Top Chef Contestants Who Cooked Up More Scandals Than Food

Each season, a new group of chefs puts their expertise on the line to see who will be named the next Top Chef. The show has been on the air for 19 seasons, with its fair share of scandals over the years. It seems the competitors and judges have let the heat of the kitchen get the best of them.

Top Chef Judges / Elia Aboumrad / Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio / Paul Qui.
Source: Bravo Tv

With over 250 chef competitors and more than 200 guest judges, they have served up more scandal than food. The restaurant industry’s intense and often dramatic environment turns into a pressure cooker when the competition begins, but the drama mostly happens when the cameras stop rolling.

A Contestant Was Assaulted on the Show

If you have watched Top Chef since it first aired in 2006, you may remember Season 2 contestant Marcel Vigneron. It was clear that he had incredible talent in the kitchen, but many of his fellow contestants didn’t like him. Tensions came to a head on the last night of filming.

A portrait of Marcel Vigneron.
Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage/Getty Images

Vigneron and his fellow contestants, Ilan Hall, Cliff Crooks, and Elia Aboumrad, were left alone in their house with just a handheld camera to record personal footage. The video from that night showed Crooks pulling a sleeping Vigneron off the couch and pinning him to the ground to shave his head.

They Barely Got Punished

While everyone’s story from that night differs, the video doesn’t lie. Hall and Aboumrad watched without intervening as Vigneron was forcibly held on the ground. Vigneron managed to escape from Crooks before his head could be shaved. When the judges found out, they were furious, especially judge Tom Colicchio.

A still of Cliff Brooks in an episode from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

Colicchio wanted Crooks, Hall, and Aboumrad disqualified from the competition, making Vigneron the winner by default. However, the producers intervened, and Crooks was the only one sent home the following day. The chefs were drunk that night, but it was no excuse for their ridiculous and cruel behavior that could have hurt someone.

His Success Story Crumbled

Season 6 contestant, Chef Mike Isabella, found major success after his time on the show. The Washington DC-area chef opened 11 restaurants and managed a staff of almost 800 people. Isabella appeared to be one of Top Chef’s success stories, but it all came crumbling down in 2017.

A portrait of Mike Isabella.
Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post/Getty Images

He wasn’t ready to handle the high-profile lifestyle when his business took off. Chloe Caras, manager at one of his restaurants, alleged that Isabella and his business partners harassed her. She said Isabella made sexist comments, showed up to work drunk, and tried to get another chef to sleep with her.

His Business Went Down the Drain

Caras also reported that Isabella’s business partners, Taha Ismail and George Pagonis, sent her illicit text messages. Isabella and his partners would allegedly call her names, insult her, and touch Caras without permission. She filed a lawsuit against them, but they eventually settled out of court, which cost Isabella a lot of money.

A portrait of Chloe Caras.
Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The allegations against Isabella damaged his reputation and business. He filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and by the end of the year, he had closed all of his Mike Isabella Concept restaurants. He went from being one of the biggest names in DC dining to having nothing.

His Skeletons Came out of the Closet

When John Besh appeared on Top Chef as a guest judge, he was known for his famous restaurants in New Orleans. The James Beard Award-winning chef was head of the John Besh restaurant group and was well respected in the culinary community.

A still of John Besh in an episode of Top Chef.
Source: Bravo Tv

Besh had appeared on several other cooking shows, so the producers of Top Chef were honored to have him as a guest judge. But his prestigious reputation came crashing down after filming his Top Chef episode. In 2017, 25 women came forward with allegations against Besh.

They Edited Him Out

The women reported that Besh created a hostile work environment by encouraging sexual harassment and assault. One woman even stated that she was forced into a long-term nonconsensual relationship with Besh. Soon after the news broke, Bravo had to do some damage control.

A picture of John Besh during an event.
Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

Bravo said they were evaluating whether Besh’s episode should air. Ultimately, the network edited Besh out of the episode, replacing it with footage of chef Chris Cosentino. Judge Colicchio called the production company when he heard the news, later saying, “Bravo to Bravo for making this decision.”

This Judge Didn’t Treat His Employees Well

Graham Elliott was a beloved Top Chef judge for many seasons. The two Michelin star chef was charismatic and returned for 12 episodes, but his past legal troubles were haunted him when he appeared on Top Chef. Apparently, Graham hasn’t always operated his businesses by the book.

A still of Graham Elliot as one of the judges in Top Chef.
Source: Bravo Tv

A group of Elliott’s employees at his Chicago restaurant sued him in 2012 because of unlawful tip pooling. The 14 former servers alleged that they were owed money after Elliott started operating a “systematic scheme to deprive them of regular and overtime compensation.”

