New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh stepped down Monday from the company he founded amid sexual harassment allegations against him and other male employees.
Besh, 49, is one of the city's most recognizable and celebrated chefs. He has not responded directly to the allegations made by current and former employees, which were revealed in an investigation by NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune. His departure was announced Monday in a staff email from the person who will take over as chief executive officer of Besh Restaurant Group (BRG), effective immediately.
"John has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family," Shannon White said.
Besh enjoyed celebrity status in a city whose identity is tied to its food. His restaurant group employs more than 1,000 people in New Orleans, San Antonio and Baltimore in top-rated restaurants such as August, Lüke, Domenica and Shaya.
Harrah's New Orleans Casino said it is terminating its relationship with the restaurant group. Besh Steak, located in the casino, will remain open under a different name to be announced soon, Harrah's New Orleans General Manager Dan Real said in a statement. As far the company is aware, none of the allegations pertain to Besh Steak, he said.
'That's just the way it is'
The allegations brought the restaurant industry into broader discussion about the need for more checks and balances when it comes to workplace harassment. Several figures in the food world commended the publication for shedding light on an issue that tends to get swept under the rug.
"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," said food writer and mental health advocate Kat Kinsman, founder of "Chefs with Issues."
Times-Picayune reporter Brett Anderson said the timing was coincidental to other high-profile cases of alleged sexual harassment. His investigation began in February with a complaint from a former employee and led to more, he said. Reader reaction suggests people were waiting for the restaurant industry to be called out, he said.
"It seems to me that reporting on sexual harassment in the workplace is really coming to a head," he said. "My sense from the response I'm getting in emails, voice calls and social media messages is people see this [investigation] as another shoe dropping."
Allegations of a culture where harassment flourished
A Louisiana native and combat Marine veteran, Besh rose to prominence as an ambassador for New Orleans in the post-Katrina era
As he fed emergency responders and flood victims, he built an empire on the strength of his fine-dining restaurants and commitment to philanthropy. He became a regular on talk shows and cooking shows. He wrote cookbooks and collaborated with brands on specialty products. The steakhouse at Harrah's, along with other high-profile ventures celebrating New Orleans' French-Creole traditions with modern twists, made him a recurring figure in the city's marketing and tourism campaigns.
Now, the industry is waiting to see the impact -- if any -- of the allegations on his empire.
The allegations came from numerous current and former employees, including nine who spoke on the record to the newspaper. They described a hostile corporate culture where sexual harassment flourished. The accounts included inappropriate touching and comments from male employees and managers, some of whom tried to leverage their power for sex. Those who complained were berated, ostracized or ignored, the women told the newspaper. CNN attempted to reach three women named in the article and received no answer.
The article said at least two women filed complaints against BRG with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. CNN was unable to obtain copies of the complaints online. According to NOLA.COM/The Times-Picayune, one of the EEOC complaints was from a former employee who alleged that Besh "attempt[ed] to coerce" her during a "months-long sexual relationship."
NOLA.COM/The Times-Picayune reported that Besh responded directly to these assertions, saying he engaged in a consensual relationship with a member of his team two years ago. When CNN contacted BRG for a response to accounts in NOLA.COM/The Times-Picayune, the company provided CNN with the same statement.
"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. I also regret any harm this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group, and sincerely apologize to anyone past and present who has worked for me who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do," he said.
"I alone am entirely responsible for my moral failings. This is not the way the head of a company like ours should have acted, let alone a husband and father. But it should not taint our incredible team of more than 1,000 employees, nor undermine our unyielding commitment to treating everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of gender, race, age and sexual preference."
The company's email to staff members Monday promised employees a comprehensive independent review and overhaul of company policies, including the creation of an advisory council made of employees and updates to its sexual harassment policy. Separately, BRG's general counsel said the company is working to improve the culture through revamped training and education and improved procedures for lodging grievances. Raymond Landry acknowledged that many women did not feel the company had a "clear mechanism" in place for raising concerns.
"I want to assure all of our employees that if even a single person feels this way, it is one person too many and that ends now," Landry said in a statement.
"Now that we have learned of these concerns, we believe going forward that everyone at our company will be fully aware of the clear procedures that are now in place to safeguard against anyone feeling that his or her concerns will not be heard and addressed free from retaliation."
'The restaurant industry does not get a pass'
At least one former male employee has come forward to describe the company's culture. Alon Shaya, former executive chef at Domenica and his namesake restaurant, Shaya, spoke to NOLA.COM/The Times-Picayune for its investigation. The experience renewed his commitment to helping "prevent the powerful from taking advantage of those that depend on them," he said in a Facebook post.
"I want to acknowledge the experiences of the women quoted in the story and the realities of countless other women who experience harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. I also want to acknowledge the bravery of the women who shared their stories," he said.
"No one should feel unwelcome, afraid or unsafe in their place of work. That is not acceptable and that is not how I endeavor to run my restaurants. Harassment is not just a part of 'kitchen culture' -- the restaurant industry does not get a pass."