The Biggest Scandals To Ever Hit Top Chef

Bravo's "Top Chef" has been on the air for over 15 years, so it's no surprise that over the years it's seen its fair share of scandals (via IMDb). More than 250 chefs have competed on the show, and more than 200 people have appeared on the show as guest judges, so from sheer volume alone you would expect a scandal or two to pop up over time. Add in the fiery personalities chosen to compete, the logistics of running a complicated competition show for so many years in so many locations, and the intense and often dramatic world of the restaurant industry, and you're bound to get good television. 

The show itself seems to operate mostly above board, with a few exceptions ... What was that pay-to-play scheme in Texas all about? And what exactly happened with those teamsters in Boston? 

It's the judges and contestants who most often seem to find themselves in trouble, both in on-air incidents like Marcel's head shaving and pea-gate and off-screen drama that's seen numerous chefs from the show dragged into court. 

Whether you watch the show religiously or have seen a few seasons here and there, chances are you're familiar with some of the people involved in the scandals we're about to discuss. The next time you watch "Top Chef," just remember — there's a lot more going on under the surface of the show than you might think. 

When Top Chef contestant Marcel Vigneron was allegedly assaulted on the show

Marcel Vigneron first appeared on "Top Chef" season 2, and though it was clear from the beginning that he was wildly talented, a lot of his fellow cheftestants seemed not to like him (via the Las Vegas Sun).

Tensions rose and things got out of hand one night when Vigneron and fellow cheftestants Ilan Hall, Cliff Crooks, and Elia Aboumrad were left alone in their house on the final night of filming in Los Angeles with just a handheld camera to record footage. 

Everyone's story differs, but what the camera showed is Crooks pulling a sleeping Marcel off the couch and pinning him to the ground in an attempt to forcibly shave Vigneron's head as the other castmates look on (via HuffPost). Crooks puts Vigneron in a full nelson, at which point Vigneron was able to get away.

Judge Tom Colicchio was so enraged about the event that he wanted to have all four of the participants in Marcel's assault to be sent home, which would have made Vigneron the winner by default. Instead, producers intervened, and it was just Cliff Crooks who was sent home the next day. 

Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella was accused of harassment

Mike Isabella was a contestant on season 6 of "Top Chef" and "Top Chef All-Stars" (via IMDb). The Washington, D.C.-area chef found a huge amount of success after his appearance on the shows, opening 11 restaurants and managing a staff of nearly 800 people. It seemed he was going to be a major "Top Chef" success story — until he became the opposite.

Isabella's new empire began to crumble in 2017, after a year of high-profile growth that he didn't seem prepared to handle. That same year, Manager Chloe Caras says that she was harassed by both Isabella and his business partners. Caras said that Isabella's offenses included making sexist comments, showing up to work drunk, and goading another chef into trying to sleep with her, an event that she says led to Isabella firing her. She also said that two of his business partners, Taha Ismail and George Pagonis, sent her illicit text messages and that the group as a whole called her names, insulted her, and touched her without permission.  

The case was eventually settled, Isabella filed for bankruptcy, and on December 27, 2018, Isabella closed all of his Mike Isabella Concept restaurants, according to Eater

Accused harasser John Besh was edited out of Top Chef

John Besh was a famous restaurateur in New Orleans and head of the John Besh restaurant group when he appeared as a guest judge on an episode of "Top Chef" Colorado. The James Beard Award-Winning chef had appeared on several other cooking shows and was considered to be one of the preeminent New Orleans chefs.

However, in between his "Top Chef" appearance being filmed and the episode airing, 25 women came forward with allegations that Besh had created a work environment in which sexual harassment and assault flourished. One woman even said that she was forced into a long-term unwelcome relationship with Besh himself.

Soon after the news came to light, Bravo made a statement that it was evaluating Besh's episode to decide whether or not it should air. Then, days after the series premiere, Bravo announced that it would edit Besh out of the episode entirely (he was replaced with footage of chef Chris Cosentino). 

