boss.

"Being willing and able to drink and hang was an unofficial job description," said the woman who alleged that Batali groped her at Babbo.

Because he lives in New York, Batali did not spend much time at Mozza, Ms Gunderson said, but when he did, employees were expected to stay after hours for drinks. Her manager "basically said, 'When Mario Batali comes to town, it would look bad if the managers didn't hang out with him and drink with him.' "

A shift drink, or after-work cocktail, is commonplace at many restaurants, and employees fraternise at their own bars after closing. But Batali is known for excess.

In Bill Buford's Heat, a look inside the restaurant Babbo, a friend of the author's reflected on going out with the chef."This guy knows no middle ground," the friend told Buford. "It's just excess on a level I've never known before - it's food and drink, food and drink, food and drink, until you feel you're on drugs."

In addition to his own restaurants, Batali liked to party at the Spotted Pig, a West Village restaurant in which he has an ownership stake. A Tuesday report in the New York Times detailed allegations against restaurant co-owner Ken Friedman and included accounts of Batali's hard-partying nights there. One manager told the Times she saw, on a security camera, Batali grope and kiss a woman who appeared to be unconscious.

Another woman, who worked at the Spotted Pig in 2004, told The Post she was working late one night when Batali rolled in with the DJ/musician Fatboy Slim, also an investor in the restaurant, for drinks. (Slim's representative did not respond to a request for comment.) The woman's then-roommate confirmed to The Post that the woman told her about the incident as soon as she got home."He said, 'Have one of your boys go get us cigarettes.' He meant a food runner," said the woman, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because she feared career repercussions. When the runner fetched the cigarettes, she presented them to him. She says Batali "looked at me, and smiled, and dropped the cigarettes" - deliberately, she believes. She bent over to pick them up."He grabbed my underwear," which was a thong, "and pulled straight up. . . . I stood up really quickly and I laughed nervously."

She turned to Friedman, who told The Post through a representative that he did not recall the incident. "I said, 'Ken, Mario's sexually harassing me!' " Friedman's response, she said: "Get in f-ing line."

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