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As ‘Top Chef’ Heads to Houston, Let’s Not Forget About What Happened Last Season

The reality competition crowned an admitted harasser as winner, and Bravo is all too happy for us to ignore that fact

Top Chef - Season 18
Gabe Erales, Top Chef’s season 18 winner
Photo by: David Moir/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Yesterday, Bravo and production company Magical Elves announced that the 19th season of Top Chef would film in Houston, and both the producers and the city’s media are already trying to forget what happened last season.

In an exclusive to the Houston Chronicle, Bravo confirmed weeks of rumors that Top Chef is indeed filming its upcoming season in Space City, first posted to celebrity gossip aggregator DeuxMoi. In that story, writer Greg Morago shares details about the new season, including a lineup of guest judges that includes season 18 finalist and Houston chef Dawn Burrell. What he doesn’t mention, though, is the massive controversy that surrounded the show’s last season.

For those who don’t watch, just before Austin chef Gabe Erales was named the winner of Top Chef: Portland, the Austin American-Statesmen reported that Erales had engaged in harassment and retaliation against a woman that he dated who was also an employee at his Austin restaurant Comedor. Erales was fired from Comedor and issued an apology, but many fans remained outraged that the show had chosen a winner that had been accused of harassment.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Bravo would want to minimize any negative attention in the midst of revealing details about a brand new season. It seems unfair that Erales’s actions should cast a pall on the new contestants, who had no involvement in the network’s poor choices. But it’s important to consider the show within that context, especially as the restaurant industry continues to contend with issues of harassment and abuse.

As soon as the Statesman story broke, Bravo went into damage control mode. The chef did not appear in the line-up for the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, which is part of the Top Chef prize, All mentions of Erales have been scrubbed from the Top Chef website, and he hasn’t done the round of post-win interviews that typically follows after a victor is chosen. He has not appeared on Top Chef’s Instagram account, which is full of photos of the show’s contestants and winners, since the story broke.

Following the allegations, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi publicly called for an investigation into the show’s failure to fully vet the claims of harassment. Bravo, of course, never acknowledged whether or not there would be any investigation. To date, the company has still not issued a statement on the allegations. The press release announcing its plans to film the 19th season in Houston never mentions Erales. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter following the season, executives from Magical Elves acknowledged that they “did not condone” Erales’s behavior, but said that they felt that re-shooting the season would be “unfair” to other contestants.

Morago’s story on Top Chef’s arrival in Houston isn’t the only story that’s participating in Bravo’s attempts to scrub away the controversy from last season. In Variety’s coverage of the announcement, Erales’s name is not mentioned once, nor are the claims that the production company knew about the allegations before the season hit the airwaves. The same goes for CultureMap’s reporting on Top Chef’s plans to film in Houston.

Time will tell whether or not Top Chef: Houston will be a boon for the city’s culinary scene. At the very least, it will offer local restaurants an opportunity to shine on a national stage, which is desperately needed after more than a year and a half of struggling through the pandemic. But there’s no reason to engage in revisionist history when it comes to Top Chef, and now that the show is still in production, this is the time to demand improvement.

As it emerges from this cloud of controversy, the best way for Bravo to move forward with Top Chef is to tell us why this season will be different than the last. Instead of sweeping its failures under the rug, the show should explain how it plans to implement rigorous, strictly enforced anti-harassment policies and vetting procedures to avoid casting chefs who have been credibly accused of — and in Erales’s case, admitted to — misconduct.

Update: This post has been updated to clarify the timeline of when Top Chef’s producers were made aware of Erales’s termination, and to add comments from show producers on Erales’s behavior.

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