When Chef Gabriel Erales won the Top Chef title, it felt like a momentous occasion. He spent the entire season cooking elevated reimaginings of traditional Mexican food and won on the merits of his molé, and was one of three finalists of color who all cooked meals specific to their heritage. He is Top Chef’s first Mexican winner, and during his post-win confessional he acknowledged the thousands of Mexican kitchen workers who keep the restaurant industry moving. This win was for them, Erales claimed.
But the morning after Erales was named Top Chef’s winner, the Austin American-Statesman published an interview with Erales that eviscerated all of the warm fuzzy feelings of his win. Before being cast on the show, Erales was an executive chef at the restaurant Comedor in Austin, Texas, which he mentioned several times during his talking head scenes. According to the Statesman, he was fired shortly after returning from filming “for violations of the restaurant’s policies on harassment and discrimination.”
By his own admission, Erales, who is married, had a sexual relationship with a member of his staff in the summer of 2020, prior to filming Top Chef in Portland, Oregon. When he returned, their physical relationship ended but he “continued communicating with her in an unprofessional manner,” the Statesman reports. Eventually, Erales cut the woman’s hours at the restaurant, calling it a “business decision” and citing poor performance. However, Philip Speer, chef and part-owner of Comedor, claimed that there was no performance-based reason to lessen this particular woman’s hours. Speer also confirmed to the Statesman that Erales was fired for “repeated violations of the company’s ethics policy as it relates to harassment of women.”
When asked for comment by Jezebel, Erales declined to elaborate on his statement to the Statesman. He told the paper:
After I returned from Top Chef I made some business decisions as a manager that affected this employee and were found to be discriminatory and I realized that those were bad decisions. I’ve spent the last six months really reflecting on these mistakes and taking the necessary steps to be a better husband, a father, a chef, and a leader, through therapy, through spirituality.
I’m even more thankful to the management team [of Comedor] for enforcing their core values in an effort to keep a safe work environment because I would not have been able to face my personal challenges had this not happened.
Bravo also declined to comment.
A source close to the production told Jezebel that the network and the show’s producers were unaware of any allegations against Erales before casting him on the show. According to the source, Top Chef producers were made aware that he’d been fired for violating restaurant policies in December before the show aired, but the restaurant did not provide specific details on which policies Erales had violated. Padma Lakshmi tweeted a similar statement last Thursday.
From the start of the show to its grand finale, Erales was framed as a Good Guy, down on his luck, looking to make an impact on the food industry for the sake of his family and all of the chefs like him who never had a fair shot. The editing choices made by producers worked to perfectly amplify this narrative. A few well-placed musical notes and the right cut are the difference between a show villain and a show hero. Erales was, without a question, an on-screen hero, as were most of the cheftestants this season. The pandemic ravaged the restaurant business and the theme of coming together to save an entire industry was palpable throughout the entire season.
But as is the truth with so many men who are framed as heroes, the truth did not align with the story. Erales is still trying to retain the image Top Chef created for him; he told the Statesman, “I’ve spent the last six months really reflecting on these mistakes and taking the necessary steps to be a better husband, a father, a chef, and a leader, through therapy, through spirituality.”
Of course, Erales’s actions didn’t occur in a vacuum. The restaurant industry is rife with sexual harassment allegations and men who run kitchens that breed discrimination towards women. The appeal of Top Chef is that it feels separated from that dark world of abusive chefs. It is a sanitized place where food, and describing food, is all that matters and the worst thing a person can hear is, “Pack your knives.”
Erales has broken the imaginary fifth wall and, through its cracks, you can see the ugly side of the restaurant industry reappearing. He will still get the prize package he was promised from the show and, according to his Instagram account, will be opening his own restaurant next fall. Erales told the Statesman he will be a better leader in the future and looks to create a “positive non-toxic work environment” at his new place.