Top Chef’s Winner Is a Loss for Women Everywhere
Gabe Erales won the coveted title of Top Chef amid a sexual-misconduct controversy, leaving a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. Does reality TV even care?
It was a predictable ending for an otherwise stellar season of Top Chef—thanks not to outstanding cooking by a superior cheftestant, but months of online chatter about a contestant’s sexual misconduct allegations, presenting an all-too-familiar storyline of problematic men reaching the reality-TV summit despite their significant flaws.
So, when Padma Lakshmi delivered her trademark, “You are Top Chef!” line to Gabe Erales on Thursday night, I was anything but surprised, yet nonetheless disappointed.
It was not immediately clear that Erales (notably the first Latino Top Chef winner) would be the ultimate victor based on both his performance and overall edit. He didn’t receive what reality fans refer to as “the winner’s edit,” in which producers choose to highlight the successes and charms of the eventual winner in order to woo the audience.
This season, that honor seems to have gone to Shota Nakajima, a clear contender for fan- and judge-favorite since episode 1. He performed the best all season. And, honestly, he also seems like a pretty chill guy. Erales, on the other hand, came across as talented, somewhat likable, yet ultimately forgettable.
A few weeks after the season premiered this spring, rumors started circulating online of untoward behavior by Erales in both his professional and personal lives. An article from the Austin American-Statesman resurfaced from December 2020 (two months after Top Chef: Portland production wrapped) revealing that Erales had been let go from his position as executive chef at Comedor in Austin “due to violation of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values,” although it failed to clarify exactly what forced the ousting of the celebrated chef.
Posts on Reddit’s Top Chef message boards, however, were far less vague. Though these allegations from anonymous women only pointed to the guy not being the most faithful husband, that’s not the exact moral fiber I’m hoping for in a winner—but this is Top Chef, not Top Husband.
The morning after Erales was announced as champion, the Austin American-Statesman published another article, this time confirming more specifics that led to Erales’ firing. Erales reportedly confessed to what he contends was a consensual sexual relationship with a female subordinate in his Comedor kitchen staff and to cutting back her hours once he returned home from filming the show. He claimed the demotion was due to her performance, but chef-partner of Comedor, Philip Speer, didn’t find the explanation valid.
You wouldn’t know any of this by watching Thursday night’s episode of Top Chef. Nor would you know this by looking at Bravo’s social media or tuning in to that night’s Watch What Happens Live! with Andy Cohen. You would get a hint of scandal, however, by looking at Padma’s Twitter:
But those two tweets—one offering an iota of accountability and one distancing herself, the show, and the network from the scandal—seem to be the extent of Bravo’s public reaction. And the silence, frankly, is pretty pathetic.
This is just the latest in a long line of troubling if not straight-up predatory contestants appearing on reality television and the “adults in the room” failing to do their due diligence.
Perhaps the most famous example came when Tonya Cooley, originally of MTV’s The Real World: Chicago, was alleged to have been raped with a toothbrush by two male contestants on the network’s popular spinoff show, The Challenge. The ensuing investigation led to a settlement which has prevented any of the parties involved from commenting publicly; however, Netflix removed the episode when it added that season to its streaming catalogue, and none of those involved have appeared on the show since. After that drama unfolded, the show began to move away from fostering as much of a “frat-house” atmosphere and began to limit the amount of alcohol provided to contestants when partying.
There was also an incident during production of the fourth season of ABC’s Bachelor in Paradise. Contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson were “hooking up” while highly intoxicated and unable to fully consent, all while cameras were rolling. The next day, a concerned producer filed a complaint with Warner Bros. and production halted. Two weeks later, the company claimed it found “no evidence of misconduct by cast on set,” the two concerned parties went home, and filming continued for the rest of the lovers left in “Paradise.”
Then, in late 2019, CBS’ Survivor did something it had not done in its 38 prior seasons: it broke the fourth wall. The season had featured one contestant, Dan Spilo, engaging in a pattern of unwanted touching with the female castaways. Production itself became a focus of one episode when a contestant who had been targeted by Spilo, Kellee Kim, was voted off in part due to her disclosing her discomfort to castmates. Spilo was later removed by producers, Kim was given a one-on-one interview with host Jeff Probst during the reunion show, and CBS instituted new rules for subsequent seasons.
Around the same time, another Bravo show, Below Deck: Thailand, featured one male cast member aggressively pursuing his female counterpart with unwanted kisses while he was intoxicated “off charter.” The reunion show, filmed in early 2020, and cast appearances on WWHL failed to make up for any of the perceived misogyny that was used to try and excuse the unacceptable behavior. (Below Deck already had a checkered past when it came to its handling of sexual harassment.)
And most recently—in fact, it aired only moments before Erales was declared victor—Top Chef production edited out a guest diner, chef Edouardo Jordan, from the finale dinner after he was accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct or unwanted touching.
All of this is to say, there is no shortage of sexual predators featured on reality television. Perhaps that is, unfortunately, true to reality. But this genre of television has never seemed to have an issue with editing around problems that might otherwise hurt their final product.
Reality-television audiences tend to skew predominantly female, particularly in the cooking and competition sub-genres. Given that the vast majority of women have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual advances in their lives, it’s safe to assume that a staggering number of these shows’ viewers have themselves been victims of sexual harassment or assault. And that’s not taking into consideration the 43 percent of men in the United States who report being victims as well, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The restaurant and food world are no exception to this disheartening reality. In fact, when it comes to women reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, all other industries pale in comparison.
With these sobering statistics in mind, it feels particularly egregious for a show like Top Chef to cast contestants or include storylines featuring sexual harassment or assault of any nature.
Where Top Chef differs from other reality shows is in the level of sophistication and legitimate influence it carries in its featured field. The show seems to be aware of this power and both its host and head judge have spoken out in support of women previously.
I respect Tom Colicchio for his frank admissions of insufficient action amid the restaurant industry’s #MeToo reckoning. I admire Padma for speaking openly about some of her own experiences. And yet, Season 18 of Top Chef will forever be known as the season where a creep won.
Sure, reality television is often a glamorized hellscape of toxic garbage; however, it’s also shifted the culture for the better. Imagine what it would mean if they actively supported people whose cries for help have fallen on deaf ears? Imagine how powerful it would be if survivors of sexual harassment and assault were prioritized over a single season of a TV show? I think that’d be pretty extraordinary.
We don’t know what went on behind closed doors at Bravo. We don’t know what they decided to keep and what they decided to leave out. We don’t know what their contracts state. We don’t know if Padma, Gail, and Tom waged wars behind the scenes to advocate for a more delicate handling of Gabe’s indiscretions. But we also don’t know if they didn’t. We don’t know how much thought went into this. We only know the final product. And it was anything but satisfactory.
This was an opportunity for Bravo, just as it has unfortunately been an opportunity for CBS, ABC, and MTV before it. Whatever network inevitably has the next chance to proactively stand by victims of this type of trauma, I hope you do better than your predecessors. Luckily for you, the bar isn’t set too high.