Besh downfall could signal end of industry’s ‘meathead culture’ zaemiel/iStock/Thinkstock

Besh downfall could signal end of industry’s ‘meathead culture’

Lessons are being learned — but will it turn the tide?

News of sexual harassment allegations involving prominent New Orleans restaurateur John Besh and his company has many in the restaurant industry wondering whether the tide is turning on bad behavior in kitchens.

The allegations were revealed in a New Orleans Times-Picayune report on Saturday. By Monday, Besh had stepped down as CEO of the restaurant group he co-owns, which operates 11 concepts including the celebrated August, Borgne, Dominica and Johnny Sánchez.

Knowing the news was coming, former partner — and celebrated chef in his own right —Alon Shaya split with Besh weeks ago, and is fighting for trademark rights to the restaurant Shaya, co-owned by Besh’s group. Harrah’s New Orleans casino cut ties with the group, pledging to rename its Besh Steak location. Local television stations said they would no longer show Besh’s programs.

Celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain on Twitter called it the beginning of the end of the “institutionalized meathead culture” within the industry.

Others, however, were shocked by the resounding silence that followed within the restaurant world.

Attorneys, meanwhile, said there were lessons to be learned from the reports. 

Andria Ryan, a partner in law firm Fisher Phillips and chair of the firm’s hospitality practice group, said a key factor in Besh’s story was the lack of a human resource structure that allowed employees to come forth with complaints.

Even the smallest of restaurant operations, maybe with only a handful of workers, need to designate someone in an HR role to handle such issues, she said.

“That is critical in 2017 that you have a no-harassment policy, that it is publicized to employees, that you give an orientation, put it in the handbook, and it has to be meaningful,” she said.

“And make sure there’s a reporting procedure that doesn’t get blocked,” she added. “Make it clear that if an employee is in a situation where the supervisor is the problem, then here’s where else you should go.”

Ryan, who defends restaurant companies against such claims, said, “It’s very common for lower-level management to tell their employees, ‘Don’t go to HR, we deal with it here.’ They set that tone, and if it has a bit of a threat to it, people don’t raise minor or major concerns.”

But that can be a huge mistake for employers, who should take any complaint very seriously, said Ryan.

“It’s a matter of taking the first complaint seriously so you don’t get to the second complaint. But if you get to the second complaint, your hair should be on fire,” she said.

Lawsuits are a regular occurrence across the industry, involving big chains and tiny independent concepts. Ryan said a single-plaintiff case can cost an employer $350,000 to $500,000 in lawyer’s fees alone to win it.

That means prevention is the best defense. The challenge for the industry, however, is that many employers have been offering training about sexual harassment for decades but the number of complaints doesn’t seem to be dropping, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which Ryan said has also been true in her experience.

“If you think training is the ticket, it’s not,” said Ryan. “There has to be more.”

In some cases, employers may need to look in the mirror, said Ryan. She described a sexual harassment case involving restaurant workers, but the executive chef wasn’t involved in the specific allegations. Still, the executive chef had a history of “sleeping with all kinds of people,” she said.

“When you unwind it, people felt he set the tone and the rest of the guys thought it was okay. They thought this is the way it is at this restaurant,” she said. “The argument is that culture comes from the top.”

It’s not clear how pervasive sexual harassment is in the restaurant industry. An EEOC spokesperson said the agency would not break out complaints among restaurant companies, saying the issue was pervasive across all industries. And most cases still go unreported.

Some argued that real change will come as gender balance increases in restaurants.

More women than men are graduating from culinary schools now, and though restaurant kitchens tend to be run by men, that will change, noted Kim Bartmann, president of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and whose Bartmann Group in Minneapolis operates eight concepts.

“When you have men working together, it tends to lean toward the ‘bro’ discussions. But we try to have a better gender mix in kitchens and that tends to make everything more civil,” she said.

“I think it’s good that the discussion is more out in the open and hopefully people will just become more conscious of how everyone treats each other,” she added. “Hopefully we’ll all become more respectful of all of our differences and commonalities.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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