Why Besh Group's Massive Sexual Harassment Claims Matter to Houston

Over the weekend, while you were basking in tacos or the Astros' ALCS win, the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune published an exposé by James Beard Award-winning food writer Brett Anderson, who spent eight months talking to 25 former and current Besh Restaurant Group (BRG) employees, revealed a chef and a company that have fostered a culture of sexual harassment for years.

Celebrity chef John Besh has built his career on wholesomeness. He's a Marine who served in the Persian Gulf. His cookbooks include family-inspired My Family Table and Cooking From The Heart, and he has been one of the biggest chef names in New Orleans for 12 years, accumulating Beard Awards and eateries alike. He now operates 12 restaurants, including a couple in Nashville and one heading here to Houston by end of year.

Besh has recently been in Houston doing fundraising for Harvey relief, and he was supposed to cook at Southern Smoke on Sunday, but a representative for Chris Shepherd's nonprofit confirmed that the chef did not participate.

That's likely because the day before Southern Smoke took place, Besh and his partner Octavio Mantilla were facing the publication of the article that has now prompted him to step down as head of the restaurant group. 

Nine women, including former and current Besh Group employees, actually went public with their identities and accusations, revealing that women on the corporate and restaurant sides of the business not only experienced demoralizing "bro culture" on the daily, including verbal sexual harassment and aggressive behavior, but also  sexual advances, uninvited touching and coerced sexual relations, all of which was reportedly normalized and encouraged by Besh himself. 

Even worse, the company, which employs about 1,200 people, did not have an actual human resources department that employees could contact with complaints or concerns.

As Anderson reports, about 37 percent of all Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sexual harassment claims come from the restaurant industry, and one of those filed this year against BRG alleges that Besh coerced an employee into having an unwanted sexual relationship with him, expecting her to stay in his hotel room during travel, starting when she was 24 years old and drunk. Besh told the Times-Pic that the relationship was consensual.

Chef John Besh's empire of bro culture is crumbling.
Chef John Besh's empire of bro culture is crumbling.
Photo by Rush Jagoe

With BRG preparing to open Eunice in Greenway Plaza, there is no telling if the already delayed restaurant will get off the ground at all. Earlier this month, CultureMap reported on the restaurant's delay, noting that "no signs of construction" were happening at the 2929 Buffalo Speedway location. If it does open — the Houston Chronicle is reporting that it will — the eatery will be facing stiff competition in a shaky post-Harvey business environment and even with Besh's departure, the company will likely be associated with the stigma of his widespread culture of harassment and misogyny for a longtime coming.

Harrah's Casino, located in New Orleans's French Quarter, has already announced that it will sever ties with Besh and reconcept the existing Besh Steak House into a new eatery — it's already taken down Besh-branded signage. Rouses, a local grocery chain in Louisiana, and WYES have also distanced themselves from Besh-branded endorsements and a cooking show. Besh and his former Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya of restaurants Shaya and Domenica have been embroiled in a recent trademark dispute, but over the weekend Shaya noted on Facebook that he was terminated for cooperating with Anderson's investigation.

A few big-name chefs, including José Andrés and Anthony Bourdain, took to Twitter to speak out for the end of misogyny in hospitality, sharing the Times-Pic article with followers. But misogyny runs rampant in this industry, as many women who've ever worked the line or front of house very well know, and many are wondering if this will be a wake-up call or not.  Where does the industry go from here? 

Since Anderson's investigation, the BRG has instated its executive Shannon White as chief executive officer, started a human relations department and hired an outside investigator to look into any unreported claims of sexual misconduct.

The Houston Press has reached out to its public relations team and the chef of Eunice, Drake Leonards, for information on its potential opening. The eatery is modeled after the New Orleans brasserie Lüke. Besh had previously operated a Lüke in San Antonio, which closed in February 2017 after six years in business.

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