A woman who’s worked with the Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group for 11 years said that while she never felt uncomfortable around maligned celebrity chef Mario Batali, she and many people at the company were aware that he had an unsavory side. “We knew he was a pig frankly,” Elizabeth Meltz, once a director of environmental health for B&B, said at a hospitality conference in Charleston covered by the local paper’s food critic Hanna Raskin.
Batali has been accused of inappropriate touching by at least 18 women and is also under criminal investigation in New York for allegations of sexual assault. His behavior, as well as that of his business partner Joe Bastianich, allegedly fostered a “boys’ club” culture, multiple former staffers have said. Batali is now in the process of divesting from about two dozen restaurants across the country.
This week, Meltz — who started as a line cook at Del Posto and was eventually promoted to run all the B&B restaurants’ sustainability initiatives — spoke about her experience during FAB, a two-day conference in Charleston for women in the hospitality industry, according to the Post and Courier piece.
In response to an audience comment about the “burden” that Meltz carries, Meltz admitted that she’d heard about Batali’s bad behavior toward women. She also said that she “never felt unsafe” around him, adding that she even met her husband on the third-floor of the Spotted Pig, a space that’s now known to have the nickname “the rape room” because of alleged misconduct that happened there.
At the time of the Spotted Pig meeting, Batali made a comment about how Meltz looked in a dress. According to the Post Courier, Meltz was “a little bit flattered” by it — adding that the tolerance for behavior ranged from person to person:
“It was the quintessential Mario moment … that’s part of the crisis here. The allegations of assault were news to all of us. But you say, ‘Oh yeah, I did see him put his hand on that girl’s butt; she seemed to be OK with it.’”
Later, Meltz said, “We have different thresholds. Something that slips off my back might be horribly offensive to someone else.”
She now adjust the ways she asks her colleagues to stop saying inappropriate things, she said: “I was saying, ‘You can’t say that anymore,’ like I’m apologizing (because) you used to be able to say that. Now I say, ‘That’s offensive.’ ‘Please don’t say that.’”
It’s one of the few times that someone who was in leadership at B&B has spoken publicly about what people knew about Batali’s alleged inappropriate touching. Before working with sustainability at all the restaurants, Meltz worked as banquet chef and director of kitchen operations at Del Posto, according to her bio for the conference. She’s still in the B&B family, working on food safety and sustainability for Eataly.
Batali’s longtime business partner Joe Bastianich has previously admitted that he’s heard Batali “say inappropriate things,” but said he had “never heard” accusations of sexual misconduct. (Multiple staffers have contested this.)
Since allegations came out in December, Batali has stepped away from operations, and B&B has been undergoing a rebranding. The company has plans to change its name, promoted LA-based chef Nancy Silverton, and hired an outside investigations firm for sexual harassment claims. B&B will nix its financial relationship with Batali by July 1.
The Post and Courier reports that the question-and-answer session overall was about supporting women who didn’t do anything after witnessing workplace misconduct due to either misinformation or fear of losing their jobs. The audience of more than 100 also seemed to agree with Meltz’s concern that firing problem players alone is a reaction that won’t solve the problem, with worries that “blameless women are in some cases suffering because companies are being decimated in the wake of scandal,” Raskin writes.
Meltz said that she doesn’t think Batali should financially benefit from any food business, but he should still be able to “repent” and remain part of the bigger community: “We cannot keep throwing people away. That is not a way for society to work. You don’t behave that way and get to be a celebrity. But we want to cut out the cancer and not deal with what caused it.”