On Writing “Workhorse”

kim reed sits at a bar with her laptop open

Kim Reed and Surviving the Batali/Bastianich Scandal

There was a time in my career when I was writing a lot about Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali—but then again, we were all writing a lot about Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali. I remember, to get any access at all, you engaged in long, detailed chains of emails with people like Kim Reed who seemed to manage every detail of their bosses’ lives. If you needed the story badly, and I generally did, it paid be nice to Kim—she might book you a call with Joe (say, in his car, from 7:05–7:10 on a Tuesday evening—this, after 30 precise, quickly responded-to emails). Let me tell you, you’d be grateful for this or any other crumb. When you met Kim, she’d be dauntingly glamorous as she wielded two phones—speaking Italian on one, English on the other—while still managing to smile and remember your name. I recently reread my emails to Kim, beginning in 2010—I’m embarrassed now by how young and needy I was. Kim was always very kind.

Others, most notably Bill Buford in his book, Heat, have written about Batali + Bastianich at the peak of their powers, hinting at fractures, hinting at egotism, hinting at out-of-bounds partying, hinting (ever so subtly) at drug use. In her memoir, Workhorse—which does not muckrake—Reed shares what it was like living in the eye of that hurricane, working for the hottest NYC restaurant partnership at the peak of its celebrity, up to and including the moment when the scandal(s) that brought it down broke. She also tells us how she got out, and how, after 17 years of single-minded devotion to the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, she built a new life.

We asked Kim Reed to give us a taste of what it was like to write Workhorse. Read on, below. —Julia Sexton, Editor in Chief

On Writing Workhorse

By Kim Reed

“Don’t make me look like an asshole,” Joe said, barely looking up from his desktop monitor. His hollow tone indicated this might go easier than the scene I’d ruminated on the past few months. Joe was my then-employer. I’d just told him, four months after signing with a literary agent (his), that I was writing a memoir that spanned my seventeen years in the restaurant industry–the length of my employment at his company, the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. I’d been preparing for this moment for months: halting my 401 contributions, hoarding cash, tweaking my tax withholding, and writing as much as possible—while Joe was none-the-wiser—should he fire me on the spot. “I’ll make you look like yourself,” I said, too nervous to keep from spitting out the truth. Joe’s ticking silence suddenly made me remember my talk-track. “And it will include everything you taught me,” I added quickly.

Though not a lie, this didn’t capture the tone or scope of the book proposal I’d been pounding out slowly most mornings beginning at 5:00 am, wincing each time I put down his or his partner’s name in ink. I wasn’t writing an earth-shattering tell-all—I didn’t know there was that much to tell until four days ago—but any act of going off-script was treacherous on a good day, let alone at the onset of a sexual misconduct scandal involving the face of the company.

It was December 14, 2017, and a few days prior, Eater broke the news that Mario Batali, co-founder of the group and Joe’s business partner, was accused of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior by more than a dozen women, including former employees. Mario was immediately banned from entering the restaurants, leaving a shaky Joe—who, in my eyes, had been AWOL from the company’s day-to-day operations for years—to pick up the pieces.

Strange scenarios played out over the following days: watching Joe stumble through the crisis management team’s approved speech before thirty-or-so corporate employees huddled before him. He read it word-for-word, then flung the white pages onto the ground, almost violently, as if to put as much distance between himself and the words as possible. Meetings with HR about what was to come of Mario’s long-standing team. Strained conversations with defensive friends and colleagues that I’d always assumed were like-minded. These encounters left me feeling alienated, wholly detached from the place I’d worked for so dutifully, and led my mind to dark, wild places. Thoughts once easily batted to the back of my mind now refused to leave me. I questioned the meaning behind seemingly straightforward things. Am I paranoid, or am I smart? Who the hell are these people? But, most importantly, who the hell was I?

I did know who I wasn’t. I knew I’d outgrown my circumstances even before the scandal, and this probably spawned the idea of writing a memoir in the first place—a goodbye before leaving a life that I once held above all else, but that now I wanted to run from screaming. But shedding that old skin doesn’t come complete with growing a new one. A mythical new you doesn’t emerge fully formed out of the blue once the ties are cut. Navigating familiar and new people and places as a changing person took real work. Navigating my once clear, now uncertain mind took real work. The process of writing the book was ultimately a good experience, albeit a painful one, as I assume most acts of self-examination are. The further I was in the manuscript, the cleaner my slate felt.

But the ride is rough. It can leave your heart scorched, your body a heap on the bathroom floor. I scribbled for months on a speck in time shared with a young man who will never bother to read what I wrote about him. I watched my old self throw away people offering help that I hadn’t realized I’d been begging for. But I kept digging. There were gems to be earned. I revisited wishes never granted, like leaving my unglamorous job in social work, the one that always stopped me from saying yes when invited to late nights on the third floor of the Spotted Pig. And the girl who embarrassed me, her pants hemmed with safety pins, the one with a tolerance for being barked at—I slowly let her go.