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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Documentary argues that chef Mario Batali has escaped justice

Mario Batali on the first day of his trial in Boston in May. He was found not guilty. (Steven Senne/AP)

When “Batali: The Fall of a Superstar Chef,” was released last month, the early stories about the film focused on the explosive account of Eva DeVirgilis, a former Babbo employee who went public with her allegation that Mario Batali had sexually assaulted her after she blacked out in a private room at the Spotted Pig in Manhattan. She had told a similar story to “60 Minutes” in 2018, but her name and identity were concealed.

Yet after multiple viewings of the documentary, which is airing on Discovery Plus, I think the filmmakers are using DeVirgilis’s allegations to tell a much larger story about society nearly five years after Batali first faced sexual misconduct charges in 2017. They’re arguing that America’s legal, law enforcement and workplace systems still largely favor the powerful, despite any reckoning that the #MeToo movement promised women who, for generations, felt as if there were few rewards in standing up to abusive men.

Mario Batali found not guilty of sexual assault in Boston trial

The evidence, the film suggests, is walking among us: Batali remains a free man even after multiple accusations of sexual assault, including one in Boston, which marked the first time a chef had been taken to criminal court to face an accuser.

“The #MeToo movement has largely left the criminal justice system untouched,” Jane Manning, director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project, tells the filmmakers. “At every stage of the process, we often see a system that is stacked against the victim.”

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Many of the same women who first stood up to Batali, as well as to Ken Friedman, owner of the now-closed Spotted Pig, make an appearance in the documentary. Their stories have not changed, but the medium gives them a chance to be seen, literally and emotionally. The things they allegedly endured and the things they allegedly witnessed can still trigger an emotional response, which director Singeli Agnew captures in sometimes heartbreaking and/or enraging interviews.

Trish Nelson, a longtime server at Spotted Pig, recounts the day Amy Poehler, the comedian and actress, visited the West Village restaurant known to attract celebrities of every stripe. Nelson was on her hands and knees, gathering glassware, when Friedman allegedly pushed her face into his crotch, all with Poehler watching. The same story appeared in a New York Times story in 2017, but this time Nelson provides something extra: the emotional weight of that alleged incident.

What Friedman was communicating, Nelson says, was his power over underlings: “This is who you are. This is who [Poehler] is. You are not the same, and I control you,” Nelson says, interpreting Friedman’s actions. She starts to cry at the memory.

One recurring theme is the trail of alleged victims in Batali’s wake, both male and female. They include Arturo Sighinolfi, owner of Rocco, an old-school red sauce restaurant in Manhattan, which Batali allegedly used to build his reputation no matter what it cost the owner. Or Jamie Seet, a former general manager at the Spotted Pig, who alleges that she witnessed Batali, via a camera in the third-floor party room, assaulting a woman who appeared to be unconscious. Seet harbors guilt about not protesting more, even though she says she complained to Friedman and chef April Bloomfield.

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“I’m totally ashamed that I didn’t put my foot down. I didn’t call the cops,” Seet says. The implication is clear: Those who didn’t try to stop the alleged abuse just perpetuated it.

Some apparent patterns come into focus, too: Batali’s alleged penchant for groping women who just wanted to take a picture with him. Or women who claim that Batali sexually assaulted them while they were unconscious, an alleged routine that suggests the purported victims may have been drugged, similar to the women in the complaints against Bill Cosby.

What Agnew does best, though, is build a case, allegation by allegation, like a skilled prosecutor. The Spotted Pig employees who let things go because they feared Friedman’s power and temper (this group apparently included Bloomfield). Criminal charges that could not be brought against Batali because overworked (and possibly undertrained) detectives couldn’t find enough evidence. A settlement that fell apart when Friedman suddenly shut down the Spotted Pig, robbing 11 former employees of a share of the restaurant’s profits. A Boston judge who granted access to an accuser’s personal communications, which gave Batali’s lawyers plenty of material to paint Natali Tene as a liar and a possible gold digger. (Batali was found not guilty in the bench trial.)

The lesson, says Manning in the film, is that any woman who goes up against a powerful man must prepare for all-out war, even five years into the #MeToo movement.

The documentary ends with the usual disclaimers — that Friedman, Batali and Bloomfield would not comment or participate in the production — but it also concludes with a sentence: “As of August 2022, Mario Batali faces no other criminal charges.”

After all that has passed in the preceding hour and 15 minutes or so, the filmmakers appear to be making the case that Batali, despite losing his reputation and his empire, has not faced the true consequences of his alleged actions. Countless women, the film seems to imply, feel imprisoned by their shame or guilt or anger, while Mario Batali remains free.