When Eunice opens in Houston today, one major figure initially involved with the restaurant will be glaringly absent from the picture — New Orleans restaurateur John Besh.
When Besh announced in 2016 that he was headed to Houston, the city’s diners were excited to have one of the South’s most renowned chefs en route. But then came the more than 25 allegations of sexual harassment from employees at his restaurant group, which prompted Besh to step down from “operations” at the company while still maintaining his ownership stake. Because BRG Hospitality (formerly known as Besh Restaurant Group) is a privately-held company, it’s difficult to tell how much of the restaurant group Besh actually owns. When asked earlier this year how much of the company Besh still owns, a representative described him only as “part-owner.”
Eunice was originally scheduled to open right around the time that the allegations against Besh went public, in fall 2017, but the project has been delayed for more than a year. In the nearly two years that have passed since Eunice was announced, the #MeToo movement has fully swept through the restaurant industry, toppling titans like Besh and Mario Batali. As Eunice’s opening indicates, though, those powerful men who have been accused of abuse are still a part of the restaurants they own — even if they’re actively trying to stay out of the picture.
Press materials provided to Eater ahead of Eunice’s opening make absolutely zero mention of Besh, and that omission is strategic. In avoiding a controversial name like John Besh, BRG Hospitality and Eunice are clearly hoping to avoid this massive scandal from traveling to Houston. It’s likely that many Houston diners won’t be aware of the allegations, and plenty won’t care. Besh isn’t doing the cooking or getting the credit, but it is important to note that because Besh does still own a portion of BRG Hospitality, he will still directly profit from its success, despite stepping away.
Instead of Besh, executive chef Drake Leonards is touted as the mastermind of Eunice, named for Leonards’s Louisiana hometown. Leonards has not spoken publicly about the allegations against Besh, or whether or not he witnessed any of the behavior described as “sexually abusive, verbally and physically” that allegedly went down in the kitchen of Luke in New Orleans, where Leonards was formerly executive chef.
In a 2016 interview with Houstonia, Leonards describes Besh’s original role in the restaurant as “chef-partner,” just like his own, and calls the chef a “mentor and friend.” Leonards says that Besh “empowered” him to grow as a chef and helped shape his career, standing in stark contrast to the allegations that Besh fostered an abusive culture, described as an “open secret” in New Orleans, at his restaurants so bad that it forced multiple employees to quit their jobs.
In Houston, the war over whether or not the restaurants of abusive (or even allegedly abusive) men deserve praise and patronage has already been waged once, but it is by no means settled. When chef Paul Qui opened his much-acclaimed restaurant Aqui, many of the city’s diners vowed to never visit the restaurant because of the chef’s domestic violence charges. Even after those charges were dropped this year, Qui remains a controversial figure, but Aqui has earned praise from critics and diners alike.
The scrubbing of John Besh from Eunice’s opening narrative has had varying degrees of success. Mostly, the allegations against Besh are a footnote in a story about Houston’s most anticipated new restaurant. In the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of the restaurant’s debut, more than two dozen allegations of sexual harassment are described simply as Besh being “embroiled in controversy.” CultureMap’s Eric Sandler describes Eunice as “eagerly anticipated” and mentions the sexual harassment allegations, while noting that its opening would be “greater if Besh remained directly involved with his reputation intact.”
After #MeToo, it’s clearly becoming more and more difficult for credibly-accused sexual harassers to helm a restaurant. But Eunice’s future success will be indicative of something else entirely — whether or not those accused harassers can continue to profit from the empires they’ve built.