‘Top Chef’ Crowned a Sex Pest Winner and Never Spoke of It Again
Will Bravo ever own up to what happened with Gabe Erales?
Season 19 of Top Chef premieres tomorrow, which is great news because I love to see those little James Beard award nominees whip up their veloutés and espumas. However, Top Chef is in a weird place, with a very large unresolved issue: last season’s winner was revealed as a sex pest, and Bravo has never acknowledged it.
Gabe Erales, the sex pest, didn’t have to win, and his win is especially galling because Bravo likely knew he was a sex pest. In December 2020, while Top Chef Season 18 was still in production, Austin360 reported that Erales had been fired from his Austin-based restaurant, Comedor, for “behavior in conflict with [the restaurant’s] values.” Shortly after he was crowned the victor, Reddit threads started unspooling his alleged sexual misdeeds in his kitchens: sleeping with an employee and retaliating against that worker after their relationship ended; fucking around on his wife while presenting himself as a stand-up family man.
The entire season, set in Portland, was more or less a disaster. It was the Covid season, and there was an excess of somber reflection about the havoc our friend the virus wreaked on the restaurant industry. There was lots of honoring of native lands and cuisines, perhaps to make up for 17 seasons of being weird about Nigerian food and gushing over white men who make their own pasta. While there were no shots of host Padma Lakshmi in a bikini or contestants talking about how they wanted her to put their sausage in her mouth, the show’s wokening was forced, weird, and cheap, and completely undermined by its winner.
The season came down to three chefs: Latino chef Gabe Erales from Austin, Dawn Burrell, a Black woman and a former Olympian who cheffed in Houston, and Japanese-American chef Shota Nakajima, who split his time between Tokyo and Seattle. In my opinion, Dawn was the superior chef; her dishes were innovative yet approachable, complicated without being ostentatious. Shota’s food was unquestionably imaginative. Gabe mostly stuck to his tried-and-true mole.
So what happened after all this came out? Bravo handled this imbroglio terribly by basically not addressing it at all.
Padma herself responded:
Okay. As far as I can tell, no investigation has happened. Nothing from judge/mentor Tom Colicchio or judge Gail Simmons. Bravo has declined comment to media inquiries. Gabe has not posted on Instagram since September. Last July, he issued an Instagram apology and then deleted it. He has not done any press for Top Chef.
Top Chef has a history of sex pest valor. There’s Paul Qui, winner of Season 9, who was arrested for beating his girlfriend. The disgusting Mike Isabella, Season 5, whose creepiness infiltrated his restaurant empire until he was exposed in 2018. Frequent judge John Besh had to be edited out after more than 20 women who worked at his restaurants accused him of sexual harassment. In general, male chefs treat their female peers pretty horribly. You would think, by Season 18, the people who make this show would have figured out how to screen their contestants better.
Reality TV is not real life, but Top Chef is a microcosm of the food industry, which is rife with sexual assault and harassment. In some ways, it can only be expected. But still, they didn’t have to crown Gabe Top Chef, and at the very least could have handled the situation with some urgency and respect for the show’s female contestants. What a shame.