He Recovered His Reputation

Elliott’s employees sought back pay plus interest, settling the case in 2012. He paid an undisclosed amount to his former employees, but the scandal didn’t seem to hurt his reputation. Elliott continued to appear on Master Chef and Master Chef Jr. until 2015.

Graham Elliot addresses the media.
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

Bravo had no problem inviting him to be a Top Chef judge in 2017. Elliott’s lawsuit was quickly brushed under the rug because his offenses weren’t as bad as those of some of his colleagues. Most recently, Graham was a guest on Selena Gomez’s cooking show in 2021.

He Started “Pea-Gate”

Season 7’s “pea-gate” was one of the most baffling scandals to have hit the show. During an episode, contestant Ed Cotton made a pea puree for his seafood dish, but the puree went missing somewhere between the prep kitchen and the restaurant kitchen.

A closeup on Ed Cotton when he couldn’t find his pea puree.
Source: Bravo Tv

Meanwhile, contestant Alex Reznik suddenly had a pea puree that he planned to use for his meal. Reznik struggled to figure out what he would serve alongside his salmon in the prep kitchen. The coincidence seemed too convenient and caused a lot of drama.

No One Knew the Truth

Cotton was forced to change his side dish, which was not well received. However, the judges loved Reznik’s meal, and he was named the winner of that week’s challenge. Still, no one could figure out what happened to Cotton’s missing pea puree.

A still of Cotton wearing a t-shirt that reads Where’s my pea puree?!?!
Source: Bravo Tv

Judge Colicchio said there were three possibilities about what happened. Reznik might have stolen Cotton’s pea puree; he might have had his own pea puree, and editing made it seem like he did something wrong; or Reznik mistook Cotton’s puree for his own, truly believing he did nothing wrong.

This Winner Was Arrested

Paul Qui was one of the most well-known chefs in Austin, Texas, after winning both the James Beard Award and Top Chef. However, his newfound fame wasn’t immune to scandal. In 2016, Qui was arrested for assault after his girlfriend reported him.

A mugshot of Paul Qui.
Source: Pinterest

Qui’s girlfriend alleged that he went on a violent, drug-fueled rampage in which he pushed her and her son, blocked them from leaving the apartment, and caused her bodily harm. The police report stated that she had a cut on her right arm, bruises, and a swollen jaw.

The Charges Were Dropped

Police noted that Qui had “blood all over his face, arms, legs, and clothing,” and the apartment overturned with furniture and broken glass everywhere. Many publications stopped providing coverage of Qui’s subsequent ventures in light of the investigation. Qui decided to check himself into rehab.

A portrait of Paul Qui.
Source: Bravo Tv

The charges against Qui were later dropped after his alleged victim stopped cooperating with the investigation. Although three of his restaurants closed due to the allegations, Qui is now working on expanding his businesses and opening new restaurants. But his success is rarely brought up without mentioning his scandals.

The Producers Wanted Help Paying

Each season of Top Chef is filmed in a different state and city. It’s not uncommon for the production team to work with local film commissions and state governments to receive tax benefits in exchange for promoting business in the state.

A closeup on the judges in a still from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

When the Top Chef producers started filming in Texas, they approached many different cities in Texas, including Houston, Dallas, and Austin. The producers tried to negotiate a pay-to-play deal where they could shoot in certain cities for a cash payout, selecting cities that could pay the most.

Texans Weren’t Happy

The producers didn’t want to rely on traditional tax breaks, and state officials said the show wouldn’t cost taxpayers. However, the governor signed a statement agreeing to subsidize the show for $400,000 in exchange for using the state’s brand in the credits for the season.

One of the judges on the show speaks during a press conference.
Photo by Heather Kennedy/WireImage/Getty Images

The money had to have come from taxpayers at some point. Oddly, a show that is so successful and has been running for over a decade would need tax breaks and payouts to film, but it is a common thing in the film and TV industry.

A Meaty Scandal

Contestants competing on Top Chef have been dealt some bizarre ingredients. As professional chefs, they are expected to know how to deal with any food and push themselves to be creative for the judges. But the producers of Top Chef Canada took this too far.

A picture of a served horse meat dish.
Photo by Hoi Ngan Chan/Getty Images

A chef had to use horse meat to make a traditional French dish in one challenge. Horse meat isn’t incredibly popular in Canada (or many other places), but it is commonly used in Quebec. More than 90,000 horses are killed in Canada each year.

