Disgraced celebrity chef Mario Batali surprised a Boston courtroom on Monday when he asked a judge to waive his right to a jury in a criminal trial over an allegation of sexual assault.
Minutes later, his accuser took the stand, describing a selfie near his since-shuttered Boston restaurant that descended into a nightmare of groping and nonconsensual kissing.
Batali, a former Food Network star, confirmed his decision to have Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton decide his fate just before jury selection was set to begin on Monday. The 61-year-old has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent assault and battery over an incident that took place in 2017.
“Absolutely,” Batali told Stanton on Monday, indicating he understood what he was doing.
Natalie Tene—who has previously gone on the record with her name as an alleged sexual assault victim—soon began alleging how what began with her taking a surreptitious photo of Batali on April 1, 2017, ended with a crime.
Tene told the judge that the incident began after Batali noticed her taking his picture and invited her to take one together.
As she described taking some 10 selfies with Batali, she said the chef began touching her out of the camera’s view. She also said Batali’s eyes were closed in a majority of the photos, and claimed “this guy was wasted” at the time.
“While this was happening, his hands were in sensitive areas, touching me, touching my body, so it was like a selfie, but other things were happening simultaneously,” Tene told the court, noting that Batali kept telling her to “take another one.”
Tene added that Batali was “grabbing me in a way…. I have never been touched like that before,” she said, indicating he was also “squeezing” her vagina.
“There was touching of my breast, touching of my rear end… touching of my face…. his tongue in my ear,” she added, noting that as the alleged assault occurred, she was “really shocked, surprised, alarmed.”
“It was just a lot happening.”
Batali has steadfastly denied criminal conduct, despite at least four women coming out against the former TV chef and accusing him of sexual misconduct.
During cross-examination, defense attorney Anthony Fuller grilled Tene about whether she continued to take photos with Batali despite the alleged assault.
Tene conceded that there was a three-minute gap between some of the photos. She did, however, insist that she was shocked by the whole encounter, and noted that in one of the photos of the pair close together, Batali was “grabbing my ass in this photo.”
“This didn’t happen. There was no indecent assault. By the end of it, you will realize she is not telling the truth,” Fuller claimed during his opening statement.
Prosecutors allege Batali assaulted Tene while posing with her at Towne Stove and Spirits in Boston. The since-shuttered bar was located near the local outpost of Eataly, the Italian chain Batali once partly owned.
The photos—and Tene’s face—were not displayed to the public on Monday to protect her identity, though she was identified by name in court.
“While he pulled her face into his face, kissing her, his right hand groped her breast, her butt, and her crotch area,” Assistant District Attorney Nina Bonelli said during opening arguments.
Tene has also filed a civil lawsuit against Batali, alleging that the incident has resulted in “severe emotional distress.” She is just one of several women who have accused Batalli of misconduct, which forced the restauranteur to step down from his empire and leave the ABC cooking show The Chew.
“I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans, and my team,” Batali said in a December 2017 newsletter amid the swirling accusations. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.”
A year later, the New York Times and CBS’ 60 Minutes both reported on sexual-assault allegations against Batali. The New York Police Department, however, told the Times back then that they closed investigations into Batali because they did not have enough evidence to make an arrest.
Since the allegations, Batali has largely been purged as a face of a nationwide restaurant empire. In 2019, the chef revealed that several people, including longtime partner Joe Bastianich, had bought out his share in the vast business.
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