In January 2001, Kim Reed was just 22 and from a small town in upstate New York when she walked into the job of her dreams: Working at West Village hotspot Babbo.
Hired as hostess, then reservationist, and finally as the assistant to Joe Bastianich, who co-founded the restaurant with now-disgraced chef Mario Batali, Reed was awe-struck by the celebrity clientele who turned up nightly to sip, sup and be seen. She brushed shoulders with A-listers such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Carrey. One time, she got so close to a luminary, she ended up in his dish.
In the early aughts, Elton John was dining at Babbo and guests kept going up to him. “He couldn’t eat. We couldn’t keep people away,” Reed said. “So Joe [Bastianich] asked me to come over and stand guard with him.” But more guests kept pressing forward, trying to see the music legend and “I got backed into the table. The sauce from Elton John’s dish, the spicy two-minute calamari, got all over the back of my pants.”
In her new memoir ‘‘Workhorse: My Sublime and Absurd Years in New York City’s Restaurant Scene,” out now from Hachette, Reed chronicles her 17 years working for Babbo — and reveals how a place that once enthralled her became toxic to her life.
At the turn of the millennium, Babbo was one of the most difficult restaurants in the world to score a reservation. Most people experienced its pleasures vicariously through paparazzi photos of diners such as George Clooney, Mariah Carey and the other elites who gathered nightly. In the tradition of Elaine’s, Rao’s and Studio 54, it was a cross between restaurant and club, a place to do deals and get noticed.
In 2000, a classmate told Reed she’d just found part-time work at Babbo as a hostess, boasting that, “The chef there — the one with the red ponytail — is famous. He has his own show on the Food Network. The restaurant pays eleven dollars an hour and Gwyneth Paltrow had dinner there with Luke Wilson last week. They still need to hire one more person.”
Reed was intrigued. “I’d never heard of the Food Network, but I certainly knew who Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson were. And $11 an hour was a big step up from the $6.90 I made cataloging microfiche at the Bobst Library as part of my university’s work study program, so I walked into Babbo the next day with my résumé.”
Reed met with Brad, the day manager who wore tie-dye, said he was a masseuse and also waxed poetic about Batali’s food and “authentic Italian bloodlines.” In the 45 minutes they spoke, he never once brought up the job he ended up hiring her for.
For Reed, a recent social work grad student, Babbo’s environment was tantalizing. But the hours were grueling and she needed more than one day job to get by in New York.
“I was practicing social work in Brooklyn Heights with the elderly during the day. Then I would literally run at night to work at Babbo three nights a week on average and one day on weekends, either as hostess or reservationist,” Reed said. “I could only do that because I was in my early twenties. You’re on your feet all day.
“Babbo was no ordinary restaurant. It was insane. People were really desperate to get in or finally be there after trying to get reservations for months.”
As a young woman, Reed felt proud that her male bosses had put her in a position of power, where she could act as a gatekeeper. “There’s something really cool about being in a room that everyone is dying to get into.”
She took her role as guardian of the A-list guests seriously. In 2004, Martha Stewart came to Babbo right before she went to jail for insider trading — and got mobbed.
“I was taking two women up the stairs and they saw [Martha] and suddenly ran down the stairs,” Reed said. “I literally tore down after them. But they already got to her and were actually giving her some support, telling her it was unfair and she shouldn’t be treated like this. I remember being terrified and trying to get them away from her table.”
Though Reed came to think of her co-workers at Babbo as a kind of family over the years, she also realized as she turned 30 that she had no life outside work. “My parents would call the reservation line if they hadn’t heard from me in a while and even if I wasn’t working that night somebody knew where I was.”
In 2011, Reed felt close to breaking point. But, for the next seven years, she continued to work as assistant to Joe Bastianich, helping him open Eataly, manage his restaurant empire and rise to MasterChef fame. Reed found that she had built her life around working for someone else and couldn’t stop. She writes that Bastianich was underpaying her, telling her “hundred-thousand dollar jobs didn’t exist for assistants.”
In the book, she claims that Bastianich could swing from euphoric — buying everyone shots of expensive whiskey and introducing Reed to his family and close friends as an insider — to demanding and manic, emailing at all hours. Reed checked weekly on nyc.gov for Bastianich’s unpaid parking tickets. She writes that her boss had “abnormal jumpiness; wired, unusual talkativeness; racing thoughts; distractibility. I’d seen plenty of clients during my social work days in that state and worse, but I’d never relied on a client to sign my paycheck.”
Despite paid trips to Italy, designer dinners, hotel stays and exciting but fleeting flings, Reed still felt poor, laden down with student debt.
Finally, in 2018, Batali was hit with a wave of sexual harassment accusations that forced to him step down from Babbo and the dozens of other restaurants he co-owned with Bastianich as part of B&B Group. While Reed said she was never sexually harassed by Batali and never saw any sexual harassment on the restaurant floor, “I believe the women who came forward a hundred percent. There were some people inside and outside of the company who had a harder time. I didn’t know how bad it was, but then you kind of feel guilty, because I knew it wasn’t great.”
Bastianich was criticized in the media for creating a “Boys Club Culture” at B&B Group and not being able to corral Batali. Reed writes that it “made me realize not everyone had fun working for Joe, and it seemed I’d had a wildly different experience than what some of my coworkers were reporting.”
For Reed, it was the final straw. “I waited three months to give Joe my notice after the scandal broke. I sent him an email on a day when he was in LA. He didn’t acknowledge it, so I brought it up the following morning. Even then, he didn’t say much. He’d known it was coming.”
Looking back at her roller-coaster ride in the business, she says, “It took me a really long time to break that cycle. It took years of prolonged unhappiness, low-grade depression and no drive to do anything outside of work. I felt like I would have nothing if I didn’t have this job that I sort of built my identity around.
“Being a woman who at one time had wanted kids, I was getting to an age where, if I didn’t have a partner, and didn’t have money to freeze my eggs, how is that really a realistic plan? For me, I realized, time is sort of running out. Then I stopped and was like, ‘What else am I allowing myself to miss out on for a job that could drop me tomorrow and go on its merry way?’”
Now 42, Reed works as an assistant in the finance industry in Midtown and loves her job, and while the “ship has sailed” on the kid front, she finally feels grounded and at peace. “There’s balance,” she said. “I can make time for other things in my life: friends, family, dating, though COVID has made that a little difficult. It’s amazing.”
As for her time at Babbo, “the excitement and glamour was short-lived. There is a high that comes to you when Robert Redford walks in and shakes your hand and you’re going to tell your parents afterwards. For 25-year-old me, that was exciting. But then you’re going home, wondering if there’s money on your MetroCard, and if you have the nerve to crawl under the turnstile.”
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