Food & Drink

After celebrity chef faces harassment allegations, Chef Ashley Christensen calls on industry to ‘be better’

Raleigh Chef Ashley Christensen, pictured in April 2015 in Death & Taxes, also owns Poole’s Diner, Chuck’s, Beasley’s Chicken, Fox Liquor and the Bridge Club event space.
Raleigh Chef Ashley Christensen, pictured in April 2015 in Death & Taxes, also owns Poole’s Diner, Chuck’s, Beasley’s Chicken, Fox Liquor and the Bridge Club event space. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

John Besh, one of New Orleans’ most prominent chefs, resigned this week as head of the restaurant group that bears his name amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct from him and others in his company.

As with the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal that has rattled Hollywood, the ripples were felt throughout the culinary industry as the celebrity chef was forced to resign from the restaurant group he founded. In additional to harassment allegations, current and former employees said Besh’s company created a culture that allowed the harassment to occur.

In Raleigh, chef Ashley Christensen took to social media to call on restaurants to reevaluate kitchen culture, its reputation and its reality, and ensure environments are safe and respectful. In a statement posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, she commended the bravery of the Besh Restaurant Group accusers and denounced the allegations.

“I’m deeply saddened and upset by the recent news of the sexual harassment allegations within the Besh Restaurant Group,” Christensen began her post. “The issue of sexual harassment is extremely important to me, to my company, and to the industry as a whole.”

Christensen owns Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes, Chuck’s, Beasley’s Chicken, Fox Liquor and the Bridge Club event space.

Poole’s, her flagship, opened nearly a decade ago. As she added the other restaurants, she formed the AC Restaurants company in 2013. In her post, she said the company hired an human resources director a year and a half ago, calling it the best decision she’s ever made.

“I think it’s almost impossible as a business owner to review situations between employees in a truly neutral manner, and having a skilled HR director allows us to provide that resource and safe zone to our team. Everyone deserves that,” Christensen wrote. “I think many independent restaurant owners view investment in an HR presence as too costly. I have to say, I think it’s the most important investment we’ve ever made.”

The Besh allegations from 25 women were published by the Times-Picayune, which broke the story after a months-long investigation. The Besh Restaurant Group told the newspaper that no internal complaints had been made to the Besh Restaurant Group in its 12-year history. The group also said a human resources department, which might have handled such complaints, hadn’t existed until a few weeks ago. Besh said the relationship he had with an employee was consensual, the paper reported.

The Besh allegations come just weeks after the Weinstein scandal, detailed in reports in the New York Times and New Yorker, has put a national spotlight on harassment and its prevalence in the workplace. Weinstein denies the allegations against him.

Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has gained traction on social media with women and men disclosing their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault, often in public forums.

Christensen said an incident in her own restaurant group “made me realize that sexual harassment was an issue that required even more of our attention, and that a written policy wasn’t enough. It opened my eyes, as a leader, and made me rethink the ways that I could do more.”

While she didn’t provide any specifics about the incident, Christensen said her managers met and agreed they would do more than the status quo, to include talking more about safety in the work place and mentoring new managers.

But she alluded to the hospitality industry’s culture of sometimes sexualized language and called on others to listen with new ears.

“...There are those seasoned folks who have been in this industry so long that they’ve almost become deaf to the language, or to the experience of walking in to an inappropriate joke or conversation,” Christensen wrote. “So we’re putting extra time and energy behind mentoring our managers through constant conversation, and addressing the inappropriateness that has been part of this industry in a head-on and repeated way. We’re challenging each other to change habits of tolerating or excusing inappropriateness.”

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson