I have watched every single season of Top Chef multiple times. Earlier this year, I would have told you it’s one of my favourite shows. Every year I look forward to when the new season will drop and I watch along weekly as new episodes are released. After the current season is over, I cycle through my favourite seasons the rest of the year.
After Top Chef: New Orleans (Season 11) where Nicholas Elmi won, but was definitely not the best or most interesting chef on the show, with consistently underseasoned food, I took a break from the franchise and didn’t return for a couple of years. In this season 11 finale, it was down to three chefs: Nina Compton, a talented Black chef from St. Lucia with a great personality and killer dishes, Shirley Chung—one of my favorites on the top show ever—the biggest and bubbliest personality elevating Chinese dishes, and Nicholas Elmi, who is a white chef that seemed like an asshole on the show with anger issues flaring up and whose dishes, flavors, and creativity could not match Compton or Chung. For another white man to win, and a mediocre one at that, it felt like a gut punch.
In the first 17 seasons of the show, 12 of the winners are men, 10 are white men, and only 5 are women (and only two women won in the first 10 seasons).
The most recent season that aired in 2021, Top Chef: Portland (Season 18), I initially felt they were at least making attempts to be more inclusive in cast and challenges. They showcased Pan African restaurants in Portland, even a Portland chef didn’t know about (episode 3) and they highlighted tofu for an entire episode (episode 10). There were some microaggressions in the comments from the contestants around using tofu, an ingredient cooked and eaten by a large proportion of the population in Asia and an important source of protein for vegetarians around the world. Meanwhile people of color chefs are expected to have worked with all sorts of Western ingredients, but that is another article for another time. And at the end, though I was rooting for Seattle’s chef Shota Nakajima and I believed he earned the title, I wasn’t mad when chef Gabe Erales won.
That is, until I started reading articles about Erales’ firing from his executive chef position at Comedor shortly after the finale was filmed in December 2020. Top Chef had gone out of its way to portray Erales all season as a family man, as a devoted dad and husband, and come to find out, he reportedly had committed “repeated violations” including sexual harassment and retaliation against a woman employee that he had an affair with. This is a big deal. In the big picture of the #MeToo movement, most men accused of sexual harassment and assault don’t end up with any public or private consequences. If Erales got fired, it had to be serious and chronic.
It is worth noting that Bravo and Top Chef took a contradictory stance on sexual harassment, that may or may not have to do with race. In July 2021, acclaimed Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan was accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching and was edited out of the Top Chef finale, where he was one of the twelve attendees to the finales final meal. What Jordan did was reprehensible, and yet, if Top Chef was able to edit him out, they also could have reimagined a finale. Maybe brought the top three back sans
Erales back for a rematch? Perhaps re-filmed the ending Erales in the top three with a different outcome? Or even at the very least, acknowledged these claims of sexual misconduct against Erales, his subsequent firing, and conducted a thorough examination of how this finale was still okayed for release, months after the allegations back to light.
Bravo has never acknowledged if there would be any investigation and as of this fall, they still haven’t issued a statement on the allegations. Top Chef’s producers Casey Kriley and Jo Sharon have said publicly that “while we don’t condone [Erales’] behavior, we felt that everyone who participated deserved to see the show air” in their decision to air the finale as is. What a bullshit response. The bare minimum would be to acknowledge the allegations (that Erales has admitted to). Sweeping it under the rug and hoping that viewers just forget and move on is cowardly and harmful in perpetuating structures that allow sexual harassment and abuse to continue in the shadows. Not publicly condemning Erales’ behavior is essentially signaling they gave him a pass and decided to overlook it. What we need here is to go a step further and to condemn what he did, which could include:
1) Adding the acknowledgements of the allegations to the season finale
- Unless Bravo/Top Chef presents the win together with this information, the allegations will fade into obscurity, while Erales’ win will remain the only thing viewers will know when they watch this season in the future
- We know additions and edits are possible because they went back and added a message from chef Tom Colicchio about COVID-19 after Season 17 was already taped to add before the finale episodes in Italy aired, and they edited chef Edouardo Jordan out of the July 2021 finale within two weeks after allegations against Jordan went public in mid-June 2021
2) Explain the network and show’s decision to air the finale as is
3) Share what (if any) steps are taken in light of these confirmed sexual misconduct allegations
Top Chef should do some serious thinking about how they mishandled season 18, how they will handle (inevitable) future allegations, and how they need to do better now. I’m not the only one still thinking about this, Amy McCarthy of Eater published an article in September 2021 as the next season of Top Chef: Houston quietly started to film. I will not be watching.