“Top Chef: Portland” aired its season finale Thursday night, marking the end of a wellness touring season during the pandemic that sought to honor our country’s rich diversity of food – including Indigenous traditions and African women – and the sacrifice of frontline workers. Sadly, this goodwill was marred by real concerns when the judges crowned a winner whose past caught up with them.

These were finalists Dawn Burrell, a Houston-based chef and former US team athletics Olympian; Gabe Erales, based in Austin, specializing in Mexican cuisine; and Seattle-based Shota Nakajima, who was grateful for a second chance after having to close one of his restaurants. After the final challenge, in which they were tasked with preparing the best four-course meal of their life, the panel of star judges chose Erales as the new “Top Chef” champion and the first Mexican to hold the title.

That triumph quickly faded as fans on social media backed down and demanded answers for an earlier report on Erales. According to the Austin Chronicle, Erales was fired from his job at the Austin Comedor restaurant, where he was a chef, in December. Eater reports that an ambiguous email from the restaurant in December stated that Erales had left the restaurant “due to repeated violations of our policies and behavior that conflicted with our values.”

Erales notably did not appear on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” which would traditionally feature the season winner after the finale. Instead, hosts Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons appeared and discussed the competition without hinting at any real-world concerns (Lakshmi even referring to Erales’ “incredible gravy job” in the show). His victory was also not announced and celebrated on social media accounts Bravo or “Top Chef”, which simply acknowledged the hard work of the three finalists.

Amid reactions from fans criticizing the series for its silence on the matter, Lakshmi addressed the controversy in a tweet: “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is serious and deserves to be opened up,” she wrote. “We filmed Top Chef in October last year and were not aware of the allegations against Gabe. It should be investigated and the network should consider their best action.”

In a lengthy Instagram post, former “Top Chef” champion and guest judge Gregory Gourdet elliptically alluded to the allegations against Erales when writing at length about the abuses of workers in the restaurant industry, which particularly target the women”.

“As toxic conditions in kitchens and bad chef behavior are on display, I feel like we are in a vicious cycle with the women in our industry who continually suffer the most,” Gourdet wrote. He added, “Our industry has a long way to go and I wonder if we’ll ever get there, but I’m not giving up… Basic human decency is just the starting point for our survival. , abusive and self-centered chef. ”Gourdet, who is a Portland-based chef, has also taken steps to create a fairer workplace, according to a New York Times interview.

While it is not known exactly what led to Erales’s dismissal from Austin’s Comedor, and neither “Top Chef” nor Comedor made it clear, fans believe the dismissal was related to sexual harassment and abuse. abuse of workers, given statements by Lakshmi and Gourdet on social media, as well as some more specific allegations made on social media. The fans, and Gourdet himself, have stressed the importance of better monitoring the competitive media and television broadcasts of their competitors.

“Top Chef” is not the first offender when it comes to poor control and possible casting mistakes like this. In one particularly extreme example, reality TV star Ryan Jenkins had appeared in VH1’s “Megan Wants a Millionaire” shortly before murdering his wife Jasmine Fiore in 2009. In somewhat less extreme examples, ” ABC’s The Bachelor has long struggled with casting candidates. who later turn out to have made racist or sexist comments or behavior, compete while having romantic partners at home, and more. The discoveries about the true colors of reality stars always provide a rude awakening: while we often watch these shows to get away from it all, they feature real people, with real stories, often disappointing or disturbing.

‘Top Chef: Portland’ notably filmed before Erales was fired, but if there is any truth in the claims by social media users that harassment allegations were made against Erales for some time before the dismissal, it seems that “Top Chef” could have found out. . At the very least, his firing was made public before the show started earlier this year, leaving time for an investigation. The show and its network had not yet commented on the controversy on Friday afternoon.

Season 18 of “Top Chef” originally featured 15 chefs, competing throughout the pandemic in 13 episodes of intense competition. Some of the previously eliminated contestants returned for the season finale, as former contestants Jamie Tran, Byron Gomez and Maria Mazon teamed up with the finalists to help them purchase ingredients. They later had six hours to cook and prepare the four-course meal at Willamette Valley Vineyards, in front of a panel of judges including former “Top Chef” stars and other culinary luminaries including Gourdet, Melissa King, Naomi Pomeroy and Peter Cho.

Thursday night’s “Top Chef: Portland” finale was immediately followed by the premiere of “Top Chef Amateurs,” which will feature 12 episodes of competition between amateur chefs, who will each be awarded a Top Chef star for being their sub. chief, over the next few weeks.

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