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Houston’s Dawn Burrell Should Be Named the Next ‘Top Chef’

The alleged harassment of a female restaurant staffer by newly crowned Top Chef season 18 winner Gabe Erales is a clear disqualifying factor

Chef Dawn Burrell, a woman in a white chef’s coat and black apron, massages ingredients on a metal sheet pan.
Dawn Burrell proved she’s a winner all season long
David Moir/Bravo

On Thursday, June 30, just before most Americans planned to head out for the Independence Day holiday, Bravo cooking competition show Top Chef: Portland crowned Austin chef Gabe Erales the winner of its 18th season. The next morning, allegations that Erales had harassed a woman at his previous restaurant Comedor were all over the news.

According to Eater Austin, Erales’s departure from Comedor came after the chef admitted to engaging in a “consensual sexual relationship” with a staffer at the restaurant during the summer of 2020. After he wrapped up filming on Top Chef and returned the restaurant a few months later, he reduced the woman’s work hours and “continued to communicat[e] with her in an unprofessional manner.” Erales told the Austin American-Statesman that he made “bad decisions” that were “discriminatory” toward the employee.

And of course, because Erales won, that means that Houston’s own Dawn Burrell did not take home the trophy. As Eater reported before the season finale, it was clear that Top Chef’s judges quickly took a liking to Erales’s take on Mexican cuisine. But what was also clear, after more than a dozen main challenges, was that Dawn Burrell was equally deserving of being named the next Top Chef. The same could be said for excellent Seattle chef Shota Nakajima, but obviously we’re pulling for the home team here.

Throughout the season, Burrell demonstrated that she is an incredibly talented chef and a strong contender for the win, approaching each challenge with a fiercely competitive spirit. She shined a light on the cuisines of the African diaspora and her home city, while (mostly) executing them flawlessly. Sometimes, that diversity of influence proved to be her downfall — there were multiple episodes over the past season where Burrell failed to get one or more elements of her dish onto the plate. She was, at times, too ambitious within the constraints of the competition.

But perhaps most importantly, she isn’t currently accused of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a restaurant staffer. The restaurant industry has a long history of propping up chefs, especially male chefs, who have been accused of abusive behavior in and outside of their establishments. By stripping Erales of his title now, it would send a pointed message that this kind of behavior won’t be rewarded with a $250,000 check and a big fancy spread in Food & Wine magazine.

In a statement posted to her Twitter account, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi said unequivocally that the show’s producers were not aware of the allegations against Erales. “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one and merits openness,” Lakshmi wrote. “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.”

But according to the Austin American-Statesman, the show’s producers were aware that Erales had been fired from his Austin restaurant Comedor after violating the restaurant’s harassment policy. An anonymous source told the paper that Bravo, the network that airs Top Chef, “never” gave any consideration to re-filming the season because it reportedly wouldn’t be fair to the show’s other contestants.

In some ways, that rationale actually makes sense. But what really isn’t fair is that the work that Burrell and Nakajima and all the other chefs did during this past season — in the midst of a pandemic, mind you — is being overshadowed by the bad behavior of a man who ended up taking home the prize.

Not surprisingly, Burrell was endlessly gracious after the finale aired, giving shout-outs to the show’s judges and her fellow contestants, especially Las Vegas chef Jamie Tran, who joined Burrell in Houston for her recent Juneteenth celebration dinner. She acknowledged her mistakes, celebrated her wins, and just generally proved why she’s this season’s true winner.

“What I know about myself is that I NEVER give up. Ever. I will push through every situation, still giving my all regardless of the outcome,” Burrell wrote. “With this same determination I will continue to push through boundaries. My pursuit of excellence is endless. What I’ve learned: I must continue to edit myself. It’s totally true that sometimes less is more. Cooking with confidence is key.”

It’s unclear whether or not Bravo, or Top Chef production company Magical Elves will conduct any sort of investigation into Erales’s behavior. It’s likely that this story will blow over in a couple of weeks, just in time for the next chef to be accused of harassment or misconduct. Now more than four years into the #MeToo movement, following the collapse of the empires run by restaurant industry figures accused of abuse like Mario Batali, John Besh, and Ken Friedman, there is something deeply unsettling about the fact that a person who has been credibly accused of harassment can still win one of the most prominent culinary competitions.

Until the culinary industry is willing to exact meaningful consequences on bad actors, these patterns will continue. The concerns of harassment victims, who come forward at great personal and professional risk, will still be brushed aside as less important than the culinary “geniuses” that abused them.

And sure, crowning Dawn Burrell this season’s real Top Chef won’t solve the hospitality industry’s pervasive harassment problem. What it can do, though, is recognize the accomplishments of an endlessly talented chef who has proven that her talents are just as worthy of this honor. The show would also do well to take Lakshmi’s advice and open an investigation into how exactly this happened in the first place.

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