Apparently, judge Tom Colicchio may have set the wheels in motion to edit Besh out of the episode, calling the production company as soon as he heard the news, and later saying "Bravo to Bravo for making this decision" after they announced Besh would not appear on the show (via Eater).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Top Chef judge Graham Elliot was sued for withholding tips from his employees

Chef Graham Elliot may have two Michelin stars under his belt, but the charismatic cook and television personality hasn't always operated his restaurant above board, according to a group of employees who sued the chef, according to Eater

Elliot, who per IMDb appeared on "MasterChef" and "MasterChef Jr." for years before becoming a judge on "Top Chef" in 2016, was sued in 2012 by 14 former servers at his Chicago restaurant, the aptly named Graham Elliot. The employees alleged that they were owed money due to unlawful tip pooling and said that Elliot was operating a "systemic scheme to deprive them of regular and overtime compensation."

The employees were seeking back pay plus interest; the case was settled in the fall of 2012 with Elliot paying an undisclosed sum to his former employees. The scandal doesn't seem to have hurt his reputation, and he became a judge on "Top Chef" after settling the suit.

Top Chef contestant Alex Reznik allegedly stole and used another contestant's dish

The infamous "ea-gate" incident from "Top Chef" season 7 isn't just the most humorously named scandal the show has ever seen, but also one of the most befuddling. 

Per the LA Times, basically what happened was this: Cheftestant Ed Cotton made a pea puree to go along with the seafood dish he was cooking. Then, somewhere between the prep kitchen and the restaurant kitchen where they'd be preparing their meals for the challenge, Cotton's puree went missing. At the same time, chef Alex Reznik suddenly had a pea puree that he was going to feature in his dish, even though he had been shown on camera pondering what he would serve with his salmon. The coincidence seemed almost too convenient, especially when Cotton was forced to change his dish (peas that were not received well), and Reznik ended up winning the week's challenge. 

However, no one is certain what really happened. It could have just been poor editing (or great editing, if they were trying to make drama out of nothing). Tom Colicchio summed up the incident thusly:

"There are three possibilities, right? 1) Alex may indeed knowingly have stolen Ed's pea puree and used it; 2) Alex may have made his own pea puree and been wrongly maligned by his co-contestants; or, 3) Alex unwittingly may have mistaken Ed's pea puree for his own and taken Ed's, but truly believing that he was using his own."

Top Chef winner Paul Qui was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend

Paul Qui had a great reputation at one point. He was one of the most famous chefs in Austin, Texas after nabbing a James Beard Award and winning "Top Chef Texas." But Qui was not immune to scandal (via Eater). 

In 2016, Qui was arrested for assault after his girlfriend alleged that he had gone on a violent, drug-fueled rampage, during which he pushed her and her infant son and blocked them from escaping the apartment, knocking over furniture, shelves, and tables, and causing her bodily harm. The police report noted that the woman had a "fresh cut on her right forearm and bruising on her upper arms" and a swollen jaw. 

Qui made a statement saying that he was innocent of the assault charges, but that he would be checking into rehab following the incident. 

The charges against Qui were eventually dropped as his alleged victim stopped cooperating with the investigation. In the meantime, three of Qui's restaurants closed. These days, the chef is still getting work and opening new businesses, but his successes are rarely mentioned without his scandalous reputation as an alleged domestic abuser coming up as well. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Top Chef production allegedly asked local and state government officials in Texas to help pay for the show

When a production crew is deciding where to film a show or movie, it's not uncommon for them to work with local film commissions and state governments to receive tax benefits in exchange for bringing business to the state in question, but when "Top Chef" started filming in Texas, apparently the production company's techniques weren't all above board

There were rumors that the production company approached several different cities in Texas, including Houston, Dallas, and Austin, and were trying to negotiate a pay-to-play deal where they would shoot in a certain city in exchange for a cash payout, selecting those cities who were willing to pay the most, rather than relying on the traditional tax breaks (via Eater).

How much money, exactly, did Texas end up paying the show? Officially, the state said that it would cost taxpayers nothing to have the show filmed in Texas, but Governor Rick Perry's office signed a statement agreeing to subsidize the show to the tune of $400,000 in exchange for "the integration of [the state's] brand in Bravo's production of 'Top Chef' cycle 9." 

There was a Top Chef Canada scandal involving horse meat

You expect the contestants on "Top Chef" to be given some unique ingredients to work with. After all, these cooks are pros, and if the judges want to shake things up, they have to think outside of the box.

However, producers on "Top Chef Canada" may have taken this too far when they had one chef use horse meat in a challenge that asked contestants to make a traditional French dish. 