Fans Were Unhappy

The internet exploded in protest when news that an upcoming episode would feature horse meat. A Facebook group was created in protest, with more than 5,000 people joining. Top Chef Canada stood by its decision to include horse meat in the episode despite the protests.

An image of a plastic horse on an eating plate.
Photo by Christian Ohde/McPhoto/ullstein bild/Getty Images

The show issued a statement saying, “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. “The network aired the episode as normal.

Padma Lakshmi Was Harassed

For Season 12, Top Chef took over Boston. The producers decided to use a non-union film crew, which caused some problems on set. According to Inside Edition, a group of four locals went to the filming site to protest Top Chef for abusing the Massachusetts film tax credit.

A portrait of Padma Lakshmi.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

The protestors were also angry that the production was operating a non-union set. However, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi said the protestors became aggressive and violent. She claimed that four men came up to her car and hissed at her, threatening to “smash her pretty face.”

He Said, She Said

There were many sides to the incident involving Lakshmi and the protestors. The crew alleged that the men yelled profanities, slashed tires of crew vehicles, and threatened to ruin the filming day. The incident was just one of many that happened while filming in Boston.

Padma addresses the media.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Boston’s mayor reportedly had inappropriate ties with organized labor in the city. One city employee claimed the mayor pulled permits to pressure Top Chef into using members of the local union on its film crew. It sounds like a mob movie rather than a cooking show.

He’s Not So Innocent

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has been outspoken about many of the scandals surrounding the series, but he isn’t holier than thou. As an advocate for fair labor and an activist in the realm of food insecurity, he got caught up in his own scandal in 2015.

A promotional portrait of Tom Colicchio for the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

Colicchio’s Witchcraft Sandwich chain was sued for reportedly distributing tips unfairly, causing workers to receive less than minimum wage. It was also alleged that he didn’t adequately pay his employees for working overtime. His employees wanted to be compensated for the money they lost.

He Denied the Allegations

A few of Colicchio’s employees claimed that they were paid for fewer hours than they reported working. A former employee also sued the chef for not receiving her tips. Colicchio denied the allegations but said the situation should be investigated.

Colicchio speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Colicchio stated that state minimum wage regulations could sometimes make paying tipped employees more complicated than it seems. It appeared that he would cooperate with an investigation but knew that nothing would be found against him. He was sure that the loopholes in the laws would keep his reputation clean.

The Embezzlement Duo

Former Top Chef competitors Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth opened the New York restaurant Root & Bone together. They gained success from the show and combined their talents to start a business. Unfortunately, a few different scandals overshadowed their impressive restaurant.

Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth pose for a picture during an event.
Photo by Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

McInnis’s ex-wife claimed that McInnis and Booth had been having an affair, and he pressured her into a divorce so that he could move to New York with Booth. His ex-wife also said she felt she and her son were an “infringement on his life and stood in the way of his dreams.”

They Got Caught

After McInnis left his wife and opened Root & Bone with Booth, the restaurant received positive reviews. But things quickly took a turn when the pair were sued by their business partners. It was alleged that McInnis and Booth lied about the restaurant’s profits.

A portrait of Jeff and Janine.
Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

The pair reportedly embezzled $286,500 from the restaurant, using the money to renovate their apartment and hold a pop-up in Puerto Rico. The scandal eventually blew over, and McInnis and Booth got engaged on the set of The Chew in 2018.

The Host Was Replaced

Before Lakshmi became famous for hosting Top Chef, Season 1 looked slightly different. Katie Lee was the show’s first host, but viewers called her robotic and unenjoyable to watch. Producers decided to replace her after Season 1. The network said she left to “pursue other opportunities.”

A promotional portrait of Katie Lee for the show.
Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

In Andy Cohen’s 2012 memoir, he recounted how nervous Lee would get on set. She felt too guilty about sending contestants home, and her nervous heartbeat could be heard through her microphone. It wasn’t the right job for Lee, and Lakshmi was the best replacement.

A Long-Standing Feud

Season 2 finalist Chef Elia Aboumrad returned to compete in Season 8 of Top Chef: All-Stars. Sadly, she was eliminated in the first episode. Although she wasn’t on the show, Aboumrad stayed in the spotlight because she wasn’t going down without a fight.

A still of Elia Aboumrad during her elimination from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

Aboumrad took aim at head judge Colicchio. She claimed he “has become someone who is not all about the food anymore. He’s not all about supporting farmer’s markets. He’s all about high-fructose corn syrup, and there’s only corn-fed beef on his menus.” She didn’t hold back.

