Celebrity chef Mario Batali, 61, is not guilty of sexual assault and assault, a Boston judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge James Stanton made the ruling in Boston Municipal Court after a day and a half of testimony, primarily from Natali Tene, 32, who said Mr. Batali forcibly kissed and grabbed her during a nighttime selfie session at a Boston bar in April 2017. “I’ve never been touched like this,” she testified, “like squeezing between my legs, squeezing my vagina to get closer to him.” pulling like that’s a normal way to grab someone.”
The judge said: “It is an understatement to say that Mr Batali was not dressed in glory on the night in question.” But he added that Ms Tene has “significant credibility issues”.
Mr Batali, 61, smiled and nodded as the judge acquitted him of the charges. Mr Batali did not testify and his defense team did not call any witnesses. If found guilty, he would have faced up to two and a half years in prison and would have to register as a sex offender.
In his closing statement, his attorney, Tony Fuller, said, “She lied for fun and she lied for money,” referring to Ms. Tene’s lawsuit against Mr. Batali.
Mr. Batali, once the host of the ABC talk show ‘The Chew’, is one of several prominent chefs and restaurateurs affected by allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the restaurant industry, which began in the fall of 2017. crumble as part of the #MeToo movement in cities like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the only one who has been prosecuted.
Only two witnesses testified at the trial, both for the prosecution. Ms. Tene, 32, who works in the software industry, spent most of the first day at the booth, explaining her late night meeting with Mr. Batali at Towne Stove and Spirits, a neighborhood bar Back Bay in Boston which has since closed.
Mr. Batali surreptitiously saw her take a picture of him from a few seats away at the bar, then invited her over and take some pictures with him, she said. When the photo shoot started, she testified, as did the forced kissing and groping.
The only other witness called was a friend of Ms Tene, Rachel Buckley, 37. She said Ms Tene had sent her a photo of Mr Batali on the night of their meeting, along with texts describing him as being extremely drunk. looked like, but didn’t. I’m not talking about him grabbing her. Details of Mr Batali’s groping and kissing surfaced in subsequent conversations, Ms Buckley testified.
Much of the evidence in the trial came from two years of text messages from Ms. Tene, sometimes showing that she was lighthearted about selling the photos or getting money from Mr. Batali. They disclosed incidents where she lied to get out of a gym membership and told another court she was clairvoyant to try to avoid jury duty. The judge wrote down those lies and pictures from the night at the bar where she laughed after her first meeting with Mr. Batali. Three minutes later, she took more selfies with the chef.
“Her response or lack thereof to the alleged attack is telling,” he said.
The lawyers of Mr. Batali retrieved the texts from her phone, which a judge ordered her to turn in as part of a 2018 lawsuit she filed against Mr. Batali had brought. Both the prosecutors and her lawyer fought to prevent the forensic analysis of her phone.
In closing arguments, Mr. Fuller said the footage from her camera phone from that night shows “a completely consensual meeting between the two.”
“In her world, truth is a flexible concept,” he said. “It doesn’t really exist. She’ll tell you what helps her in a minute.’
Prosecutors responded by saying the footage did not show the entirety of the interaction or where Mr Batali’s hands were under the frame. Texts between friends making jokes about Mr Batali or possible payment for the images after the incident were just that, they said: jokes. And Ms. Tene’s smile in the selfies didn’t mean she wasn’t attacked. They were tough attempts to de-escalate the situation, Nina Bonelli, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney, said in her closing arguments.
“The kissing, the tugging, the groping—she never asked for it,” said Mrs. Bonelli. “She never wanted it and she never agreed to it. All she wanted was a selfie.”
If the case was only about money, she added, Mrs. Tene wouldn’t have waited so long after that night to charge her. And Ms. Tene didn’t tell her story to the publication Eater until she realized other women were coming forward.
“This was not an isolated incident,” Mrs. Bonelli said. “This was an assault that happened to her and maybe others.”
While waiting for Mr. Batali, Trish Nelson has described incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the Spotted Pig, a favorite playground of Mr. Batali in Manhattan and a number of other well-known chefs, musicians and sports stars. The abuses there came to light in a 2018 article in the DailyExpertNews.
She said she was not surprised by the verdict. “In this country, basically, women have to be on the path to holiness to be taken seriously and allowed to speak out against a man’s abusive behavior, especially if it’s forceful,” she said.
Stories of Batali’s late-night drunken parties and brutal behavior with women had been doing the rounds for years, but in the wake of investigations into Harvey Weinstein and others, such as New Orleans chief John Besh, several women came out publicly and accused Mr. Batali of sexual harassment at work and other forms of sexual abuse.
Allegations of Mr Batali’s behavior first came to light in December 2017, when four women told Eater that he had touched them inappropriately as part of a pattern of behavior that she and others said spanned at least two decades.
Mr Batali apologized at the time. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.” It was attached to a newsletter that also featured a pizza dough cinnamon roll recipe that was widely derided.
A lot has changed in the years since. The New York Police Department investigated three complaints of sexual assault against Mr Batali, but a department official confirmed in 2019 that it had closed those investigations due to a lack of evidence and the statute of limitations.
Later that year, New York State Attorney General Letitia James said the companies built by Mr. Batali and a former partner, Joe Bastianich, exposed a sexualized culture so rife with harassment and retaliation. that it violated the human rights of state and city.
As part of a settlement, the two men and the company they once owned together paid $600,000 to distribute to at least 20 women and men who were sexually harassed while working at Manhattan’s Babbo, Lupa or Del Posto restaurants, which, until it was finally closed in April 2021, it was the crown jewel among men’s holding companies.
Catherine McGloin contributed to reporting from Boston.