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Charlie Hallowell, an Oakland restaurateur, was accused of sexual misconduct from more than 30 employees over the last year. Photograph: PR Company Handout

California chef in sexual misconduct scandal criticised for ‘dunk tank’ plan

WT24 Desk

An embattled California chef accused of sexual harassment is facing renewed backlash after announcing he would sit in a “dunk tank” as part of his efforts to reform himself and make women “feel safe” in his restaurants, according to The Guardian.

Charlie Hallowell, an Oakland restaurateur who faced misconduct allegationsfrom more than 30 employees over the last year, has released an “open letter” and “apology” detailing his return to three restaurants and a “twelve-point plan” to ensure the workplaces would be “different moving forward”.

“Once a month a dunk tank will be set up in the backyard at Pizzaiolo,” he wrote under point 10 of the plan, which he sent out Thursday. “Charlie will be in the dunk seat and anyone who wants to put him in the tank can come and give it a shot!”

His announcement of the monthly gimmick sparked immediate criticisms, with some saying it was the latest example of an insensitive attempt at a comeback from a powerful man called out amid the #MeToo movement.

Mika Hilaire, an attorney who represented about a dozen Hallowell accusers, told the Guardian she was shocked to learn about the dunk tank on Friday.

“A letter like this triggers the emotional harm that these women have had to endure, and by making light of it, it reinjures them,” she said, adding, “It’s very upsetting for my clients to have to read this … To them, it’s appalling.”

Hallowell is one of many high-profile men who have been accused of mistreating employees and running hostile work environments in the restaurant industry, where sexual misconduct can be rampant.

His new comments came one year after the Harvey Weinstein accusationsinspired a #MeToo reckoning in Hollywoodmediapublishing, the art worldgovernment and numerous other industries. In recent months, ousted men have increasingly been plotting ways to reclaim jobs and return to the spotlight.

The San Francisco Chronicle published multiple investigations about Hallowell, once a Bay Area culinary celebrity who received national attention for his restaurants Pizzaiolo, Penrose, and Boot and Shoe. The first article, in December, detailed sexual harassment allegations from 17 women who were former employees and “described a persistently degrading, at times threatening environment, where the chef-owner’s constant banter about his erotic fantasies and crude come-ons were an inescapable part of their work experience”.

Eventually, a total of 31 people made accusations against him, including allegations of “uninvited kisses and spankings”, the Chronicle later reported. In the wake of the reports, Hallowell said he was stepping away from day-to-day operations, but he has since caused stirs by announcing plans to come back to his restaurants and by returning to a popular farmer’s market.

His letter this week did not address specific accusations but said: “I want to apologize for letting you and our entire community down. I lost track of a promise to make my restaurants safe spaces for everyone.” He said he had been on “unpaid leave” for 10 months and had not managed employees.

The letter said he was “wholeheartedly committed to real personal change” as he returned to the restaurants, adding that the chief operating officer, Donna Insalaco, now had a “large percentage of ownership” and had stepped up as co-owner and managing partner of the restaurant group.

Hallowell further announced new trainings and systems for complaints, an all-female board of advisers, his personal therapy and efforts to confront “toxic masculinity” and “white privilege”, and his plans to be available for staff to talk to him once a week. And the dunk tank.

Hilaire said she appreciated many of the changes and said they were a result of her clients speaking out and demanding reforms. But the dunk tank, she added, “makes me have serious pause and concern, because it seems to me something again that is making it about him. It seems narcissistic”.

Hallowell did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. “On the one hand, you’re trying to empower women and want to hear the voices … and then you’re talking about having them dunk you in water,” Hilaire continued. “It makes me feel like, again, he is not understanding the gravity of his actions.”

She said that she and others would work to make sure that his workplaces actually improved moving forward. “People like me will be here to hold him accountable, and the community is watching.”

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