Bravo aired the finale of Top Chef’s 18th season on Thursday night, with Austin chef Gabe Erales crowned the winner and fellow Texas chef Dawn Burrell from Houston and Shota Nakajima from Seattle as runners-up. Erales’s win was quickly overshadowed, however, as speculation about his recent firing from Austin Mexican restaurant Comedor circled on social media.
Erales was fired from his position as the opening executive chef of Comedor in December 2020, two months after shooting for Top Chef wrapped. The restaurant’s partner and chef Philip Speer first announced his departure in vague yet serious terms, saying Erales was terminated for “repeated violations of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values.”
Erales, who is from El Paso, is the first Mexican-American chef has to win the Bravo competition series. Before Comedor, he opened butcher shop/restaurant Dai Due’s taqueria (now closed) under Jesse Griffiths. He also previously worked at the famed Noma in both Copenhagen and Mexico City, as well as Austin restaurants Fonda San Miguel, La Condesa, and Geraldine’s. It was announced that Erales was competing on this latest season of Top Chef in February 2021.
Under Erales and Speer’s helm, Comedor became a critical darling in the Austin food scene since it opened in 2019 for its focus on exquisite modern Mexican fare and attention to the nixtamalization of corn for tortillas and other dishes. The restaurant was named as one of Esquire’s best new restaurants and Texas Monthly’s best new restaurant of 2020. Through Comedor, Speer has been a vocal proponent about the wellness and mental health of service workers. He runs a popular running club for service workers to decompress and connect with others. The restaurant also hosts the Austin meetings of Ben’s Friends, a national support group for service workers in recovery from substance use.
Top Chef Reddit boards and other anonymous online forums, meanwhile, paint a less-than-rosy picture about Erales’s rumored behavior at Comedor. While no one has officially come forward with any specific accusations, people took to Twitter Thursday night to express concern and dismay that Erales won. Then on the Friday morning after the episode aired, Statesman reported that Erales “admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship” with a female staffer during the summer of 2020. When he returned to the restaurant after filming the series in the fall, he cut down her work hours “based on her performance,” but “continued to communicat[e] with her in an unprofessional manner.” He likened his actions to reprimand the employee as “bad decisions” that were “discriminatory.”
Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi addressed social media comments about Erales with a tweet last night, writing, “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one and merits openness.” She claims that the show wasn’t aware of the allegations against Erales and calls for the show’s network channel Bravo to investigate what happened. She also noted that there were no recorded allegations of sexual harassment during filming.
As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one and merits openness.— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) July 2, 2021
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.— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) July 2, 2021
While Lakshmi says no one had knowledge of Erales’s mistreatment of a female employee, some information was made available before the finale aired. Last month, Speer told Statesman that Erales was fired specifically for “harassment of women.” Erales declined to comment further with Eater beyond the Statesman piece. Eater has reached out to Speer for further comment and information.
An anonymous Top Chef source told Statesman that the series never thought about re-doing the season, 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.” Eater has also reached out to Bravo and Top Chef’s production company Magical Elves to ask if an investigation will take place and, depending on the outcome, if Erales could be stripped of his Top Chef win. Again, no allegations have been made officially.
As this season of Top Chef aired, Erales announced that he is opening his own Mexican restaurant in the fall of 2022 in collaboration with Austin company Urban Real Estate and Interiors. Bacalar will focus on regional dishes inspired by the Mexican state of the Yucatan, which is where his family is from. The forthcoming restaurant is planned for the future downtown residential development 44 East Ave Residences in the Rainey neighborhood.
The only other time a Texas chef has won Top Chef was in 2012. That’s when Austin chef Paul Qui, who was cooking at Japanese restaurant Uchiko at the time, was declared the winner. He went on to open several restaurants, including his namesake one, Qui, in 2013. Qui was arrested in 2016 for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, and then closed and opened several restaurants in Austin and Houston (including Qui). Those criminal charges were dismissed in 2018.
Update, 12:27 p.m.: This article, originally published at 11:23 a.m., has been updated to reflect that Erales declined to comment directly to Eater beyond what he shared with Statesman.