He Didn’t Hold Back

Colicchio responded to Aboumrad’ s claims, stating, “I buy more produce from farmer’s markets than Elia has seen in her life in the course of a month. This a game; someone has to lose, and she made the worst dish, so she went home.”

A closeup of Elia’s expression during the argument.
Source: Bravo Tv

A few months later at the reunion episode, Colicchio and Aboumrad met face-to-face. He said, “I think you’re upset, and that’s fine. Being the first person to go, obviously, it was difficult.” She said she stood by her comments even though he was just one of four judges who sent her home.

This Winner Was Accused of Harassment

Gabe Erales, one of the most recent Top Chef champions, has been at the center of a major scandal due to his alleged misconduct. Erales was reportedly fired from his executive chef position at the restaurant Comedor in December 2020.

A still of Gabe Erales in an episode of Top Chef.
Source: Bravo Tv

The restaurant only shared that Erales was fired for “repeated violations of their policies and behavior in conflict with their values.” More details came forward after the Top Chef finale aired. Erales claimed he had a consensual relationship with a female staff member at the restaurant in 2020.

He Treated Her Differently

After Erales finished filming his season, he returned to the restaurant and wasn’t kind to his former fling. He cut her hours and treated her unprofessionally. The events and termination occurred before his Top Chef season aired, but the show didn’t make any changes.

A portrait of Gabe Erales.
Source: Bravo Tv

Producers said they chose to air the show to be respectful to the other competitors. After the finale aired, Erales tried to stay out of the spotlight. He did not appear at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, part of his Top Chef Prize, and he isn’t on the show’s website or social media pages.

Houston Drama

In September 2021, Top Chef announced that Season 19 would be filmed in Houston. It is the fourth time Top Chef has gone to a city in Texas, and since its last visit to the Lone Star State, something controversial happened.

A still from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

A month before the announcement, Texas enacted some new laws seen as highly debatable. Top Chef fans questioned why the show would opt to work in Texas following the new bill. People argued that the tax money generated from the show’s presence would go towards the harmful new laws.

She Defended It

Host Padma Lakshmi defended Top Chef, explaining, “Texans are up against so much right now. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the US. Its government and the majority of people oppose the heinous bills. Our show highlights small businesses that hire a diverse range of people.”

Padma Lakshmi attends an event.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The show went on to air as usual. There are four episodes left in Season 19 before the winner is crowned, and people have tuned in regardless of the show’s location. They stood by their choice, and the show is still a success.

She Barely Cooked

When Jamie Lauren competed on Top Chef, her fellow contestants and fans shared concerns when they noticed she never really cooked but kept getting through to the next episode. In one challenge, she cut her finger so bad that her teammate had to do all the cooking for both of them.

A still of Jamie Lauren in an episode of Top Chef.
Source: Bravo Tv

Lauren never served a dish to the judges at another challenge, but she wasn’t eliminated. When the judges finally sent her packing, fans were relieved that other chefs had a chance to go further. Lauren was forced to react to her “lack of heart” during the reunion.

“Scallop-Gate”

As a contestant on Top Chef, you have to be kind to the judges because they are the ones who ultimately decide if you go home or pass to the next round. When chef Spike Mendelsohn was on Top Chef, he didn’t follow that important rule, leading to his demise.

A picture of Spike Mendelsohn.
Source: Pinterest

Mendelsohn talked back to guest judge Rick Tramonto about having frozen scallops in his kitchen. Tramonto told Mendelsohn that he didn’t have to use the scallops just because they were there. Mendelsohn was sent home at the end of the episode.

It Became a T-Shirt

Some of the Top Chef scandals have been quite serious, while others have been so hilarious that merchandise was produced in honor of the scandal. Season 1 contestants Tiffani Daison and Dave Martin argued throughout the entire season, and it came to a head during the finals.

A still of Dave and Tiffani during one of their arguments in the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

Martin became so fed up with Daison’s nagging that he declared, “I’m not your b*tch, b*tch!” Daison thought she was better than the other chefs and wasn’t shy about telling people. The argument led to an iconic sound bite, and Bravo put the quote on some T-shirts.

She Revealed Her Secret

While hosting Top Chef seems like a delicious job, Lakshmi shared that filming isn’t great for her health. She revealed to The Cut that she consumes 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day while filming. Lakshmi shared that the show’s stylist has to buy clothes in three sizes.

A backstage photo of Lakshmi preparing for an event.
Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images

Lakshmi gains about ten pounds by the end of each season, and the bigger clothes hide her weight gain. However, she works out and eats clean when the show is in-between seasons to balance out the unhealthy number of calories.

