Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men |


Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men |

In the pantheon of American celebrity chefs, Mario Batali is a figure of
appetites so legendarily large that his name is scarcely invoked without
one of several modifiers: hedonistic, Falstaffian, Dionysian. He is
also, according to reports published this week in
the Washington
and the
a serial sexual harasser whose years of abuse of employees and others
have included crude language, unwanted physical contact, and—as allegedly
witnessed, in real-time, by a server on a security camera, according
to the Times—kissing and groping an unconscious woman. In response to
these revelations, Batali, who owns or co-owns more than two dozen
restaurants, hosts the ABC morning show “The Chew,” and has extensive
licensing partnerships, has issued a number of apologies. The first, to
Eater, includes an explanation: “We built these restaurants so that our
guests could have fun and indulge, but I took that too far in my own

Celebrity chefs sell more than food; they sell stories. In October, the
New Orleans Times-Picayune published a report on
the culture of harassment and sexual predation in the thousand-employee
restaurant empire of the chef John
Part of the shock of those revelations came from the dissonance between
the allegations against Besh, which include engaging in a “long-term
unwelcome sexual relationship” with a female employee (Besh has called
the relationship “consensual”), and the story he had sold of himself. An
ex-marine with a Sunday-school side part and Chiclet teeth, Besh had
marketed himself as a family man, a good dad and a loving husband, a
churchgoer and a patriot who liked to mention offhand that the aroma of
toasting almonds for trout amandine was similar to the scent in the air
that his Desert Storm platoon was trained to recognize as a chemical
attack. For people plugged in to the restaurant-industry whisper
network, however, Besh’s comeuppance was no surprise.

There is no such clash between public image and private reality in the
revelations about Batali, because Batali has always in a sense been
selling sex. It’s there in his worshipful gazes at ingredients held
aloft, his exhortations to his friends, viewers, and dining companions
to taste whatever rests on the tongue—to really taste it, to pour your
body and brain into it, to concentrate yourself into nothing but a
single scintillating bud of physical sensation. It’s there in his body
itself, in an abundant, flushed fatness that seems to physically
manifest a flagrant rejection of the superego. And it’s there in his
language, his voice. As a food writer and editor, I’ve crossed paths
with Mario over the years, and I can report that it is almost an
intoxicant. He has whispered in my ear about the rice in a paella, how
the grains are both soft and firm. He has growled across a recording
booth about the cornmeal dusting a po’ boy from Domilise’s, in New
Orleans. In a 2002 New Yorker Profile that trembles with carnality,
Bill Buford immortalized the chef’s grandiloquent libidinousness: “In Batali’s language, appetites blur: a pasta made with butter ‘swells like the lips of a woman aroused,’ roasted lotus roots are like ‘sucking the toes of the Shah’s mistress,’ and just about anything powerfully flavored—the first cherries of the season, the first ramps, a cheese from Piedmont—‘gives me wood.’ ”

It’s worth noting that appetites like Batali’s are, for the most part,
not permitted to women; neither are bodies like his, with their evidence
of hungers fulfilled. (Batali has been held up as something of an icon
within the wildly misogynist pickup-artist community, where he’s
considered an archetype of a man who “can be seductive and yet
completely visually unattractive.”) A woman’s hunger, by contrast,
“always overreaches, because it is not supposed to exist,” Jess
Zimmerman wrote in her
2016 essay “Hunger Makes
Me.” “If she wants food,
she is a glutton. If she wants sex, she is a slut.” The world does not
extend to women the courtesy we have granted Batali, that of reserving
our condemnation until his indulgences cross the line into abuse.

