James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Ken Friedman is the latest industry titan to be hit with sexual harassment accusations. The New York Times released a chilling report Tuesday detailing the accounts of 10 women who have come forward to say Friedman, among other things, groped them, texted employees for nude photos, openly asked for group sex, and let friends and visitors, including Mario Batali, harass employees at his Spotted Pig restaurant, the Michelin-starred eatery helmed by acclaimed Chef April Bloomfield.
In the wake of the article’s publication, Friedman, the 2016 James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year, announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the management of his restaurants, effective immediately. He owns five New York spots with Bloomfield, including the Spotted Pig, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, the John Dory Oyster Bar, Salvation Taco, and White Gold Butchers—as well as Tosca Cafe in San Francisco and the Hearth & Hound, which recently opened in Los Angeles.
Friedman issued a response to the accusations, saying. “My personal and professional life was intertwined with our restaurants and our staff. I own my behavior, which can accurately be described at times as abrasive, rude, and frankly wrong. The women who work at our restaurants are among the best in the business, and putting any of them in humiliating situations in unjustifiable. Some incidents were not as described, but context and content are not today’s discussion. I apologize now publicly for my actions.”
The New York Times detailed these “incidents.”
One was Natalie Saibel, a longtime server at the Spotted Pig. She said Friedman “ran his hands over her buttocks and then her groin in a room crowded with customers, joking that he was searching her pockets for a forbidden cellphone,” according to The New York Times.
The story also describes an incident involving Amy Dee Richardson, a bar manager who said, “Mr. Friedman bit her on the waist as he bent down to duck under the bar.”
Trish Nelson, a longtime server, said, “he grabbed her head and pulled it toward his crotch in front of Amy Poehler in 2007 as Ms. Nelson knelt to collect glasses from a low shelf.”
Friedman also invited Nelson to his car in 2012 to smoke marijuana and “almost immediately lunged forward and pushed his tongue into her mouth.” Nelson escaped the car and gave her notice within days.
The report said Friedman required daily kisses and touches from employees. Working for him required pulling all-night shifts at private parties that included public sex and nudity. It also said catcalls and gropes from friends of Friedman were a common occurrence.
This includes Batali, who on Monday announced he was taking is taking a leave of absence from his company and TV show following accusations of habitual sexual harassment, which surfaced in an Eater New York story. According to the publication, at least four women accused the famed chef of inappropriately touching them during his time at the helm of his company, including groping their breasts and buttocks, among other claims.
In The New York Times article, employees of the Spotted Pig said they regularly experienced or witnessed sexual aggression by Batali at the restaurant, often with Friedman condoning the behavior.
Details regarding this part of the story have surfaced in recent days, bringing an even darker overtone to the narrative. The New York Times reported that former manager Jamie Seet had to intervene after seeing Batali allegedly kissing and groping a woman who appeared to be unconscious. Nelson said employees referred to Batali as “the Red Menace,” and that he tried to touch her breasts and told her they were beautiful. He also told her to “sit on his friend’s face.” There was also an upstairs lounge at the restaurant nicknamed the “rape room.”
“Though I don’t remember these specific accounts, there is no question I have behaved terribly,” Batali wrote in an email to The New York Times. “There are no excuses. I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused.”
Employees said Friedman had “frequent consensual sexual relationships with employees; openly hired, promoted or fired people based on their physical attractiveness; was often intoxicated at work; and pressured staff members to drink and take drugs with him and guests.”
The article said Friedman intimidated employees by retaliating against those who came forward by firing them, blacklisting them, and even, in some cases, harassing them via phone, text or email. Saibel said she wrote up a formal complaint and sent it to the restaurant’s managers and Bloomfield. Along with her husband, she was fired shortly after for minor infractions, she claims.
Bloomfield’s response to these allegations, both as they were happening and since they’ve surfaced, has drawn the ire of many industry professionals. In the article, employees told The New York Times that Bloomfield, the James Beard winner for Best Chef: New York City in 2014 and a five-time nominee, often responded with this mantra: “That’s who he is. Get used to it. Or go work for someone else,” Nelson said, referencing what she heard from co-workers who tried to enlist the chef’s help.
Bloomfield initial statement went as follows:
“As partner and creative director, my energies are directed to the kitchen, food preparation, and menu development. Over the 15 years, we have employed thousands of men and women, many of whom have gone on to prominent careers in the business and others who have worked with us for more than a decade. In the two matters involving uninvited approaches that were brought to my attention over the years, I immediately referred both to our outside labor counsel and they were addressed internally. I have spoken to Ken about professional boundaries and relied on him to uphold our policies. Nonetheless I feel we have let down our employees and for that I sincerely apologize.”
This did little to quell any kickback, which led to a second statement from Bloomfield.
“I have dedicated my career to creating memorable experiences for staff and guests alike,” she said. “I have also dedicated my career to building businesses where women and all my employees, have felt respected. But I fell short, and I am filled with anger and regret that, in the past, some of my staff were subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment. I would never suggest anyone accept unprofessional treatment, and those who know me, know any such reference is insulting. I can say with confidence that I have never and will never [condone] sexual harassment in the workplace.”
She went on to write that she lectured and demanded changes of Friedman, but now recognizes that it wasn’t enough and that she “should have been even more unrelenting.”
Bloomfield also cryptically noted, “It is over. I pledge that in any workplace I am part of the employees will be judged by performance only. I pledge to show respect, always, and that under my watch no employee will endure this kind of pain again.”
What that “It is over,” means is unclear right now. Grub Street reached out to Friedman and Bloomfield’s representatives, BeccaPR, who informed the publication they have parted ways with the restaurant group.