Apparently horse meat isn't incredibly popular in Canada, but in the province of Quebec it's called viande chevaline and you can find it at grocery stores and butchers. More than 90,000 horses are slaughtered in Canada each year for consumption (via Food Republic).

Nevertheless, when news broke that an upcoming episode would feature a chef cooking with horsemeat, the internet erupted in protest. There was even a Facebook group created in protest that was joined by more than 5,000 people.

"Top Chef Canada" stood by its decision to include horse meat on the show. "The challenge in this episode involves having the competitors create a truly authentic, traditional French menu. One of the most traditional French foods is horse meat," Food Network Canada said in defense of their decision, per The Globe and Mail.  

Boston teamsters allegedy harassed Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi

When "Top Chef" moved to Boston for season 12, the show decided to use a non-union film crew. There are two sides to what happened next. 

Per Inside Edition, a group of four Boston teamsters said that they were on site that day simply picketing the "Top Chef" crew to "protest against the abuse of the Massachusetts film tax credit" and the fact that the production was operating a non-union set. However, witnesses including "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi herself said that they became aggressive and violent. 

Lakshmi claims that the men came up to her while she sat in her car and hissed at her, and said "I'll smash your pretty little face" through the window, while other members of the crew alleged that the teamsters yelled profanities, slashed the tires of vehicles being used by the crew, and were chest bumping crew members in a threatening way as they arrived to the restaurant where "Top Chef" was filming that day. 

The incident was just one of several being looked at to determine whether Mayor Marty Walsh's office had inappropriate ties with organized labor in the city, with one city employee claiming he pulled the permits for "Top Chef" in order to pressure it to use members of a local union on its film crew. Sounds like a storyline fit for Scorsese! 

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio was sued for alleged wage theft

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has long been an advocate for fair labor, an activist in the realm of food insecurity, and is generally considered to be a "good guy" in the restaurant industry, but even he hasn't been immune to scandal. In 2015, Colicchio's 'wichcraft sandwich chain was sued for allegedly distributing tips unfairly, resulting in workers getting paid less than minimum wage, as well as not paying employees adequately for working overtime (via Page Six).

A couple of employees claimed that they weren't fairly compensated for the time it took them each day to change in and out of their uniform and that they were paid for fewer hours than they actually reported working. This wasn't the first time that Colicchio has come under fire for labor practices. His restaurant Craftbar was sued by an employee who alleged that her tips were being garnished.

Colicchio denied the allegations, though he did state that the situation should be investigated fairly and that his employees should be taken seriously, noting that state minimum wage regulations can sometimes make paying tipped employees more complicated than it first seems. 

Top Chef contestants Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth allegedly embezzled from their restaurant

Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth both competed on "Top Chef," and eventually they even opened a restaurant together in New York called Root & Bone. Unfortunately, scandal shadowed the entire enterprise. 

For one, McInnis's ex-wife claimed that McInnis and Booth had been having an affair, and that he pressured her into a divorce so that he could move to New York with Booth because his ex-wife and son were "an infringement" on his life and they were "standing in the way of his dreams." 

She also alleged that the reason why McInnis left his previous job was because his business partner wanted to run a family company, and he thought McInnis's philandering didn't fit in. 

What happened next? McInnis and Booth opened Root & Bone, which debuted with much fanfare and positive reviews. But things soured when the duo was sued by their business partner, who alleged that they lied about the restaurant's profits and embezzled $286,500 from the restaurant, supposedly using it to renovate the apartment above the restaurant where they lived and to hold a pop-up restaurant in Puerto Rico.  

The scandal eventually blew over, and McInnis and Booth got engaged on the set of culinary talk show "The Chew" in 2018, and both still work at the successful Root & Bone. 

The original host of Top Chef was replaced after one season

Viewers of Top Chef might be shocked upon revisiting season 1 when they realize that Katie Lee, not the now-iconic Padma Lakshmi, was the show's first host. 

Lee (who, fun fact, was married to Billy Joel at the time) wasn't exactly praised for her performance on the show, with viewers calling her robotic and wooden. After a single season, Andy Cohen announced that Lee was leaving the show to "pursue other opportunities." Later, in his 2012 memoir, Cohen would recount how Lee would get so nervous on set and feel so guilty about having to send contestants home that her pounding heartbeat could be heard through her microphone.

