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New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh steps down after sexual harassment allegations

Michelle Obama participates in a cooking demonstration with cook John Besh in Milan in 2015. (Antonio Calanni/AP)

Celebrity chef John Besh became a symbol of the rebirth of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina leveled the city. Now he faces a storm of his own. On Monday, Besh stepped down from the restaurant group he founded and co-owns after more than two dozen women alleged his company fostered a culture of sexual abuse.

“John has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family,” Shannon White, the woman who is stepping in as chief executive, said in an email to staff members, the Associated Press reported.

Twenty-five women told the New Orleans Times-Picayune they were victims of sexual harassment while working for the New Orleans-based Besh Restaurant Group, which includes 12 restaurants across two states and employs about 1,200 people. In most instances, they said both male co-workers and superiors often touched female employees without consent. Some superiors allegedly attempted to leverage their position for sex.

One of Besh’s restaurants was in the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, but it closed in September. The casino said in a statement that “none of the harassment allegations involve the Horseshoe-managed Johnny Sánchez restaurant,” the Baltimore Sun reported.

Lindsey Reynolds, who worked as the company’s social media manager, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which said, “vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive un-welcomed touching and sexual advances were condoned and sometimes even encouraged by managers and supervisors” throughout the Besh Restaurant Group.

An unidentified woman also filed a separate complaint with the EEOC, this one aimed specifically at Besh, 49, with whom she claimed she had a months-long sexual relationship she described as coercive. When the relationship ended, he also “continued to attempt to coerce (her) to submit to his sexual overtures.”

In the complaint, she described an incident during a summer work trip to Los Angeles in 2015. She wrote that Besh “insisted (she) drink heavily” and later came to her hotel room and “immediately started to kiss and fondle” her. She “was barely conscious, and easily overwhelmed by JBesh (sic), who engaged in oral sex and fell asleep,” according to the complaint, which was obtained by the Times-Picayune.

Besh is married with four sons, and his wife, Jenifer, was often profiled along with him in major publications.

Besh addressed his “moral failings” in a statement: “Two years ago, I deeply hurt those I love by thoughtlessly engaging in a consensual relationship with one member of my team. Since then I have been seeking to rebuild my marriage and come to terms with my reckless actions given the profound love I have for my wife, my boys and my Catholic faith.”

But he denied allegations and knowledge of sexual abuse.

“I have to deal with the fact that I was not the best human being that I could be, that I had made mistakes, but even with the worst that I had ever been, I have never sexually harassed or tolerated such,” he told the Times-Picayune. “I’ve had my issues in my life. But I’ve never tolerated that sort of behavior.”

Many of these women reportedly felt there was no one to whom they could report the alleged abuse. Although the Besh Restaurant Group was founded in 2005 and employed more than a thousand people, it hired its first director of human resources on Oct. 11.

“I think a lot of this could have been avoided if we had a trusted person to talk to,” Madie Robison, one of the 25 women who alleged sexual harassment during her two years with the company, told the New York Times.

One of the restaurant group’s star chefs said he asked the company’s owners “on multiple occasions over the years” to “provide professional human resources support” but was rejected. Alon Shaya, whose eponymous restaurant was crowned “best new restaurant” at the 2016 James Beard awards, said in a Facebook post that he was fired from the company for speaking to a Times-Picayune reporter.

Raymond Landry, the restaurant group’s general counsel, said in a statement: “While we’ve had a complaint procedure in place that complies with all existing laws, we now recognize that, as a practical matter, we needed to do more than what the law requires and we have revamped our training, education and procedures accordingly.”

Fallout from the Times-Picayune exposé was swift. Harrah’s Casino, which housed Besh’s second-oldest restaurant, severed ties with the company. And New Orleans public television station WYES pulled Besh’s two cooking shows from its rotation, the Advocate reported.

Anthony Bourdain called the report the “beginning of the end of institutionalized Meathead Culture in the restaurant business” in a tweet.

Food writer Kat Kinsman agreed, responding that, “It is beyond time. I hear so much ‘that’s just the way it is’ but that doesn’t buy people a free pass from having to try to do better.”

Besh, a former Marine, began gaining national attention for his cooking when Food & Wine magazine named him one of the country’s best new chefs in 1999. During the next six years, the New Orleans chef continued gaining accolades.

But Hurricane Katrina made him a star.

After the storm, stories of an armed Besh wandering the city and setting up red beans and rice kitchens to feed hurricane victims became commonplace, even appearing in the New York Times, which called him the “national face of the New Orleans restaurant recovery.”

As his restaurant group expanded, so did his fame. In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, Besh won the James Beard regional award for best chef in the Southeast. He appeared on national television shows, such as “Treme,” “NCIS: New Orleans” and “The Next Iron Chef.” He served New Orleans food to Vice President Joe Biden and French president François Hollande and appeared at a cooking event in Milan with first lady Michelle Obama.

All the while, he worked hard to retain the image of the city’s culinary savior in a region known for famous chefs, including Emeril Lagasse and Susan Spicer.

“When I think about the sacrifices all the people who work with me have made and my children and all the help the city still needs, I think who am I to turn down the chance to be on this new Iron Chef show and everything else that has come my way?” he told the New York Times.

A decade after the storm, he was hitting similar notes.

“God has put me here for a reason,” Besh told CBS in 2015, later adding, “If I can use food to shape a better tomorrow for New Orleans, then that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

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