Report reveals allegations of sexual harassment at John Besh restaurants

Lily Milwit, Senior Staff Reporter

Saturday, | The Times-Picayune released the culminating report of an eight month investigation, detailing dozens of reports of sexual harassment and misconduct in John Besh restaurants across New Orleans.

Besh, a well-known celebrity chef, owns and operates the Besh Restaurant Group. Fifteen restaurants and bars, including Shaya, Willa Jean, Restaurant August, Domenica and Hot Tin, fall under BRG’s purview.

According to the report, 25 current and former BRG employees have come forward with stories of male co-workers and supervisors touching female employees without consent, making inappropriate comments or using positions of authority to solicit sex.

Two complaints alleging sexual discrimination were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by BRG former employees. One complaint charged “vulgar and offensive comments, aggressive un-welcomed touching and sexual advances…” Another former employee’s EEOC complaint said Besh “continues to attempt and coerce [her] to submit to his sexual overtures.”

In a written statement, Besh responded to the second complaint, writing that he engaged in “a consensual relationship with one member of my team.”

“I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings,” Besh wrote about the relationship in his full statement. “This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father.”

While BRG’s spokesman said no Besh employee has filed an internal complaint in the company’s 12 years of existence, others, including Besh’s business partner Octavio Mantilla, have noted that BRG has never had a human resources department with the capacity to process such complaints. BRG’s first ever director of human resources, Dawn Peterson Hazen, started on the job Oct. 11 of this year.

Women involved in | The Times Picayune’s investigation told reporters Besh and Mantilla’s behavior toward women employees normalized a culture of harassment, and that complaints were either stifled or stopped in their tracks.

The allegations come in the midst of a controversial split between Alon Shaya and BRG. Shaya helped open Domenica in 2009 and Pizza Domenica in 2014, both part of BRG. In 2015, Alon Shaya opened and became the executive chef at his name-sake restaurant, Shaya, an Israeli-inspired restaurant on Magazine Street. Besh announced Shaya’s split from BRG and his termination as executive chef at all three restaurants in September.

In a Facebook post Saturday evening, Shaya claimed that he asked BRG owners to provide professional human resources support “on multiple occasions,” adding that, “Each overture I made was summarily rejected.”

“I made a decision to proactively engage with the reporter for the Times-Picayune because I believed these stories must be told,” Shaya wrote. “For doing so, I was terminated as Executive Chef at Domenica, Pizza Domenica, and my name-sake restaurant, Shaya.”

BRG’s lawyer, Raymond Landry, said in an email that Shaya “never requested an HR Department, let alone on multiple occasions.”

Staff of Shaya’s three restaurants, however, were among those who reported instances of sexual harassment.

Former line cooks reported being told jokes about pedophilia and rape by male co-workers while at work, and one reported being shown unsolicited explicit photos on the job. Other employees reported being touched inappropriately and being the object of unwanted advances.

According to the | The Times-Picayune report, one reporting employee was a 21-year-old Tulane undergraduate student who reported being sexually harassed while working at a Shaya restaurant. She said she could not find any form or process to use to file a complaint.

Despite the growing list of allegations, Besh has continued to deny the reports of systemic wrong-doing within the company, admitting only to his own extra-marital affairs.

“… Even with the worst that I had ever been, I have never sexually harassed or tolerated such,” Besh said in an interview on Oct. 16. “I’ve had my issues in my life. But I’ve never tolerated that sort of behavior.”

Restaurant employees wishing to report harassment are encouraged to contact the reporter of the | The Times-Picayune story at 504-826-3445 or [email protected]

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