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Chef Mario Batali pleads not guilty to assault charge

US celebrity chef Mario Batali exits courtroom 17 at Boston Municipal Court on May 24, 2019, in Boston, Massachusetts. - Batali was arraigned on charges of indecent assault and battery, the prosecutor's office said. The alleged assault dates to April 2017. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON  — Celebrity chef Mario Batali, whose career crumbled amid several sexual misconduct accusations, pleaded not guilty Friday to a charge that he forcibly kissed and groped a woman at a Boston restaurant in 2017.

Batali, 58, wearing his signature red ponytail and a blazer, did not speak during the brief hearing but nodded as the judge ordered him to stay away from the woman.

The court entered a not guilty plea on Batali’s behalf to a charge of indecent assault and battery.

Batali was released on his own recognizance. He will not have to appear at the next hearing, scheduled for July 12.

It’s the first criminal charge levied against Batali following sexual harassment and assault allegations that first surfaced in 2017.

The woman says Batali noticed her taking a photo of him at the restaurant and invited her to take a selfie with him. She says Batali then groped and kissed her repeatedly without her consent.

The woman filed a civil lawsuit against Batali in August, seeking unspecified damages for “severe emotional distress.”

Batali did not comment as he walked through a slew of reporters to leave the courthouse Friday. His lawyer said earlier this week that the charge is “without merit.”

“He intends to fight the allegations vigorously and we expect the outcome to fully vindicate Mr. Batali,” attorney Anthony Fuller said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

The woman’s attorneys applauded the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office for bringing the case.

“Mr. Batali must be held accountable criminally and civilly for his despicable acts,” lawyers Eric Baum and Matthew Fogelman said in an email to media.

Batali could face up to 2½ years in jail, if convicted. He would also have to register as a sex offender.

Batali’s food empire included such high-end eateries as Babbo in Del Posto in New York City as well as restaurants in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Singapore. He became a household name through appearances on Food Network shows such as “Iron Chef America.”

He stepped down from operations of his restaurants and was kicked off the ABC show “The Chew” in 2017 after four women accused him of inappropriate touching.

Batali said at the time about those allegations that “much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted.”

He also came under fire for sending a newsletter to subscribers that included both an apology for “many mistakes” and a recipe for a “holiday-inspired breakfast.”

Batali announced in March that his longtime partner, Joe Bastianich, and others had bought out his share in his restaurants.

The New York Police Department said last year that it was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against the chef after a woman told “60 Minutes” that Batali drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2005. Batali denied assaulting the woman.

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