The Top Assholes of Top Chef
Which you should binge-watch this weekend
It’s hard to do much after housing down a Thanksgiving meal except loaf listlessly until it’s time for pie or leftovers. Why not keep the spirit of the holiday alive between bites by watching a retrospective of America’s finest food show, Top Chef, and then arguing about it?
Throughout its 18 seasons, Top Chef has always been a cut above other food competition shows. Although the show has produced an impressive number of successful alumni, it has also churned out a heaping handful of underseasoned disgraces. After the finale of the most recent season, Top Chef Portland in July, it was revealed that mole-centric winner Gabe Erales was fired from a job for alleged harassment, including having an affair with a member of his kitchen staff and then cutting her hours as retribution. (Personally, I’m refusing to acknowledge Gabe as Top Chef because he has no charisma on-screen and I’m rooting for everybody Black anyway.)
It probably behooves Bravo to do something to acknowledge their fuck up here, in addition to saying more about how they can work to prevent this in the future, but that’s not my problem and none of this comes as a surprise. Because much as it is a show of kitchen magic and friendship, Top Chef is a show of assholes — not just asshole contestants, but judges and guest stars. As a public service, I have listed them by season, because it was too hard to rank all the different types of harassment and assault.
Nicholas Elmi, Season 11 (New Orleans)
This guy should have been disqualified for the screaming fit of anger he had in the kitchen during the finale that was heard by the dining judges.
Nathan Myhrvold Season 10 (Seattle)
Nathan Myhrvold, a featured judge on Top Chef: Seattle and the author of the Modernist Cuisine, was also a noted friend of Jeffrey Epstein.
Everyone who bullied Beverly on Season 9 (Texas)
At first this seemed like Chicago-based chef Heather Terhune’s grudge after she repeatedly called out Beverly, who is Asian, for making Asian food, as if Austin-based chef Paul Qui, on their very same season, didn’t also make a lot of Asian food, or that countless past contestants weren’t also making a certain type of cuisine. Once it seemed like Beverly was the target, Heather was joined in unkind by Sarah Grueneberg, also from Chicago, and the North Caroline-based Lindsay Autry, who were united in hate against Beverly and blamed her for all of their mistakes.
Paul Qui, Season 9 (Texas)
The original disgraced Top Chef winner. The scary part is that Paul never acted out while he was on the show, but five years after his win and after opening a few celebrated restaurants, he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend while drunk, and somehow continues to have a career as a restauranteur.
Alex Reznik, Season 7 (Washington D.C.)
He absolutely stole that fucking pea puree.
Brian and Michael Voltaggio, Season 6 (Las Vegas)
Even though almost everyone in Top Chef: Las Vegas is a jerk, you almost have to feel bad about the fact that they had to play against these two blond brothers from Maryland whose sibling rivalry became the meat and potatoes of every episode. I love excellence, but at what cost? The question throughout this season is never “will one of the Voltaggios win?,” but “which brother will it be?”
Brian isn’t even that much of a dick unless his brother is egging him on, while Michael would rank on this list with or without his filial competition for being rude and ungracious and getting the type of pass for that behavior that is often awarded to “visionary” men. It’s clear that they both only respected each other as competition and obviously it was a perfect TV ending to have them compete against each other in the finale, but if you were rooting for anyone else it was a total bummer. Also Brian seems like a Trump supporter.
Mike Isabella, Season 6 (Las Vegas)
After Mike Isabella was featured on season six, he was revealed to be an alleged criminal restaurant owner and was accused of rampant sexual harassment. But worse, do you remember when he plagiarized the chicken oyster concept from Richard Blais’s journal in a quickfire and then acted like it was nothing? The only thing more terrible than being an asshole is being an unoriginal asshole.
Everyone who bullied Robin on Season 6 (Las Vegas)
Robin’s ascent in Top Chef: Las Vegas was certainly due to a lot of luck and well-timed immunities because there isn’t really even a moment when the judges truly liked her food. But she was older than most of the other contestants, and didn’t fit in as much with the cast that season including the aforementioned assholes, Michael Voltaggio and Mike Isabella, but Eli Kirshtein, who was 25 and living in his parents’ basement before going on the show, complained at how much Robin brought up surviving cancer. Gross.
John Besh (Seasons 5, 8, 9, 11)
A guest judge in earlier seasons, John Besh had to be edited out as a judge on Top Chef: Colorado after his New Orleans-based restaurant group was reported to have “a culture of sexual harassment,” Also, he has really big teeth.
Toby Young, Season 5 (New York) and 6 (Las Vegas)
Toby Young was a heavily featured Top Chef judge in seasons five and six. He is English and always had stuck-up English opinions. He is currently a contributing writer at Quillette.
Josie Smith-Malave, Season 2 (Los Angeles) and 10 (Seattle)
Unlike other annoying contestants whose behavior was mitigated by good food or some actual victimization from other cast members, there is no case to be made for the Florida-based chef Josie, who frustrated viewers and contestants alike with shameless excuses for bad food and just being a totally oblivious wacko. I suspect many of us have yet to forgive her for that poor performance in Top Chef: Seattle’s restaurant wars that lead to Kristin Kish’s departure.
Everyone who bullied Marcel Vingeron on Season 2 (Los Angeles)
This trauma is integral to Top Chef DNA and perhaps kicked off the culture of pointed harassment of one individual that persisted across seasons. For a long time the Los Angeles-based Marcel was pathologized as the problem, but he is not a villain. He’s an infuriating and insecure know-it-all, which I think is a prototype we all have in our lives (if not, look in the mirror), and for all his self-satisfied quippiness, he did not deserve to become everyone’s emotional, and physical punching bag on the season.
Cliff Crooks may have been the one who took the violence far enough to get kicked off when he pinned Marcel down on the ground by the neck for a head-shaving prank, but the environment had already been fostered by everyone else. I’m talking about New York-based Sam Talbot, whose hotness and diabetes awareness does not detract from snitch behavior at the judges table and letting his annoyance toward Marcel become verbal harassment on several occasions.
I’m talking about zero-accountability Betty Fraser, who in addition to crying her way out of cheating in the low-calorie kids’ lunch challenge (don't get me started!), blamed Marcel for her failed Thanksgiving crème brûlée when it was fully her fault for adding crystallized ginger to the sugar topping.
And I’m definitely talking about consummate ‘00s hipster Ilan Hall, who was arguably the ringleader of the organized aggression, and would go on to open a restaurant called The Gorbals inside the Williamsburg Urban Outfitters, forever cementing his asshole status.