Top Chef Portland Recap: A Tongue n’ Cheek Finale

TOP CHEF -- "The Next Top Chef Is..." Episode 1814 -- Pictured: (l-r) Shota Nakajima, Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales, Tom Colicchio -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "The Next Top Chef Is..." Episode 1814 -- Pictured: (l-r) Shota Nakajima, Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales, Tom Colicchio -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo) /

Much like most of season 18, the Top Chef Portland finale seemed to take an appropriately more muted approach to the festivities that culminated in naming a new Top Chef. From where I sit, the crowning of a new champion each season seems to be festooned with celebratory garnishes, yet Gabe Erales’ ascension to the Top Chef throne appeared to be more subdued.

Having expressed that viewpoint, I should add that Top Chef Portland was filmed last September and October, during the peak of a global pandemic, as well as wildfires and social unrest in Portland and its environs, so by no means am I complaining. Instead, it’s an observation, one that I feel applies to much of the season and was a massive factor in the universally enjoyed convivial spirit that the 15 cheftestants shared throughout.

Fortunately, Top Chef fans were still treated to yet another great season of food television, which is all we can ask for in the end. Unfortunately, Gabe Erales’ win has quickly become the elephant in the Top Chef Kitchen, which I’ll touch upon in Random Thoughts below.

This week’s finale featured Dawn Burrell, Shota Nakajima, and Gabe Erales preparing for and then cooking a progressive four-course meal for what would best be described as the Top Chef family. All-star panelists, guest judges Melissa King and Richard Blais, and Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Tom Colicchio alike were treated to what was by all appearances three largely outstanding, unique menus that spotlighted each competitor’s culinary roots and voice.

From Shota’s beef tongue curry to Dawn’s beef cheeks with perfect black-eyed peas to Gabe’s pig head cheese, the final three were creative in flexing their culinary muscles.

One annual rite of passage during the finale is the return of eliminated chefs, who take on the role of sous chef to the finalists. With the drawing of knives determining the order of choosing, Dawn welcomed Jamie Tran to her team, followed by Shota picking Byron Gomez and Gabe happy to be paired with Maria Mazon.

In the end, Dawn’s ongoing struggles with time management and plating, Shota’s mid-game decision to change the focus of his second dish, and Gabe’s continued exemplary sauce work made it quite evident to these eyes who would be named Top Chef. And with the title of Top Chef, Gabe earned $250,000 courtesy of S. Pellegrino, a feature in Food & Wine magazine, and an appearance at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this September. But along with the spoils of victory comes the intense scrutiny that has followed and is already casting a shadow on his win.


…Top Chef Portland was filmed last September and October. In December, Gabe Erales was fired from his role as Executive Chef at Austin, Texas restaurant Comedor, with owner Phillip Speer stating that he was “no longer with the restaurant due to his misconduct.” While the misconduct in question wasn’t detailed at the time, Gabe’s Top Chef win has resulted in a flood of speculation and accusations pertaining to inappropriate relations with staff, sexual harassment, and retaliation in the workplace. As of this writing, no official allegations have been forthcoming, nor have any charges been filed.

…Despite the absence of specific public allegations or charges, Erales did tell the Austin American-Statesman that he “admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship” with a female staff member last summer and that upon returning to Comedor from Portland, he reduced her work hours “based on her performance,” but also “continued to communicate with her in an unprofessional manner.” Erales went on to acknowledge that his actions were “bad decisions” that were “discriminatory.”

…In reaction to the growing body of anecdotal content, people are wondering why Bravo and Top Chef chose to air Season 18 at all. According to the Austin American-Statesman, an anonymous Top Chef source told the paper that producers never thought about putting the filmed product on the back shelf because “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.”

…Not long after the finale aired on Thursday night, Top Chef Portland all-star panelist and guest judge Gregory Gourdet posted lengthy comments on Instagram that included him saying, “As toxic conditions in kitchens and the bad behavior of chefs continually get exposed, I feel like we are in a vicious cycle with the womxn in our industry continually suffering the most. With so many examples of what not to do as a male chef over the past years – lawsuits, empires crumbling, it’s unbelievable that people still just don’t get it.” Gregory’s words need to be read by everyone and can be found by clicking on his name above. It should be noted that while GG’s post never mentioned Gabe Erales by name, the timing of it generally coincides with the Top Chef finale.

…While Gregory shared universal sentiments about an issue that continues to plague the restaurant industry, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi was more direct in tweets that she posted overnight. She said, “As someone who has been sexually harassed, this topic is a serious one that merits openness. 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. She went on to say, “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 the set.”

…Needless to say, this story will continue to unfold, but there’s no denying that the online chatter combined with Gabe’s admission of at least a portion of the suggested inappropriate behavior that prompted his firing has taken the luster off of the Top Chef Portland season and the show’s new winner in one fell swoop. That’s unfortunate because viewers have loved Season 18 and the cheftestants’ familial atmosphere, and now that positive energy is taking a backseat to this developing saga.

…Under normal circumstances, I would use these Random Thoughts to reminisce about the just-completed season of Top Chef Portland and reflect on favorite chefs and memorable moments. Still, with the storm clouds that have settled in over the finale’s outcome, it’s probably best to celebrate Season 18 under separate cover in the days to come.

In a time when most of us craved an escape from the real world’s tragic happenings, Top Chef Portland delivered—exponentially. The circumstances surrounding Gabe Erales’ victory will not come close to even remotely tempering my belief that Top Chef remains the gold standard of cooking competition shows. For 14 weeks, we were entertained and educated, we laughed and cried, and we all tuned in religiously to follow 15 talented chefs in their quest to hear Padma say, “you are Top Chef!”

But now that the season has ended, the serious work begins, the effort to give voice to those who feel voiceless in our nation’s kitchens and to hold accountable those in power who prey upon them. Let’s hope that by the time Top Chef Season 19 premieres, the fruits of such labor produce bountiful results.

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Now that Top Chef Portland has ended, which city would you like to see host Top Chef Season 19?