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Controversial new “Top Chef” champion crowned amid harassment allegations

“Top Chef: Portland” aired its season finale Thursday night, marking the end of a feel-good season shot during the pandemic that sought to honor the rich diversity of our nation’s food – including Indigenous and African traditions – and the sacrifice of frontline workers. Unfortunately, this goodwill was marred by real-world concerns when the judges crowned a winner whose past caught up with them.

It came down to finalsts Dawn Burrell, a Houston-based chef and a former Team USA Track & Field Olympian; Austin-based Gabe Erales, who specializes in Mexican cuisine; and Seattle-based Shota Nakajima, who was thankful for a second chance after having to shut down one of his restaurants. After the finale challenge, in which they were tasked with preparing the best four-course meal of their lives, the panel of all-star judges chose Erales as the new “Top Chef” champ and first Mexican American to hold the title.

That triumph quickly faded as fans on social media pushed back and demanded some answers for an earlier report about Erales. According to the Austin Chronicle, Erales was fired from his job at the Austin restaurant Comedor, where he had been head chef, in December. Eater reports that an ambiguous email from the restaurant in December said Erales had left the restaurant “due to repeated violation of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values.”

Erales notably did not appear on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” which would traditionally feature the winner of the season post-finale. Instead, hosts Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons appeared and discussed the competition without alluding to any real-world concerns (with Lakshmi even referring to Erales’ “incredible saucework” on the show). Nor has his win been announced and celebrated on Bravo or “Top Chef” social media accounts, which merely acknowledged the hard work of all three finalists.

Amid backlash from fans criticizing the show for its silence on the matter, Lakshmi addressed the controversy in a tweet: “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one, and merits openness,” she wrote. “We filmed Top Chef in October of last year & were not aware of the allegations now coming out against Gabe. This should be investigated & the network should consider its best action.”

In a lengthy Instagram post, previous “Top Chef” champion and guest judge Gregory Gourdet elliptically alluded to the allegations against Erales by writing at length about worker abuse in the restaurant industry, which especially targets “womxn.”

“As toxic conditions in kitchens and and the bad behavior of chefs get exposed, I feel like we are in a vicious cycle with the womxn in our industry continually suffering the most,” Gourdet wrote. He added, “Our industry has a long way to go and I wonder if we will ever get there but I’m not giving up . . . Basic human decency is just the starting point of our survival. So is the end of power hungry, abusive, egomaniacal chef.” Gourdet, who is a Portland-based chef, has also taken steps to build a fairer workplace, according to a New York Times interview.

While it’s unclear what exactly led to Erales’ firing from Austin’s Comedor, and neither “Top Chef” nor Comedor have specified, fans believe the firing was related to sexual harassment and abuse of workers, given Lakshmi and Gourdet’s social media statements, as well as some more specific allegations made on social media. Fans, and Gourdet himself, have pointed out the importance of better vetting from media and TV competition shows of their contestants.

“Top Chef” isn’t the first offender when it comes to poor vetting and possible casting mistakes like this. In a particularly extreme example, one reality star, Ryan Jenkins, had competed on VH1’s “Megan Wants a Millionaire” shortly before murdering his wife Jasmine Fiore in 2009. In slightly less extreme examples, ABC’s “The Bachelor” has long struggled with casting contestants who are later revealed to have made racist or sexist comments or behaviors, compete while having romantic partners back home, and more. Discoveries about reality stars’ true colors always offer rude awakening that while we often watch these shows for escapism, they star real people, with real, often disappointing or disturbing histories. 

“Top Chef: Portland” notably filmed prior to Erales’ firing, but if there’s any truth to social media users’ claims that harassment allegations had been made against Erales for some time before the firing, it seems “Top Chef” could have uncovered this. In the very least, his firing was made public before the show began in earlier this year, giving time for an investigation. The show and its network have yet to comment on the controversy as of Friday afternoon.

Season 18 of “Top Chef” originally featured 15 chefs, competing throughout the pandemic over the course of 13 episodes of intensive competition. Some of the previously eliminated contestants returned for the season finale, as former contestants Jamie Tran, Byron Gomez and Maria Mazon paired with the finalists to help them shop for ingredients. Later, they had six hours to cook and prepare the four-course meal at Willamette Valley Vineyards, to a panel of judges that included former “Top Chef” all-stars and other luminaries of the culinary world, including Gourdet, Melissa King, Naomi Pomeroy and Peter Cho.

The finale of “Top Chef: Portland” on Thursday evening was immediately followed by the premiere of “Top Chef Amateurs,” which will feature 12 episodes of competition between amateur chefs, who will each be assigned a Top Chef all-star to be their sous chef, over the next several weeks.

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