Like many people, much of my comfort TV revolves around food. The Great British Baking Show helped me cope with the 2016 election. The Chef Show got my kids to try (and for my son to love) oysters. And Top Chef inspired me to always travel with a food itinerary, and it pushed me to be more confident and adventurous in the kitchen. I’ve watched Top Chef since the awkward days of Katie Lee as host when lines like “I’m not your bitch, bitch” made this show more about the drama than the food. Since I’ve not had cable for a while, I usually have to wait until the new season is available for streaming, or I have to buy the season on Amazon Prime when I cannot wait to get my Top Chef fix.
This season and this year was one of these times. I needed that Top Chef comfort. And in some ways I got it. The show was in Portland, a city I visited during my last pre-pandemic work trip, so it was fun to see one of the meals take place at the hotel where I stayed. Since the season was filmed during the pandemic, the majority of the guest judges were past contestant favorites quarantining with the show’s production. Early episodes showcased dishes of the African diaspora and the ingredients of Indigenous Peoples. There were two Mexican chefs who made dishes and highlighted ingredients that go beyond the U.S. stereotypes of Mexican cuisine. There were two Asian chefs who were as talented and creative as they were adorable. There was an African American woman and former Olympian from Houston who was making food that was described as soulful, comforting, and complex.
But soon after I found myself enjoying Top Chef too much, I read somewhere that after filming, a contestant had been fired from his restaurant for harassment. He seemed like an early favorite, often at the top of each challenge. He made it to the final against chefs Shota Nakajima and Dawn Burrell. And he was the one making all those moles I wanted to taste. And Padma’s reading of “YOU are Top Chef!” became anything but comforting.
Gabe Erales is the first Mexican Top Chef. And that sucks. In a season that should have been celebrated for this win and for the talents of the other finalists, we are left watching the realities of a male-dominated industry in which sexual harassment is all too common. I’ve always loved that Top Chef has made a point to cast as many women as men in each season, though in earlier seasons it was often the men who dominated the competition. I still remember when Jen Carroll won the first challenge of the Las Vegas season, and I thought that she might be the first female Top Chef. The first female Top Chef ended up being Stephanie Izard, who won the competition’s fourth season and has been pretty successful since her time on the show. More recently chefs like Melissa King, Kristen Kish, Brooke Williamson, and Mei Lin have proven that Top Chef does not have to be a boys’ club anymore.
At least in terms of the contestants. Because what is worth examining is how much Top Chef is still a boys’ club behind the scenes. While Tom Colicchio wrote an “Open Letter to (Male) Chefs” on Medium condemning bro culture in professional kitchens back in 2017, as far as I know he has made no statement (or at least it’s not been loud enough) to condemn Erales’ alleged behavior or to address the culture of the show's production. Top Chef’s own Twitter account does not even mention, let alone celebrate, Gabe Erales as season 18’s winner. It definitely does not acknowledge the controversy - its most recent tweets are about their new show, Top Chef: Amateurs. Padma Lakshmi did tweet a response, but many loyal viewers do not think it is enough.
The top chef reddit page (r/bravotopchef) has been talking about these allegations since the first episode. I am having a really hard time believing that @bravotv had no clue about this prior to airing. If that is the case, that is truly very sad.— That Girl. (@ThatGirl787) July 2, 2021
While Bravo and Top Chef were made aware of Erales’ firing, it is odd that they did not seem prepared to address his win in a significant way. While I understand the decision to still air the season due to the talents and efforts of those behind and in front of the camera during a pandemic, and while I imagine that there are (legal) reasons why they may not be able to strip Erales’ title, I wish they had addressed this the moment the chatter got loud on reddit. I wish they had condemned his behavior, and as the Twitter user mentioned above, facilitated a conversation about the misogyny in the restaurant industry.
Leading up to the last couple of episodes, I hoped that Gabe would be eliminated so that I wouldn’t feel so dirty watching. I have no desire to buy episodes of Top Chef: Amateurs right now, because watching them would not bring me comfort. They would just remind me of the many ways women get pushed out or struggle to succeed in male-dominated fields. It would remind me of some of my own struggles.
But as funny as I feel about Top Chef right now, I don’t feel funny about sharing this article on Shota Nakajima, the season’s fan favorite. It’s a good post-show interview in which he shares his new approach as a restaurant owner:
“I think before COVID, I had this big mentality: great restaurant first, then great food and great employees. I’ve changed that direction to great employees first. For so long, the restaurant industry’s common sense is Oh, we have turnover because it’s just a very high-turnover-rate industry. For me, that’s something I want to look at because I’m sick of convincing employees to stay. I want employees to stay because it’s a good place to work and pays well. I restructured my labor budget into profit-share status. Everyone makes really good money now. I make less, way less, but honestly, the amount of stress that I used to go through on a daily basis wondering if they’re okay because they’re working for me — the fact that I don’t have to worry about that makes me so much happier. Now, I give more to the employees, and I feel like I get more from the employees.”
I also don’t feel funny about sharing this LA Times article about Top Chef finalist, Dawn Burrell, whose reflections on her “imperfections” on the show are, unfortunately, really relatable:
“Those were very painful moments, and I feel very exposed about my shortcomings. And one of them is just simply wanting so badly to show everything that is Chef Dawn Burrell on one plate, without editing myself down, so that I can get all of these things done. I just want to make sure that they get me.
To put flawed Dawn on display, for everyone to see, always messing up — it’s just frustrating and it’s painful to watch. I feel really self-conscious about it. Even watching the episodes, I get anxious from knowing what I did wrong at any moment. Like when I listen to what the judges are saying, it’s kind of hard for me to take in the good when I know there’s bad with it too.
But I do appreciate the perspective because it helps to soften the blow, so to speak. I’m not perfect, and my imperfection happens to be wanting to do so much that I cause myself to fail sometimes.”
But I’ve been most excited to learn about how the show has helped her creativity grow:
“Doing the show is almost like tapping into a different level of your craft, and I came home feeling like I had done the seemingly impossible. I now cook with even more confidence — if I did those things there with all that pressure and all those time constraints, I can pretty much do anything, as far as cooking is concerned.”
And how her work with the Lucille Hospitality Group goes beyond her role as a chef for her upcoming new restaurant, Late August:
“Late August will be part of Lucille’s Hospitality Group, which also has Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit that provides chef-driven meals for people in impoverished communities. What’s coming to the nonprofit is farmland: We’ve just been gifted 50 acres that will provide about 100 jobs for people in the community and fresh food supply for merchants we’re going to open in these food desert neighborhoods. I’m the head of the fermentation department of Lucille’s 1913, and we’re taking our overages of produce or scrap and making relishes and kimchis and things like that and putting everything else back into the soil by way of compost. I’m so proud of this process because we’re working our way to becoming a zero-waste entity.”
You can see the fermentation lab at work, her cooking with my son’s Top Chef favorite, sound machine Jamie Tran, her Juneteenth celebration with other Top Chef contestants from her season and more all on Dawn Burrell’s IG.
I am super excited for Burrell and Nakajima’s culinary futures. Their work is some of what I’ve chosen to keep from this season’s Top Chef.