An 11-year veteran of the Batali Bastianich Hospitality Group, whose life was so intertwined with the company that she met her husband at the Spotted Pig, doesn’t believe Mario Batali should be cast out of the community-at-large -- although she's adamant the celebrity chef should no longer profit from any food-and-beverage business.

Batali is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the New York Police Department, following a series of media reports revealing sexual misconduct allegations against him.

“If he can repent and take care of his behavior, he should be able to be a functioning member of society,” Elizabeth Meltz, who last served as the company’s director of environmental health, told FAB attendees. "We cannot keep throwing people away. That is not a way for society to work. You don’t behave that way and get to be a celebrity. But we want to cut out the cancer and not deal with what caused it.”

Meltz was the first speaker to take the stage at the annual conference for women in the hospitality industry, held on June 10-12 in Charleston. She was supposed to be joined in conversation by Shannon White of the Besh Restaurant Group, but a medical emergency prevented White from participating.

During the question-and-answer session, audience members echoed Meltz’s call to reconsider the reflexive harshness of corporate responses to sexual misconduct. They expressed concern that their employers’ policies of firing wrongdoers could diffuse the problem, instead of solving it, and pointed out that blameless women are in some cases suffering because companies are being decimated in the wake of scandal.

Since the disclosure of allegations against Batali, his former restaurant company has announced the closure of three Las Vegas restaurants. Meltz also wondered aloud whether ABC’s cancellation of “The Chew” could be attributed to “the ripple effect.”

“It leaves the rest of us in the middle as a different kind of victim: People who didn’t ask for this,” she said.

An audience member who identified herself as a former sex crimes prosecutor told Meltz, “I feel the sense that you carry some of the burden.”

Batali was notorious within the company for mistreating women. “We knew he was a pig, frankly,” Meltz said. Still, she said she “never felt uncomfortable, never felt unsafe.”

In fact, Batali was in the third-floor Spotted Pig dining room when she and her future husband first met in person after about a year of talking on the phone in a professional capacity. As has been reported, that room was known among employees and industry insiders as “the rape room.”

Meltz was initially unsure if the fellow employee that she had been talking to knew her name.

“Mario goes, ‘He knows who you are. He just didn’t know you’d look like that in a dress,’” she recalled.

“Was it a little bit charming?” moderator Kyle Tibbs Jones of The Bitter Southerner asked.

“I was a little bit flattered,” she said. “It was the quintessential Mario moment … that’s part of the crisis here. The allegations of assault were news to all of us. But you say, ‘Oh yeah, I did see him put his hand on that girl’s butt; she seemed to be OK with it.’”

Later, Meltz said, “We have different thresholds. Something that slips off my back might be horribly offensive to someone else.” To that end, Meltz is now consciously trying to rephrase the way she censures colleagues who say potentially offensive things.

“I was saying, ‘You can’t say that anymore,’ like I’m apologizing (because) you used to be able to say that,” she says. “Now I say, ‘That’s offensive.’ ‘Please don’t say that.’”

Still, much of the conversation was devoted to shoring up support for women who choose not to take drastic action in the face of workplace misconduct, either because they’re unaware of the scope of it or because they’re determined to keep their jobs.

“I’m saying all this stuff, and I’m looking at their faces and they’re thinking I’m crazy,” Meltz said, referring to the audience of more than 100 people, flouting FAB founder Randi Weinstein’s worries that an 8 a.m. session would have limited appeal to busy attendees.

“No,” Jones said, “they think you’re awesome.”

FAB continues today and tomorrow at the College of Charleston.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

Food editor and chief critic

Eating all of the chicken livers just as fast as I can.

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