The woman who has accused the celebrity chef Mario Batali of groping her at a Boston bar in April 2017 spent several contentious hours testifying on Monday, the opening day of his criminal trial on charges of indecent battery and assault.
The woman, Natalie Tene, 32, who has also filed a lawsuit based on the same encounter with Mr. Batali, was the first and only witness of the day. Jury selection had been scheduled to begin on Monday, but in the morning Mr. Batali told Judge James Stanton that he would waive his right to a jury trial and instead leave the verdict to the judge.
“The defense in this case is very simple,” said Tony Fuller, Mr. Batali’s lawyer, in his opening statement in Boston Municipal Court. “It didn’t happen. She’s not being truthful. This was fabricated for money and for fun.”
Mr. Batali, once the host of the ABC daytime talk show “The Chew,” is one of several prominent chefs and restaurateurs hit by accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the restaurant industry that began tumbling out in the fall of 2017 in cities like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the only one who has faced criminal charges.
Mr. Batali, 61, sat passively throughout the testimony on Monday. He had swapped his signature orange Crocs for black ones, and wore a blue oxford shirt, a zippered pullover, a blue sport coat and gray slacks.
The Suffolk Assistant district attorney, Nina Bonelli, walked Ms. Tene through the encounter at Towne Stove and Spirits, a bar in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston that has since closed. Ms. Tene, who works in the software industry, testified in graphic detail what happened after Mr. Batali saw her surreptitiously shoot a photo of him from a few seats away at the bar. He invited her to come over and take some pictures with him, she said.
“Within the first five photos, it became really clear to me that this guy is wasted, for lack of better terms,” she said.
As the photo session began, she testified, so did the groping. “There was touching of my breasts,” she said. “Touching my sensitive feminine areas in between my legs. Touching all over my face. His lips on the side of my face. His tongue in my ear.”
Mr. Batali then suggested they go to his hotel, she said.
Ms. Tene spent much of the day defending herself from an aggressive line of questioning by Mr. Fuller, who used bank records and excerpts from more than two years of texts to cast Ms. Tene as flippant and as lying in order to get a payment from a celebrity.
“Hopefully you will get the assault money and take a well-deserved break from work,” a friend texted Ms. Tene in December 2017.
“OMG I know. LAMO. Give me 10k,” Ms. Tene replied.
The defense lawyer also pressed her on texts in which she told a friend she could not bear to go to the Boston outpost of Eataly, the sprawling Italian food and restaurant chain Mr. Batali once owned a part of. She would be disgusted, she wrote, to see Mr. Batali’s face on jars of marinara sauce or anything related to him.
Mr. Fuller then produced bank records from several weeks later that showed she had eaten a meal there and texted a friend that it was “cool but expensive.”
Ms. Tene countered that she didn’t remember going.
Mr. Fuller also asked her why she contacted a reporter from the website Eater and a civil attorney before she filed a police report.
“I had no idea what options or what path I could even take, or who would listen to me,” she said. “That’s why I talked to a reporter.”
At the end of the day, the district attorney asked Ms. Tene a series of questions to show that joking about the incident didn’t mean it hadn’t happened.
“It’s a lot easier to joke about these things than to be serious about them, especially in the moment,” Ms. Tene replied. “It’s really hard to come out and just say it. I wasn’t even sure how to put it, so I just put it lightly.”
The trial is set to resume on Tuesday. Mr. Batali’s lawyer would not comment on whether his client would take the stand in his own defense. If convicted, Mr. Batali faces up to two and a half years in the Suffolk County House of Correction and would be required to register as a sex offender.
Mr. Batali pleaded not guilty to the charges in 2019. The case’s progress was stalled in part because of the Covid pandemic.
Ms. Tene’s lawyer, Matthew Fogelman, said Monday that he would not comment on the civil or criminal cases until the criminal matter was resolved. He is also representing Alexandra Brown, who filed a similar lawsuit based on an incident with Mr. Batali during a selfie session in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Allegations about Mr. Batali’s behavior first came to public light in December 2017, when four women told Eater that he had touched them inappropriately as part of a pattern of behavior that they and others said spanned at least two decades.
Further accounts of his behavior were revealed in a Times article the next day; several women described incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant favored by well-known chefs, musicians and sports stars.
The New York Police Department investigated three sexual assault complaints against Mr. Batali, but closed those investigations in 2019, citing a lack of evidence and the statute of limitations.
Later that year, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, said the businesses built by Mr. Batali and a former partner, Joe Bastianich, revealed a sexualized culture so rife with harassment and retaliation that it violated state and city human rights laws.
As part of a settlement, the two men and the company they once owned together, paid $600,000 to be divided among at least at least 20 women and men who were sexually harassed while they worked at the Manhattan restaurants Babbo, Lupa or Del Posto, which until it closed permanently in April 2021 was the crown jewel among the men’s holdings.
Catherine McGloin contributed reporting from Boston.