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Will Sexual Misconduct Allegations Force Restaurant Culture to Change?

Acclaimed New Orleans chef John Besh stepped down earlier this week after a report revealed allegations against him and his restaurant group.
Image: Chef John Besh
Chef John Besh attends a benefit in New York in 2015.Brad Barket / Invision via AP

The accusations of sexual harassment and assault hit Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein three weeks ago, leading women around the world and in various industries to adopt the hashtag #metoo. This week, an investigation by and the Times-Picayune begun months earlier revealed allegations from 25 women claiming that John Besh's restaurant group bred a climate of sexual harassment, leading the acclaimed New Orleans chef to step down.

For both industries, the question remains: Will this high-profile example lead to a substantial change in an industry where stories alleging sexism have long been common?

Several women accused Besh of "normalizing harassment in the workplace" thus creating an environment that condoned it, according to the report.

“Everybody is making a big deal about John Besh because his name is on the door, but there are 1,200 employees in that company,” said chef and writer Allison Robicelli. “These were line cooks, prep cooks, these were managers who received complaints from staff and did nothing. Just saying you’re getting rid of John Besh isn’t doing anything to address this.”

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit with the goal of helping restaurant workers achieve financial independence, sexual harassment is common in the industry — especially for women. In a 2014 survey, they found that 66 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment from management, and nearly 80 percent said they were sexually harassed by coworkers and customers.

Robicelli, who spent years working in numerous restaurants, said the problem isn’t just harassment around unwanted touching, but a culture of marginalizing women, bullying and even legal intimidation by way of lawsuits. Many employees of celebrity chefs are forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, she added.

Besh, owner of 12 restaurants, a bestselling cookbook author and the face of two television shows that are now being pulled from distribution, stepped down after an investigation by and the Times-Picayune’s food critic Brett Anderson revealed more than two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct, some against him and more against employees in his restaurant group as a whole.

Related: New Orleans Chef John Besh Steps Down After Sexual Harassment Allegations

In addition to allegations against others at the company, Anderson reported that one employee filed a complaint with the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Besh himself. It alleged that Besh “continued to attempt to coerce [her] to submit to his sexual overtures" during a months-long relationship with him when she worked for him. NBC News has not independently confirmed the allegation.

Besh said in a statement Monday that two years ago he had a “consensual relationship” with a member of his team and would take the time to "rebuild my marriage" and focus on his children and 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 in a statement.

Raymond Landry, general counsel of the Besh Restaurant Group, said that while the company had met with existing law in complaint procedures, it would go beyond requirements and revamp training.

"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," Landry said in a statement.

Taste America All-Star John Besh attends the kick-off event for the James Beard Foundation's Taste America(R) 10-city national tour, held at the James Beard House on August 3, 2016 in New York City.Charles Sykes / Invision for James Beard Foundation via AP file

Anderson spent eight-months investigating the allegations and emphasized that the women who spoke to him — 16 who remained anonymous and nine who allowed their names to be published — committed to the story well before the allegations against Weinstein came to light and sparked a national conversation around sexual misconduct in the workplace. (Weinstein continues to unequivocally deny "any allegations of non-consensual sex," according to his spokesperson.)

“I want to highlight the courage it took for these women to step forward,” Anderson said.

More women are adding their voices to the growing chorus, he said, and the pervasiveness of the problem in restaurant culture extends well beyond New Orleans.

Related: New Harvey Weinstein Accuser Comes Forward With Graphic Sexual Assault Allegation

Shelby Allison, co-owner of the bar and restaurant Lost Lake in Chicago, tells a troubling story about her first day at a restaurant in Las Vegas. After she arrived, her general manager told her she needed “a little more of this and a little more of this,” gesturing at her face and breasts.

She said she quit the next day.

“I’ve been working in the hospitality industry since I was 19,” Allison said. “Every single job I’ve ever had I’ve either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.”

In light of the reports around Besh's restaurant group, Chef Kelly English, who owns two well-known restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee, shared a recent letter to employees on Facebook. The note outlined how members of staff can contact an outside human resources hotline and encouraged individuals to step forward “if there ever is a breach in our policy.” In the same letter, English banned employees from consuming alcohol at the restaurant on the same day that they work.

One Off Hospitality, owners of the award-winning Publican restaurants in Chicago, fired their executive chef Cosmo Goss this week after they said they discovered that the staff shared an "inappropriate" photo of a female employee and Goss did nothing about it, Eater Chicago first reported.

“In retrospect, I understand that this seemingly fleeting moment was wholly unprofessional and unacceptable,” Goss said in a statement provided to Eater Chicago. “As a leader at One Off Hospitality, I regret not doing enough to address the issue, and I am deeply sorry to the woman portrayed in the photograph and the other individuals whom these consequences have affected.” Goss confirmed the incident to the site and expressed regret.

"The old mantra is that it’s 'just kitchen culture,' and that 'it’s just the way things are.' It is actively counterproductive to perpetuate that," One Off Hospitality said in a statement. "This is a societal issue, and as you see examples of people stepping up in other industries, it makes one optimistic that this pervasive culture can be changed."

The restaurant group added that it actively investigates "instances of inappropriate workplace conduct" and requires all managers to participate in mandatory anti-harassment training.

“We’re going to see a change,” Allison said. “It feels like a tide is changing now, and I hope that continues. It’s really important that people continue to report and share these stories because it’s hard for women to come forward.”

And according to Allison, avoiding the culture and mistakes that the Besh Restaurant Group made are relatively simple.

“Hire more women,” she said, noting that she has put women at every level of management to avoid the issue. “Promote your women. Be as diverse as possible in your staff because it’s the only way that you’ll avoid sexism, racism and discrimination.”