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Texas-based chef Gabe Erales won the title of “Top Chef” Thursday night — and it’s already leaving a nasty aftertaste in the mouths of some fans of the enduring reality TV cooking competition.
While some hyped his win on social media, others found it problematic that the former executive chef of Austin’s Comedor — who was fired in December for “repeated violations” of restaurant policies — claimed the $250,000 grand prize.
Bravo’s Portland, Oregon-based finale of the show’s 18th season featured Erales, 40, being crowned the winner, with fellow Texas chef Dawn Burrell from Houston and Shota Nakajima from Seattle as runners-up.
It was announced that Erales was competing on “Top Chef” in February 2021. However, as the season progressed, rumors started cooking that he was canned from the Mexican eatery for violating restaurant policy on harassment and discrimination. Some social media watchdogs were not impressed after discovering the distasteful controversy.
One outraged fan said, “OK but for real #topchef not addressing Gabe being fired from his job and the allegations against him AT ALL is really irresponsible. I just discovered this today, and people like me have been watching and (not me) rooting for him all season with no idea.”
Another commented, “Is #TopChef going to address the Gabe Erales issue? I love this show but people are coming forward with their stories and it’s not looking good.”
As online speculation started to boil over, “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi served up her stance on Twitter.
“As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one and merits openness,” Lakshmi, 50, said. “We filmed Top Chef in October of last year & were not aware of the allegations now coming out about Gabe. This should be investigated & the network should consider its best action.”
“To be clear, no one has alleged sexual harassment on the record or otherwise to Bravo/Top Chef and we judges didn’t have any indication of inappropriate behavior from Gabe during his time on set,” Lakshmi added.
Network reps for “Top Chef” declined to comment when asked if there would be any response to the fan backlash. However, an insider connected to the show directed The Post to an Austin-American Statesman report revealing how the production team knew details about the firing, both from conversations with restaurant management and Erales.
The local outlet said an anonymous “Top Chef” source alleged that Erales admitted he engaged in a “consensual sexual relationship” with a kitchen staffer — and later cut her hours based on work performance. The source also said producers performed a background check on Erales and looked into his behavior on set, but found nothing problematic.
No specific allegations against Erales have been made officially — and the new “Top Chef” has publicly denied having sexual relationships with his staff at Comedor or any other restaurant.
Operated by partners William Ball and chef Philip Speer, Comedor achieved accolades such as being named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants and Texas Monthly’s best new restaurant of 2020 under Erales.
However, Speer told the Statesman that Erales was let go “due to violation of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values.” He later said more specifically that he repeatedly violated the company’s ethics policy in the context of the harassment of women. Erales, who did not respond to an inquiry from the outlet back in December 2020 about his firing, finally confirmed his termination last week.
Because the show was pre-taped months ago, Erales was let go from his executive chef job at Comedor after the show had already named him the season’s winner.
The series never considered re-shoots, according to the source, since “scrapping the entire season would not be fair to the other 14 chef contestants and a production team that endured the challenges of the pandemic to produce the show.”
Erales was absent from the post-finale episode of “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen” on Thursday night — a tradition in which the “Top Chef” sits down with the judges to discuss their journey throughout the season with Andy Cohen.
The finale of the Portland season took place in the Willamette Valley, where chefs were tasked with preparing a four-course meal. Finalists were paired with chefs who returned after being eliminated earlier in the season.
For the first course, Erales made fried cochinita pibil head cheese with habanero ash emulsion avocado mousse and kumquat sauce. He whipped up scallop aguachile with fermented pineapple and roasted pineapple oil for the second course. His third course consisted of short rib with chichilo negro mole, mushrooms and pickled persimmons, while his final dish was candied delicata squash with cafe Mexicano ice cream.
Erales, who hails from El Paso, is the first Mexican-American chef to win “Top Chef.” He previously opened up the now-closed Dai Due Taqueria under Jesse Griffiths. He also previously worked at Noma in Copenhagen and Mexico City. Before rising to executive chef at Comedor, he worked at other Austin restaurants such as Fonda San Miguel, La Condesa and Geraldine’s.
He announced during the season that he is opening a new Mexican restaurant called Bacalar in the fall of 2022 in collaboration with Austin company Urban Real Estate and Interiors. The menu will feature regional dishes inspired by the Mexican state of the Yucatan.
“Moving forward, my position in a restaurant as an authority figure is an important one and I know that in order to improve our industry, creating a positive non-toxic work environment begins with a plan of checks and balances that need to be in place before the doors open,” Erales told the Statesman.
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