Season 19 of Top Chef kicks off tonight — the series has traveled to Houston, yeehaw — but the show remains marred by the disappointing denouement of last season, which ended with an alleged sex pest named Gabe Erales winning the golden chef’s hat, $250,000, and a spot at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival. After reports came out that Erales had recently been fired from an Austin restaurant for sexual misconduct — including sleeping with a member of his kitchen staff and then retaliating against them after the relationship ended — he was swiftly and effectively disappeared as a Top Chef victor (he was noticeably absent from the Aspen event in September, and Bravo hasn’t promoted him in the show’s typical victory lap rounds of press).
Yesterday, I wrote about how no one from Bravo or among the Top Chef brass has commented on their scarlet-lettered winner, with the exception of Padma Lakshmi, who tweeted a call for the network to investigate the allegations. That investigation into Erales’s misdeeds seemingly never happened; the company line seemed to be that since the alleged harassment didn’t occur on set, it was irrelevant to his victory.
No one’s silence on Erales was louder than Tom Colicchio’s. Colicchio, the show’s mentor and lead judge, is a benevolent and genial presence in the kitchen, reminding the contestants to work together and season their food. But finally, eight months after Erales won, Colicchio has addressed the controversy in an interview with the Daily Beast, and his comments are… not great.
When asked how he felt when he found out about Erales’s alleged behavior, Colicchio said: “Well, I mean, you know, it’s in the past. But I’m not sure what we’re talking about because nothing’s really come out.” (Except… it has come out. Including from Erales himself.)
When asked what he thought about Erales allegedly retaliating against a woman he had an affair with in the workplace, Colicchio said:
“I think what happens is, you know, something comes out and sexual harassment is talked about — this certainly didn’t rise to the occasion of some of the other chefs, some of the stuff that they were doing or allegations of rape and things like that. So I’m not saying any of it’s acceptable, but also, we never once heard from the woman who he had an affair with and it was a consensual affair.”
At best, this is textbook “what not to say about sexual misconduct if you’re in the public eye” stuff; at worst, it’s grossly callous to survivors of sexual harassment and assault. To measure any allegations against the severity of rape — to put the burden of proof on a victim — it seems like Colicchio hasn’t learned much in the so-called sexual harassment reckoning the restaurant industry has experienced, even though he’s written about it himself.
If you know Colicchio’s dating history, it might sense why he would get so defensive over workplace fraternizing; he mentions in the interview that he met his wife while she was a server working for him at a restaurant. But also, man, it’s not about you. It’s sad to see Colicchio’s camera-ready capacity for empathy take such a nose dive in real life, but then again, a lot of time has passed since his open letter to male chefs. Real men, Colicchio wrote, “know that work is not sexy time”; they know that “if they have to insist it was consensual, it probably wasn’t.” Ah, 2017, what a different time.