For years, Batali’s behavior has been a subject of gossip: his vulgar
comments, his roving hands, his propensity for bad behavior in the
public privacy of the Spotted Pig, the West Village gastropub in which
he is an investor. That establishment is co-owned by the restaurateur
Ken Friedman, whose own persistent pattern of sexual harassment was also
exposed, on Tuesday, in the Times. (“Some incidents were not as
described, but context and content are not today’s discussion,” Friedman
said in a statement to the Times. “I apologize now publicly for my
actions.”) We learned, in that report, that, among employees, the Spotted
Pig’s V.I.P.-only third floor had been nicknamed “the rape room,” and
Batali the Red Menace. “He tried to touch my breasts and told me that
they were beautiful,” a former server at the Spotted Pig told the
Times. “He wanted to wrestle. As I was serving drinks to his table, he
told me I should sit on his friend’s face.” Behold, in these stories,
the insidious duality of a powerful man’s rapaciousness (the word shares
a root—the Latin “rapere,” to take by force—with both “ravenous” and
“rape”): Batali’s disregard for boundaries has in the past been a
foundation of his mythology, a thing not to recoil from but to admire;
in the context of the current #MeToo movement, his behavior is just

Buford’s Profile—and the terrific book into which it was later expanded,
“Heat,” a touchstone for food writers of my generation—is packed with
other anecdotes that now seem troubling. Revisiting the book this week,
I was appalled that my earlier self, reading “Heat” a decade ago, hadn’t
even registered them as reason for concern. Batali says to Buford’s
wife, for instance, during dinner at the Batali-owned restaurant Lupa,
“You will eat your pasta or I will rub the shrimp across your breasts.”
He says to a waitress, at the same meal, “It’s not fair I have this view
all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, would you take off your
blouse for the others?” Elisa Sarno, a cook at Babbo, complains to
Batali about a prep chef referred to as “the Neanderthal,” who jokes
about rape and eventually gets fired for his inappropriate behavior.
“Mario told her there was nothing he could do,” Buford writes. “ ‘Really, Elisa. This is New York. Get used to it.’ ” At a taping of the Food Network series
“Molto Mario,” Batali unleashes an “anarchic spilling out of
naughtiness,” complete with “dancing, butt slapping, kissing.” “Why am I
not offended?” the set manager asks. “Why is that not a lawsuit?” a
guest responds. Sometimes, Buford writes, “I wondered if Batali was less
a conventional cook than an advocate of a murkier enterprise of
stimulating outrageous appetites (whatever they might be) and satisfying
them intensely (by whatever means).”

More recently, in a 2009
profile by the British critic Jay Rayner, virtually every woman who appeared—in
person or in reference—was defined relative to Batali’s sexual
proclivities. There is the female sommelier (“This wine is treating me
like a hooker in Florida, baby,” Batali tells her); the accomplished
British chef Angela Hartnett (Batali likes her “very much,” Rayner
writes, “though that doesn’t really do justice to the completely filthy
way he expresses his admiration”); and Gwyneth Paltrow, Batali’s co-host,
at the time, on a TV series about the cuisine of Spain (“You haven’t
asked me if I fucked Gwyneth . . . No, I did not fuck Gwyneth”). It is a
testament to the power of the post-Weinstein reckoning that each of
these comments now seems so starkly out of line.

Hunger and lust are twin evolutionary urges, and Batali is hardly the
first to find them intertwined. Both offer intensely intimate, intensely
physical rewards. Both are classically disdained—the two pleasures,
according to Plato, that a true philosopher should forsake. But, even if
food and sex partner well, they do not occupy the same plane of
experience. Feeding one’s hunger is a mortal need; acting on one’s
sexual impulses is a choice. In his statement to Eater, Batali implied
that his acts of sexual harassment were “indulgences” gone “too far.”
The problem is that this casts the recipients of his actions not as
people but as objects, with no say in the matter, to be possessed or
consumed. I asked Batali, in an e-mail on Tuesday, whether he really
thinks that his behavior can be defined as a form of excessive fun.
“NO,” he e-mailed back, the word in all caps. “I am ashamed of the way I
behaved and am not making any excuses.” It is entirely possible to build
one’s brand on overt sensuality without perpetrating abuse. What it
requires is an awareness that frolicking in a thousand-dollar blizzard
of white-truffle shavings, or opening a fifth bottle of Barolo, will
never be the same as pawing an employee’s breasts or asking her to take
off her clothes.


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