His Restaurant Closed After a Week

Winning Top Chef is supposed to do huge things for a contestant’s career, but that isn’t always the case. Season 2 winner Ilan Hall had his career come crashing down shortly after leaving the show. He used his winnings to open his own restaurant, The Gorbals, but it failed.

A portrait of Ilan Hall.
Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images

The health department shut down Hall’s restaurant a week after it opened. They were only able to reopen months later. Unfortunately, the restaurant has since closed permanently without much explanation. Hall was disappointed by the restaurant’s failure.

He Breaks the Ties

Top Chef viewers get a short glimpse into the judges’ deliberation while they decide which chef will go home and who will stay. The entire conversation is edited down for time purposes, but there is something that is never shown on TV.

A still from the judges deliberating during an episode.
Source: Bravo Tv

If the judges can’t reach a consensus, one of the show’s camera operators, known as T-Bone, weighs in to help them decide. He breaks the tie by listening to the judges’ comments and using his knowledge of what happened during the day to choose a winner or loser.

That Product Looks Familiar

Even though it’s a TV show, Top Chef is still a business. There has been a long history of reality shows like Top Chef featuring a certain amount of product placement. Top Chef took that idea to the extreme in 2008 with an overload of product placement.

A still from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

A study documented 9,316 instances of product placement on the show. Only two other shows in the entire TV landscape had more product placement than Top Chef at the time. They must have been working with many corporate partners paying them to show their products.

They Don’t Get Along

Although Lakshmi and Colicchio have worked together for several seasons, the two aren’t the best of friends behind the scenes. There have even been rumors about a feud between them. A former contestant on the show answered questions in a Reddit thread about them.

Lakshmi and Colicchio pose for the press.
Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The contestant revealed that Lakshmi and Colicchio didn’t get along. While the contestant remained anonymous, their statement was backed up by Colicchio in a 2009 Time interview. He was asked if Lakshmi’s personality was different off-air, replying, “no comment on that.” It seems a bit shady.

They Dumbed Him Down

Like most reality shows, there is some manipulation to the way contestants come across through the magic of editing. While it’s hard to fake many aspects of a cooking competition, the producers of Master Chef have managed to manipulate the way viewers feel about contestants.

A portrait of Paul Qui.
Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage/Getty Images

According to Colicchio, Season 9 winner Paul Qui was so talented that the editors had to “dumb him down.” Colicchio said it was obvious that Qui would take home the grand prize early in the season, but the producers didn’t want the fans to guess that and lose interest.

They Have Reshoots

It’s no secret that Top Chef is heavily edited to make viewers feel a certain way about contestants and to make the drama seem more intense. However, most people assume the footage they see is all captured at the moment, but that’s not completely true.

A still from the show.
Source: Bravo Tv

Nola.com revealed this behind-the-scenes secret during a set visit. They discovered that the judges’ remarks were mostly retakes captured after the contestants were dismissed from the scene. Once again, we can’t trust any reality show because everything is manipulated for added drama.

The Bigger the Personality, the Better

Just because someone is a talented chef doesn’t mean they are automatically picked to be on Top Chef. As it is still a TV show, the producers choose people they think will make the show more dramatic and interesting over those who just have talent.

A closeup on contestants of season 9 during an episode.
Source: Bravo Tv

In a Reddit question thread, a former contestant shared that people with big personalities are chosen for a reason. Top Chef would probably be pretty boring if they had quiet chefs who kept their heads down and didn’t “stir the pot.”

No Haircuts!

Some fans nicknamed Marcel Vigneron “Crazy Hair” during Season 2 because his hair was out of control. It was later revealed that production wouldn’t let him get a professional haircut while filming for continuity reasons. The contestants could only have other contestants cut their hair.

A portrait of Marcel Vigneron / A still of Marcel Vigneron in the show.
Photo by David Livingston, Getty Images / Source: Bravo Tv

As we mentioned earlier, Vigneron and the other contestants didn’t get along, so he wasn’t about to let them touch his hair. Maybe Cliff Crooks’ prank was provoked by the no haircuts rule. It would have been hard for them to explain Vigneron’s shaved head without discussing the assault.

Long Nights

While viewers only see a few minutes of the judges’ deliberations, there have been times when the judges sit for eight to ten hours before deciding. One of the show’s original judges revealed that she once fell asleep at the judges’ table after a particularly long debate.

A closeup of the judges after deliberation during an episode.
Source: Bravo Tv

The decision about a winner has to be unanimous, so they can’t leave the table unless they all agree. Lakshmi said, “If we can’t make a decision, the producers will sit us there like detention.” At least we know they aren’t jumping to quick decisions.