John Besh joined the ranks of Fox News, Uber, and The Weinstein Company this week. Until recently Besh was best known as the humble southern chef who made friendly guest appearances on Top Chef and rode into the floodwaters of Katrina with a “gun and a bag beans” to feed the people of New Orleans. Besh spent the year after Katrina feeding law enforcement, government workers, and even oil riggers as a caterer. After the disaster, Besh and his business partner Octavio Mantilla went to work and turned their two New Orleans restaurants into a 12 restaurant empire.
Now, it seems that empire is crumbling. According to an eight-month investigation, 25 women have come forward to accuse the Besh Restaurant Group (BRG) of sexual misconduct and harassment by Besh, Mantilla, and a slew of office, kitchen, and restaurant staff. Some of them have even filed a lawsuit against Besh’s company, claiming damages for the harassment they endured.
NOLA.com reported that several of the women they spoke to had similar stories of unwanted touching and sexual advances from the male staff. The culture of harassment was so ingrained that female coworkers warned incoming female staff “to beware of ‘handsy’ male supervisors.” The filing against BRG cites that the office and restaurants were an environment where “vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive un-welcomed touching and sexual advances were condoned and sometimes even encouraged by managers and supervisors.”
Overall, that’s bad enough to get one’s blood boiling. But it continues all the way up the BRG food chain.
Lindsey Reynolds is one of two women to file complaints after leaving her post as the company’s social media manager after only six months. She claims in the filing that several women quit due to an environment of sexual misconduct around them, but also that Besh and Mantilla were part of that sexual harassment. A story from the filing claims Besh forced a female underling to “drink to excess” then demanded that the two share a hotel room where he coerced her into sex. Besh maintains that the relationship was mutual.
Mantilla — who claims complete ignorance to any misdeeds committed by BRG to NOLA.com — has been accused of excessively touching Madie Robison, who worked for two years as a graphic designer at BRG. “After being immersed in the culture of the company, I realize my morals and values do not align with the daily practices [of BRG],” Robison explained in her resignation letter. Robison reported to NOLA.com that working at BRG was “a tableau of dysfunction” with daily sexualization and even pool parties where the female staff was expected to wear bikinis. When Robison was asked why she waited so long to inform on Mantilla, she simply replied, “I didn’t want to embarrass him. He was my boss.”
Besh released a statement that was vague about his sexual relationship with employees. In it, he stated, “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.” Besh went to cite his failing marriage for his reckless actions and then lamented about the harm “this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group.”
In a separate statement, BRG spokesmen Raymond Landry confirmed that the group has learned of the complaints against the company and is working to resolve the issue. To help combat this issue the company has hired an HR person for the first time in its 12 year history, a position they just filed on October 11th — yes, only two weeks ago. Landry’s statement on the sexual harassment and misconduct reads, “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.”
Overall, the 25 women interviewed by NOLA.com had the same story of harassment and what they called “bro-culture.” They were in unison in claiming that this came from the top. “They had hit on basically every woman in the office who was young and pretty,” Lindsey Reynolds reported when referring to Besh and Mantilla. “It was like ‘Mad Men.'” The NOLA.com investigative piece goes far deeper into the details of the work-life these women had to endure — far too many details to list here.
This isn’t without precedent either. According to a 2016 report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (a service industry advocacy group), 37 percent of all complaints filed with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the commission that ensures federal non-discrimination laws are met) stem from the restaurant industry. The culture of male entitlement in the restaurant industry is so severe ‘kitchen bros’ has become an industry-wide term.
This is an ongoing investigation and case, so allegations are just allegations at this point. Still, the piles of evidence looks bad for Besh and BRG with companies and partners already abandoning ship. Both Besh and Mantilla made denials about the allegations to NOLA.com in the interview. Mantilla even defended his reputation by asserting, “I think people know me pretty well.”
Well, Anthony Bourdain has something to say about that.
This morning, NOLA.com broke that John Besh has stepped down from his company. His staff was emailed this morning. The email read, “John has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family.” Surely, this is only the beginning for BRG’s dismantling and, hopefully, this will help shed some light on the darker corners of the restaurant industry.