Ken Friedman, Power Restaurateur, Is Accused of Sexual Harassment

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Ken Friedman, Power Restaurateur, Is Accused of Sexual Harassment


2017-12-12 17:18:51

Several other employees say they also brought their complaints and concerns about Mr. Friedman to Ms. Bloomfield. “Her response was always the same.” Ms. Nelson said. “‘That’s who he is. Get used to it. Or go work for someone else.’”

Allegations of sexual harassment may seem surprising given Mr. Friedman’s longtime collaboration with Ms. Bloomfield, 43. The two have clearly divided their domains: the dining room and bar are headed by Mr. Friedman, and the kitchens by Ms. Bloomfield. “My energies are directed to the kitchen, food preparation and menu development,” Ms. Bloomfield said in a statement.

But staff members said they turned to her for relief. “I went to April directly multiple times about Ken’s inappropriate and abusive behavior, because among other problems, it generated huge turnover among the staff,” said Natalie Freihon, a former food and beverage director for the group’s ventures at the Ace Hotel New York, including the Breslin and the John Dory. “She really didn’t want the turnover to continue. But she completely backed off from getting involved with the behavior.”

Ms. Bloomfield denied that. “In the two matters involving uninvited approaches that were brought to my attention over the years, I immediately referred both to our outside labor counsel and they were addressed internally,” she said in her statement. “I have spoken to Ken about professional boundaries and relied on him to uphold our policies. Nonetheless I feel we have let down our employees and for that I sincerely apologize.”

Kelly Berg, who was hired in May as director of human resources for the restaurant company, Friedfield Breslin LLC, said in a statement that no employees had been dismissed or retaliated against for filing a complaint.

“All employees are encouraged to report any concerns about the workplace, and I am saddened to learn some hesitated or chose to not do so,” she wrote. She would not answer questions about specific complaints or discuss how long those policies had been in place.

Perks, at a Price

Many employees said Mr. Friedman was often genuinely warm and professionally supportive of women, as long as they tolerated his flirtatiousness. In retrospect, several women said, his bursts of good-natured playfulness and generosity made it possible for them to ignore the fear, chaos and power imbalance in the relationship — sometimes, for years.

“He can be charismatic and fun,” said Jamie Seet, who worked for Mr. Friedman from 2006 to 2014, including three years as general manager of the Spotted Pig. “But everyone goes on the chopping block eventually.”

And the rewards of a job at a Friedman-Bloomfield restaurant can be great. Servers at the top of their game can earn six figures in a year. Working with Ms. Bloomfield confers prestige in restaurants around the world. Mr. Friedman has treated favored employees to after-work drinks, field trips to his beach house and top-tier concert tickets.

Ms. Rza Betts, the former wine director, said working at the Breslin while Ms. Bloomfield’s star was rising was so rewarding that she simply shrugged off his hugs that went on too long, and his occasional slaps on her buttocks.

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Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield outside the Spotted Pig in 2004, the year it opened. Last weekend the two opened their latest restaurant, the Hearth & Hound, in Los Angeles.

Credit
David Howells/Corbis, via Getty Images

But one night in the fall of 2009, she recalls, Mr. Friedman took her out for drinks at a new rooftop bar near the Breslin, ostensibly to check out the competition. He leaned over, Ms. Rza Betts said, and planted a sloppy kiss on her mouth.

“In the moment you are not thinking at all,” she said. “He’s your boss. You don’t punch him. You just don’t kiss back, and pull away and try to shake it off.”

She left and was in a cab home when the texts started. “G’nite gorgeous. Send me a sexy picture,” he wrote.

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She politely brushed him off, but they kept coming. “Cone on. One sexy pic.”

“Nope,” she texted. “No kisses. No pix. I’m a straight shooting career woman.”

“Just 1. Your body,” he responded.

He gave up only after sending eight separate texts, which she shared with The Times. “I was embarrassed, felt taken advantage of and emotionally manipulated,” Ms. Rza Betts said.

She decided to work harder, knowing that pushing back could put her job in jeopardy. Then, one day in October 2011, she was cleaning up after a sherry-themed dinner at the Spotted Pig. Mr. Friedman, she said, remarked that she had started wearing push-up bras — probably, he added, to conceal the stretch marks on her breasts.

Ms. Rza Betts recorded the incident in her journal the next day. Still, she kept working for him until 2013. “I made a decision to stay there because I loved the job and I loved April’s food and I believed in it,” she said. “You hike up your bootstraps and you work. That’s how we all survived working for him.”

On the Third Floor

Tales of sexual predation at the highest levels of the culinary world have swirled for decades, but have been brought to light only recently. In October, The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that more than 25 former and current employees of the chef John Besh said he had sexually harassed them at his popular restaurants in that city. (Mr. Besh did not respond directly to the accusations, but stepped down from his company.)

Industry veterans say restaurants are especially accommodating to behavior that pushes the boundaries of sexuality in a workplace. Experienced servers accept that flirting is sometimes part of securing a good tip. Shifts are filled with sexual banter that many welcome as playful.

But the Spotted Pig turned that formula up several notches. In past interviews, Mr. Friedman — a former manager of bands, including the Smiths — has said his goal was to make a restaurant, with exceptional food, that was as sexy as any bar in town.

His vision was perhaps best expressed on the third floor of the Spotted Pig, an invitation-only space entered through unmarked doors. Decorated with posters, mismatched chairs and British knickknacks, it looks more like the ramshackle studio apartment of a graduate student than a V.I.P. haunt. The scruffy, bohemian ambience and Mr. Friedman’s talent as a host and gatekeeper have made it a place where celebrities feel comfortable.

In the early days, Beyoncé would be there laughing with friends, while locals like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin caught up at the next table. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West celebrated Valentine’s Day there in 2015; Charlie Rose, a regular, has held court at birthday dinners.

But late at night, after the first-floor dining room closed and the party moved upstairs, Mr. Friedman made it clear that normal restaurant rules did not apply, several employees said. In the frequently packed room, guests openly groped female servers, who said Mr. Friedman required them to work until parties ended, often after dawn.

Ms. Seet, the former manager, said that during a party in 2008, she intervened when she saw on the security camera feed that Mr. Batali, who was drunk, was groping and kissing a woman who appeared to be unconscious.

“We called him the Red Menace,” said Ms. Nelson, the former server. “He tried to touch my breasts and told me that they were beautiful. He wanted to wrestle. As I was serving drinks to his table, he told me I should sit on his friend’s face.”

Mr. Batali apologized on Tuesday. “Though I don’t remember these specific accounts, there is no question I have behaved terribly,” he wrote in an email to The Times. “There are no excuses. I take full responsibility and am deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation or discomfort I have caused.”

Among employees and industry insiders, the third-floor space has earned a nickname: “the rape room.”

Mr. Friedman has also been intimidating in other parts of his empire, even to men on the staff. “There were definitely times I was scared of him,” said David Rabig, a former manager at several Friedman restaurants. “He’s a very large man. He likes to threaten to fire people. He liked to remind people he was the boss.”

Mr. Friedman especially likes to show off around celebrities, and “that involved humiliating the staff,” Mr. Rabig said.

Ms. Nelson, the waiter and aspiring comedian whom Mr. Friedman kissed in his car, recalled the time she met an idol, Ms. Poehler. Ms. Nelson said she was bartending on the third floor, and happened to be kneeling down, stacking glasses on a tray. Mr. Friedman was standing next to her when Ms. Poehler walked over. He introduced the two women. Ms. Nelson, still on her knees, reached up to shake Ms. Poehler’s hand.

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