Exclusive: 'Top Chef' winner admits to cutting Comedor employee's hours after sexual relationship
Former Comedor executive chef Gabe Erales won the 18th season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” on Thursday night, a crowning honor from television’s preeminent cooking competition show.
As Erales’ star ascended, details emerged that the star chef was fired in 2020 from the modern Mexican restaurant for violation of the restaurant's policies on harassment and discrimination. Although members of the "Top Chef" production team knew details about the firing, both from conversations with restaurant management and Erales, Bravo continued to air the season featuring a winner who was terminated just weeks after the show finished filming.
In December 2020, Erales did not respond to an inquiry from the American-Statesman regarding the dismissal, but the El Paso native, who helped land the sophisticated, downtown restaurant a spot in the Austin360 Dining Guide Top 10 in 2019, as well as honors from Texas Monthly and Esquire magazine, confirmed details of his firing with the American-Statesman this week.
Erales admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship with a female member of his kitchen staff in the summer of 2020 -- and then cutting her hours in November after he returned from taping the culinary king-making show in Portland in September and October. Erales said he cut the hours of the woman based on her performance, though Comedor chef-partner Philip Speer told the American-Statesman he did not deem the woman's work as sufficient reason for hours being cut.
At the time of the chef’s departure in December, Comedor's owners said that Erales was let go “due to violation of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values.” In June, Speer clarified to the Statesman that Erales was fired for repeated violations of the company's ethics policy as it relates to harassment of women.
“After I returned from ‘Top Chef,’ I made some business decisions as a manager that affected this employee and were found to be discriminatory and I realized that those were bad decisions,” Erales told the Statesman this week. “I’ve spent the last six months really reflecting on these mistakes and taking the necessary steps to be a better husband, a father, a chef and a leader, through therapy, through spirituality.”
Erales told the American-Statesman that though his physical relationship ended with the female kitchen employee when he returned from Portland, he continued communicating with her in an unprofessional manner.
The Statesman is not naming the employee due to the nature of the allegations. She declined to comment for this story.
A spokeswoman for "Top Chef" declined to comment for this story. However, a source close to "Top Chef," who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, told the American-Statesman that the show learned from Comedor in December that Erales was fired for violations of the restaurant’s harassment policy but said the restaurant did not provide further details about the firing.
The source said Erales told the production team he’d had a consensual relationship with a member of his kitchen staff, a relationship Erales told them ended in August, and that Erales said he later curtailed the employee’s hours. The source said that in addition to a background check before casting, the company looked into Erales’s behavior on the set of “Top Chef,” found no problematic behavior and decided to continue airing the show as planned.
There was no consideration given to recutting the season, according to the source, who added that 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.
Asked about the details behind the show’s discovery of the information about Erales’ firing and why the season of “Top Chef” was allowed to air in the spring despite the knowledge of his termination, a Bravo spokesperson said the network had no comment.
The revelations come amid a national reckoning over sexual harassment of female employees in various industries. A recent survey of women who work as servers, bartenders or in other food industry roles found 70% reporting being sexually harassed by their employers, coworkers or customers, according to a CBS News story.
Erales, who is planning to open Yucatan-inspired restaurant Bacalar on Rainey Street in fall 2022, says he believes that manager-employee relations “are very detrimental to a work environment and definitely impact the success of a business, especially a kitchen," adding that “moving forward, my position in a restaurant as an authority figure is an important one and I know that in order to improve our industry, creating a positive non-toxic work environment begins with a plan of checks and balances that need to be in place before the doors open.”
The recently gilded TV star, whose only previous work as an executive chef came during a short stint at Dai Due Taqueria at Fareground, says he has never had a sexual relationship with any other employees who reported directly to him at Comedor or any other restaurant. He says that his firing has served as a moment of growth for him to focus on his responsibilities as “an honest husband and a focused leader.”
“I’m even more thankful for the management team for enforcing their core values in an effort to keep a safe work environment because I would not not have been able to face my personal challenges had this not happened," Erales said.
The “Top Chef” winner receives $250,000 from sponsor S.Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water, a feature in "Food & Wine" magazine and an appearance at the "Food & Wine" Classic in Aspen.