Woman at trial says celebrity chef Mario Batali groped her at Boston bar

A teary Boston-area software worker on Monday (May 9) testified that celebrity chef Mario Batali groped and squeezed her “sensitive feminine areas” five years ago at a Boston bar while posing with her for “selfie” photographs.

Natali Tene, 32, recounted from the witness stand being “shocked” and “alarmed” by the encounter with the famed chef as Batali, 61, went on trial in Boston Municipal Court on a 2019 charge of indecent assault and battery.

“It all happened so fast,” Tene testified in the non-jury trial. “Essentially the whole time there was touching of my sensitive feminine areas.”

Her claims form the basis of the only criminal case to result from multiple #MeToo-era claims of sexual harassment and assault that helped fuel Batali’s downfall. Tene said she only came forward after realising she was not alone.

“I want to be able to take control of what happened and come forward, say my piece, get the truth out there and everybody be accountable for their actions,” Tene said.

But Batali’s lawyer, Anthony Fuller, argued Tene’s own photos showed that no assault occurred and argued that her “self-serving, biased testimony” was simply to support a civil lawsuit she filed seeking money.

“The defense in this case is very simple: This didn’t happen,” Fuller said in his opening statement earlier in the day.

Originally slated to face a jury trial, Batali on Monday waived his right to one, leaving his fate to Judge James Stanton. If convicted, Batali faces up to two and a half years in jail and having to register as a sex offender.

The case is one of a handful of criminal prosecutions of celebrities following the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, which exposed widespread patterns of sexual harassment or abuse of women in multiple spheres of American life.

Prosecutors said Tene came forward with her account after the website Eater.com in December 2017 detailed allegations by four women who said Batali, a onetime Food Network fixture, touched them inappropriately over at least two decades.

He was soon after fired from the ABC cooking and talk show The Chew, and Batali later cut ties with restaurants like New York’s Babbo and Del Posto he partly owned. He denied allegations of sexual assault but apologised for “deeply inappropriate” behaviour.

Batali and his business partner in July agreed to pay US$600,000 to at least 20 former employees to resolve claims by New York’s attorney general that their Manhattan restaurants were rife with sexual harassment.

Prosecutors have said that Batali drunkenly assaulted Tene shortly after midnight on Apr 1, 2017, while posing with her for selfies at a bar near Boston’s Eataly, the Italian market and restaurant he at the time part owned.

Fuller, though, argued Tene’s credibility was undercut by text messages in which she discussed selling the photos to the media for US$10,000 and joked about the incident with a friend who told her to “play up the story” talking to a reporter.

When filling out a questionnaire for jury duty in an unrelated assault case, rather than choose the option of identifying as a crime victim to get out of jury service, she falsely claimed to be “clairvoyant”, Fuller said in his opening statement.

After text messages Batali’s lawyers obtained showed she discussed the case with a friend and conducted outside research, in violation of court orders, prosecutors in nearby Middlesex County charged her with contempt. She resolved that case last week.

Tene said she took a “flippant” tone in her texts but said she was not playing up the story: “At first, I wasn’t even sure how to put it, so I put it lightly.”

Trial resumes on Tuesday.

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