It was outrageously expensive, even by New York restaurant standards, for Italian. But Del Posto was able to pull it off because it had a celebrity chef at the top, Mario Batali. Had it opened with some other chef, say one by the name of Melissa Rodriguez, the food may well have been good, but it never would have made it. It’s not that there aren’t female celebrity chefs, or that every man-chef is a celebrity, but some chefs managed to become celebrities and others did not. Batali did. Rodriguez did not.
Today, Melissa Rodriguez is the chef of Del Posto, which retains its outrageous prices, but not Batali. New York Times food critic Pete Wells begins his re-review of this previously four-star restaurant with the most critical information about a restaurant possible.
Negotiations took more than a year, but Mr. Batali no longer profits from Del Posto, having sold his stake in March to a group led by his former partner, Joe Bastianich. Employees have said that Mr. Bastianich himself helped, at a minimum, to build the sexist and disrespectful environment in which Mr. Batali operated. Mr. Bastianich has apologized, saying that he had heard Mr. Batali speak inappropriately to employees, and that he should have done more to stop the sexual harassment.
Sound delicious yet?
Some diners will stay away, feeling that Mr. Bastianich has not sufficiently atoned. I understand this, but I am also interested in the way employees may be treated at the restaurant now and in the future. Here, there is reason to hope. Among other human-resources reforms, employees can now report complaints about owners or corporate officers to an independent investigative firm with the power to refer cases to outside counsel. As part of the restructuring, Melissa Rodriguez, who has been the executive chef of Del Posto since 2017, was made a partner in the restaurant, along with Jeff Katz, now the managing partner. A new pastry chef, Georgia Wodder, was appointed last spring.
Perhaps Wells believes that any review of Del Posto that fails to discuss, in detail, the HR complaint process for sexual harassment would subject him to excoriation, and he has no intention of going down with Mario. But this is a restaurant. It’s a place where people go to eat, and pay extraordinary prices for the privilege. In earlier years, that would make food matter first, and service second, and sexual harassment not at all. Not this review.
Before I could write it, though, a number of women who had worked for Mario Batali, one of the owners, started talking about the sexual harassment and abuse that they say he had doled out. Suddenly there seemed to be more important questions than whether the braised-rabbit agnolotti were cooked al dente.
Is it more important? Anyone who has worked in a restaurant or read Kitchen Confidential knows that the tradition of head chefs is to be abusive to everyone. It was once part of the odd charm, that these are artistes who could get away with anything. Not anymore. In our new-found egalitarian world, a celebrity chef is expected to behave as respectfully to the dishwasher as the owner. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with expecting chefs not to sexually harass anyone.
But that’s the back of the house. In the front, where diners munch and pay, this isn’t their concern. If the chef utters “inappropriate language” while plating the cacciatore, the diner gets no discount off his $195 prix fixe meal. If asked, would the diner choose perfectly cooked pasta or perfectly Puritan behavior? But then, why would anybody ask the diner? Why would this ever be a choice?
Eventually, Wells gets around to discussing food, though it’s not clear what he thinks, his description so moderated as to be mealy-mouthed and meaningless.
The cooking is more subdued now. The kitchen is not seen as a beacon of innovation the way it used to be, perhaps because Ms. Rodriguez is less interested than Mr. Ladner was in feats of technical derring-do like 100-layer lasagnas. She gets her effects by following old Italian templates and putting them together so elegantly that they seem to light up from inside. There’s an honesty to her approach — she doesn’t try to shoot out all the lights by supercharging dishes with fat — but it’s not the kind of peasant simplicity people usually mean when they talk about honesty in Italian food. It’s a sophisticated honesty.
So I should order subdued honesty with a side of sophistication? What this means eludes me. But what doesn’t is Wells’ shredding of Del Posto’s service.
There are little ceremonies like this from start to finish; I don’t know of any other restaurant that performs quite so many tasks whose only real purpose is to draw attention to themselves. And these things are rarely done with a smile; employees seem to have been directed to keep a respectful, formal distance as they carry out your requests and perform other services you’d never think of requesting. They rarely seem comfortable. Their solemnity is underlined by the sepulchral lighting at night, so gloomy it makes the crypt of Grant’s tomb look like a tiki bar.
Sounds like fun, right?
Is it stretching a point to ask if enshrining subservience, as Del Posto does, reflects the same twisted sense of priorities that allowed Mr. Batali to get away with abusing his own power for so long? (And is it a coincidence that far more men than women seem to work in the dining room, particularly in the upper ranks?)
It’s a friggin’ restaurant, Pete. A really, really expensive restaurant. An Italian restaurant. Must everything be a social commentary? Must sexism and classism infect the experience? Can’t we just enjoy the meal? No. Not any more.
Now that Ms. Rodriguez owns a piece of the restaurant, perhaps she can lead a reconsideration of priorities in the front of the house, and find a tone that more closely matches her philosophy in the back. She shouldn’t have to clean up the messes men made. But having worked her way to the top of a restaurant that has always aspired to provide luxury, she has a chance to decide what, in New York in 2019, that word might mean.
Apparently luxury “in New York in 2019,” means an equal number of women working in the front room, but not subservient and without having to hear inappropriate language emit from Batali’s yap. It used to mean excellent food and service. This is why we can’t have nice things, although the prices remain the same for a restaurant that wouldn’t exist but for its original celebrity chef.