Disgraced chef Batali exits restaurant empire

The Bastianich family, his partner in the business for 20 years, have set up a new company to replace the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group

Published Thu, Mar 7, 2019 · 09:50 PM

The 20-year partnership between celebrity chef Mario Batali and the Bastianich family of restaurateurs was formally dissolved on Wednesday, more than a year after several women accused Batali of sexual harassment and assault. He "will no longer profit from the restaurants in any way, shape or form," said Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who will head day-to-day operations at a new, as-yet-unnamed company created to replace the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.

The new company will operate the group's remaining 16 restaurants under a new management and financial structure. Bastianich Manuali and her brother Joe Bastianich have bought Batali's shares in all the restaurants. They declined to discuss the terms of the buyout.

Batali is also selling his shares in Eataly, the fast-growing global chain of luxury Italian supermarkets. Chris Giglio, a spokesman for that company, said: "Eataly is in the process of acquiring Batali's minority interest in Eataly USA."

Several famous chefs and restaurateurs have recently been accused of sexual harassment, but Batali is the first to surrender all his restaurants. At its peak, Batali & Bastianich had dozens of restaurants and food businesses in the United States, Italy, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Splashy restaurants like Babbo and Del Posto made celebrities of Batali and his primary partner, Bastianich. Two other partners added lustre to the operation: respected California chef Nancy Silverton and Lidia Bastianich, Bastianich's mother, the chef and owner of Felidia in Manhattan, and a beloved authority on Italian cuisine.

Silverton and Lidia Bastianich will be partners in the new company, along with Bastianich Manuali and her brother. The four will work together on corporate strategy, culture, talent development and oversight across the businesses.

In December 2017, news accounts of Batali's history of sexual aggression touched off police investigations, torpedoed his career and cast a shadow over all the restaurants he was involved in. Reservations at Del Posto, the group's luxurious Manhattan flagship, shrank as expense-account approvers shied away from his compromised reputation.

Six of the group's restaurants in Las Vegas and East Asia closed soon afterward, when the Sands casino group ended its contracts with Batali & Bastianich. Others shuttered as the process of dismantling the partnership dragged on. The group's newest restaurant, the ambitious and expensive La Sirena, in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, closed in December.

Since the scandal began, Joe Bastianich has insisted that he was unaware of Batali's sexual aggressions against women. In a statement on Tuesday, he said: "While I never saw or heard of Mario groping an employee, I heard him say inappropriate things to our employees. Though I criticised him for it from time to time, I should have done more. I neglected my responsibilities as I turned my attention away from the restaurants. People were hurt, and for this, I am deeply sorry."

But three former employees of the restaurant group who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Joe Bastianich's power in the restaurant business, said that they believed it was not possible that he was ignorant of Batali's serious misbehaviour.

Throughout the industry, they and others have said, both men were known for fostering a sexist, raucous culture that ignored misconduct by male employees and demeaned female workers. (Before the #MeToo movement, however, that kind of atmosphere was hardly unique to Batali & Bastianich.)

Batali issued a statement on Wednesday morning: "I have reached an agreement with Joe and no longer have any stake in the restaurants we built together. I wish him the best of luck in the future."

He declined requests for further comment.

Batali & Bastianich was not a holding company and had no ownership; it provided management services to all the restaurants in the group. Each restaurant was, and will remain, independently operated and financed by multiple parties.

As a result, Batali, 58, was never involved in Felidia or the Lidia's restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Silverton, 64, is involved only in the group's five California restaurants: Chi Spacca, Osteria Mozza and three variations on the Mozza theme.

At Becco, which Joe Bastianich opened in New York's theatre district in 1992 after a short career as a bond trader, his grandmother, Erminia, is an investor. (She is now 101 years old, and has recouped her initial stake.)

Although Bastianich Manuali, who will run the newly created group, has never had a public role in Batali & Bastianich, she has long managed their mum's restaurants. She also co-wrote seven of her mum's cookbooks and has been a producer on her TV series since 2006.

"I never planned to come back," she said. "But the pull of a family business can be strong."

The new agreement returns control of the restaurants to the family, who have been working together since the 1970s, when Lidia Bastianich and her husband Felice Bastianich opened their first Italian restaurants in Queens. Their children helped out from the time they were old enough to fold napkins. (Felice Bastianich died in 2010.)

Now, Bastianich Manuali, 46, will be in charge of operations across the group, a position that did not exist before. "We need to blow the dust off. These people at Del Posto's have been living under a cloud long enough."

As part of the reorganisation, Melissa Rodriguez, Del Posto's executive chef, and Jeff Katz, its long-time general manager, have become stakeholders in that restaurant, a precious reward that encourages loyalty and motivation. (Chefs Dave Pasternack at Esca in Midtown Manhattan and Andy Nusser at the three Tarry Lodge restaurants in Westchester and Connecticut already have ownership shares.)

Rodriguez was trained by her predecessor, Mark Ladner, Del Posto's original chef; she is the first woman other than Lidia Bastianich to hold that position in any of the group's New York restaurants.

Asked whether she regretted opening the family business to Batali, Lidia Bastianich, 72, would only say: "Everything was done with the best intentions."

Joe Bastianich, 50, did acknowledge regret about having spent much of the last decade away from the restaurants that he and Batali had opened together. His professional attention has shifted to Italy, where he has been a judge on nine seasons of the blockbuster cooking show MasterChef. He has vineyards in Friuli, a residence in Milan, and has appeared in Italian commercials for McDonald's and Alitalia.

In the early years of the partnership, Batali and Lidia Bastianich were the media stars, with Joe Bastianich operating behind the scenes. But he shed weight (he once tipped the scales at 90 kg) and became a runner, then marathoner and then a triathlete, which gave him confidence and opportunities for the fame that came and which took him elsewhere.

"I just wasn't around," he said. "That was a mistake."

The restaurants, most of them operating under longtime Batali & Bastianich chefs and managers, ran smoothly enough, except for some lawsuits over wages, tips and sexual harassment (not by Batali).

When Batali and Joe Bastianich met in 1993, Batali was the chef at tiny Pó in the West Village, where his loose, modern Italian dishes packed the house every night. Lidia Bastianich had introduced him to her son, who was equally passionate about Italian food, wine and late-night carousing.

In 1998, they opened Babbo, which was an immediate hit for its big-flavoured food, classic-rock playlist and energetic atmosphere. (With its Michelin star and longtime popularity, Babbo has been least affected by Batali's fall, Joe Bastianich said.)

Nearly 20 years later, the business they built together began to implode in just two days, when The New York Times and Eater published back-to-back articles in which women described a long-time pattern of sexual harassment and assaults by Batali. The most serious incidents were said to have taken place both at the group's restaurants and other places, including at The Spotted Pig in the West Village, where Batali was a regular and an investor. (Joe Bastianich is also an investor in The Spotted Pig.)

Batali said he didn't recall all the reported episodes, but quickly apologised and stepped away from restaurant operations. He was fired from The Chew, ABC's daily food-and-talk show, which was subsequently cancelled. In January, New York police officials confirmed that the department had closed three investigations into sexual assault charges against him for lack of evidence.

Batali has made no public comments on the allegations since December 2017. After a few much-criticised moments back in the public eye, he is said to be living with his family at the house they own in northern Michigan.

The new restaurant group's first venture will be The Barish, a steakhouse in the newly restored Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in Los Angeles. The restaurant's name refers to Silverton's forebears, who were cattle ranchers in Saskatchewan, Canada, at the turn of the 20th century. NYTIMES

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