"They Called It 'The Rape Room'" - 10 Women Share Chilling Details Of Ken Friedman's Sexual Abuse

In a bombshell report that has rattled the food world, several former employees of restaurant impresario Ken Friedman shared chilling details of the sexual harassment and abuse they suffered at Friedman’s hands with the New York Times, describing the omerta that existed among staffers at his restaurant, who inevitably accepted the harassment as part of a job that offered many perks, including great pay and bonuses in the form of concert tickets and other in-demand items.

In addition to Friedman, the story also includes many lewd anecdotes of the egregiously inappropriate sexual misconduct perpetrated by renowned chef Mario Batali, who yesterday admitted that salacious depictions of his past behavior were accurate.

Together, the two men are possibly the most high-profile restaurateurs to be tarnished by the national reckoning with sexual harassment in the workplace that has effectively led many famous and powerful men in a range of industries to be expelled from polite society.

Ken Friedman

But of the many reports that have surfaced so far – and there have been many – some of the details from the Times piece almost beggar belief. In anecdotes from former staffers at the Spotted Pig, one of New York City’s hottest restaurants, the depictions of Friedman’s behavior push way past inappropriate: In many cases, he appeared callous and cruel, such as when he fired one of his managers shortly after she informed one of his staff that she was pregnant.

Ten women said that Mr. Friedman, 56, had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances: Groping them in public, demanding sex or making text requests for nude pictures or group sex. Many others also said that working or him required tolerating daily kisses and touches, pulling all-night shifts at private parties that included public sex and nudity, and enduring cat calls and gropes from guests who are Mr. Friedman’s friends.

 

The Spotted Pig has been a regular late-night stop for Mr. Batali, who this week said he was stepping away from day-to-day operations at his own restaurants and other businesses amid reports of inappropriate sexual behavior.

 

Employees of the Spotted Pig said they regularly witnessed sexual aggression by Mr. Batali, often with Mr. Friedman’s knowledge.

Like Matt Lauer, Al Franken and many of the other powerful men who’ve been forced to withdraw from polite society following accusations of sexual misconduct, Friedman admitted only that there was some truth to the allegations, but disputed the details. “Some incidents were not as described, but context and content are not today’s discussion."

“I apologize now publicly for my actions."

Interestingly, Friedman’s wife was once a server at the Spotted Pig. Like Batali, Friedman also announced that he has decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from the management of his restaurants.
Carla Betts, who was formerly the wine director at the Spotted Pig, the Breslin and the John Dory - three of the restaurants Freidman runs with partner and chef April Bloomfield - from 2009 to 2013 said she persistent sexual harassment at the hands of Friedman was one of her reasons for leaving her job at his restaurants.

“There is a grab-ass, superfun late-night culture – I love that part of the industry. But there is a difference between fun and sexualized camaraderie and predation. When you are made to feel unsafe or dirty or embarrassed, that is a different thing."

Friedman frequently engaged in consensual sexual relationships with his employees and openly hired based on employees' physical appearance (an incredibly rare practice in the modern food-service industry, we imagine).

Former employees also claimed that Friedman was frequently intoxicated at work, and would pressure staff into taking drugs and drinking with him.

Echoing some of the allegations from the NYT’s takedown of disgraced studio head Harvey Weinstein, staffers said they feared Friedman because of his volatile temper and burly frame. Friedman also had a reputation for openly retaliating against employees who defied or disappointed him. In many cases, they were fired, blacklisted or harassed.

“We had to brace ourselves every time Ken arrived,” one former server said. “When he wasn’t coming on to us, he was screaming at us."

Some of the former employees who spoke with the NYT said they brought their concerns to April Bloomfield, Friedman’s business partner and the head chef at many of his restaurants.

Her response, the women said, was always the same: “That’s just the way he is. If you don’t like it, go work somewhere else."

One manager said she complained to Bloomfield that the sexually charged atmosphere fostered by Friedman was driving the huge turnover among her restaurant’s staff. “She really didn’t want the turnover to continue. But she totally backed off getting involved in the behavior."

Bloomfield denied this, saying she referred the two matters that were brought to her attention to her company’s labor representative.

While the company’s human resources department said that none of the women who spoke with the Times filed complaints about Friedman’s behavior with HR, one reason that many employees might’ve tolerated Friedman’s behavior was the exceptional compensation that servers at his restaurants could earn.

And the rewards of a job at a Friedman-Bloomfield restaurant can be ret. Servers at the top of their game can earn six figures in a year. Working with Ms. Blomfield 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.

Interestingly, the Times concedes that, in the food-service industry, flirting and playful, sexually charged banter are sometimes a part of the job that employees welcome. But Friedman “turned that formula up several notches."

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

 

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

But perhaps the most startling detail from the New York Times story was the nickname that some of Friedman’s employees had bestowed upon the third floor of the Spotted Pig, a space where celebrities would congregate for exclusive after-hours parties.

They called it “the rape room."

But late 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.

 

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

Toward the end of the piece, the Times unfurls another stunning anecdote from an employee who was abruptly and inexplicably terminated shortly after becoming pregnant.

In 2015, soon after her marriage, she requested a meeting with Mr. Friedman and another manager ot discuss her compensation. A worried Mr. Friedman asked her if she was pregnant, she said. She told him she wasn’t.  “Could you at least schedule this kind of thing for the slow season?” she quoed him as sayig.

 

Later that year, Ms. Brown did become pregnant, and told a supervisor in confidence. Just over a week ater, she was terminated; managers told her it was because the organization was downsizing and her position was being eliminated."

The timing is curious – to say the least.

Friedman and Batali are probably the two most high-profile figures in the restaurant industry to be felled by the national reckoning with sexual harassment in the workplace that began with the New York Times November expose about disgraced studio executive Harvey Weinstein’s use of settlements and NDAs to silence his victims. Since then, media reports have asserted that Weinstein cultivated a network of enables by leveraging his influence, money and vicious temper.

Mario Batali

But, if there is humor to be found in situations like these, it certainly lies in the delicious hypocrisy as many men who professed to be “feminist allies” have been exposed for pathologically mistreating women.

Two months ago, Batali humble-bragged to the New York Post about how the kitchen staff at his newest and fanciest restaurant consisted exclusively of women.

“It’s not because they have a vagina,” he said. “It’s because they’re the smartest people for the job."

Whatever you say, Mario.