Lee was replaced with Padma Lakshmi, who hosted the next 15 seasons of the show. But Lee didn't disappear. She is now a co-host of Food Network's "The Kitchen" and has appeared on Food Network shows like the "Halloween Baking Championship," "Meat Sweats," "Beat Bobby Flay," and "Rachel Ray." She also has her own show on the Cooking Channel show called "Beach Bites with Katie Lee" (via IMDb). Lee is also a cookbook author and novelist. Proof that just because one job doesn't work out doesn't mean that you won't still find success in the same industry down the road! 

Chef Elia Aboumrad and Tom Colicchio's feud

Chef Elia Aboumrad, a season two finalist, returned to compete in season eight's "Top Chef: All Stars." Unfortunately for her, she was eliminated in the first episode (via Entertainment Weekly). But Aboumrad would wind up extending her time in the spotlight. Determined to not go down without a fight, the chef took aim not at her fellow competitors, but at head judge Tom Colicchio. In her exit interview following the elimination, Aboumrad claimed that Colicchio "has become someone who is not all about the food anymore. He's not all about supporting farmers markets. He's all about high-fructose corn syrup and there's only corn-fed beef on all of his menus now" (via Eater). She also chastised the judge for endorsing Diet Coke.

Colicchio was quick to respond. "I buy more produce from farmers markets than Elia has seen in her life in the course of a month," he said. "This is a game ... someone has to lose and she made the worst dish so she went home." Fast-forward a few months to the show's reunion episode, where Colicchio addressed Aboumrad face-to-face. "I understand that you're upset, and that's fine," he said (via Eater). "Being the first person to go, obviously, it was difficult. There are four people on the panel, four judges, this was something that was a unanimous decision. This wasn't personal, but you chose to make it personal." Aboumrad concluded the debate by stating that she stood by her comments.

Top Chef winner Gabe Erales was accused of harassing his employee

Paul Qui is not the only Top Chef winner to find himself in hot water. In fact, the show's most recent champion, Gabe Erales, has been at the center of one of the cooking competition's biggest scandals due to his alleged misbehavior. According to Eater Austin, Erales was fired from his executive chef position at the restaurant Comedor in December 2020, just two months after "Top Chef" was done filming. The restaurant would only say that Erales was terminated for "repeated violations of our policies and for behavior in conflict with our values."

More details came to light the following summer. The day after the airing of the "Top Chef" finale, in which Earles was crowned champion, the Austin-American Statesman reported that he had a consensual relationship with a female staffer at Comedor the previous summer. When Earles returned to the restaurant after filming, he cut the employee's hours and treated her unprofessionally.

The events and termination came after "Top Chef" wrapped filming but before it aired on television. Speaking with the Hollywood Reporter, producers said they chose to air the show out of fairness to the other competitors. Since the finale, however, Erales has been persona non grata in the "Top Chef" world. Eater Austin reported that he did not appear at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic (part of the "Top Chef" grand prize), isn't on the show's website or Instagram account, and hasn't done any interviews.

Top Chef faced criticism for filming a season in Houston

One of the most recent scandals surrounding "Top Chef" wasn't a matter of who — it was a matter of where. In September 2021, the show announced its 19th season would film in Houston (via The Wrap). It would be the fourth time "Top Chef" was set in Texas, after previous seasons in San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. But something noteworthy, and highly controversial, had occurred in the Lone Star State since the show's last visit. Just a month before the announcement, Texas enacted a restrictive abortion ban that was widely denounced by women's groups, pro-choice advocates, and even President Joe Biden (via The Texas Tribune).

"Top Chef" fans questioned why the popular show would opt to work in Texas following the controversial bill. They argued that tax money generated from the show's presence would go straight to the government responsible for the legislation. Host Padma Lakshmi came to the show's defense, explaining the rationale in a series of Twitter posts. "Texans are up against so much right now — a hateful anti-abortion bill, erasure of voting rights, and a humanitarian & Constitutional crisis at the border," she wrote. "Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. Its govt & the majority of its ppl oppose @GovAbbott's heinous bills. Our show highlights the small businesses that hire the very same women, BIPOC ppl & low-income folks that these laws harm most."