Season 14 of Bravo’s Top Chef, set in Charleston, South Carolina, premiered last Thursday, and the show is already drawing ire over one of its filming locations. A portion of the first episode’s was shot at Boone Hall Plantation, a 17th-century farm that once ran on slave labor.
As the Charleston City Paper reports, some haven’t taken kindly to the decision to film a cooking challenge on a plantation, and judge Tom Colicchio has jumped to defend the show on social media.
While the episode does at least briefly acknowledge the brutal history of Boone Hall before diving into the cooking, the episode largely fell back on the words of contestant Gerald Sombright, who is Black, to put things in context for viewers. “It feels very surreal, it’s so beautiful, but also this is a place where people were treated as less than a human being and had an experience that we as a country are still trying to get out of now,” Sombright said as he and fellow contestant John Tesar were driven up to the site of the “sudden death” challenge.
Many have taken to Twitter to decry the episode’s insensitivity, with some comparing it to shooting a cooking challenge at Auschwitz:
A plantation episode of Top Chef? Please do romanticize where enslaved Africans were worked to death and sexually brutalized— Medici Matriarch (@VivaciousWritin) December 5, 2016
Nobody would ever suggest filming Top Chef at Auschwitz. A plantation was viewed as appropriate and you've gotta think about why that is.— The Kitchenista (@MissAngelaDavis) December 5, 2016
Basically: I don't think there's a way to do a food contest on a plantation without glamorizing slavery, no matter #TopChef 's intentions.— David M. Perry (@Lollardfish) December 5, 2016
I have to say, watching a black contestant on Top Chef lose on a plantation was awful and very 2016. Get it together, Bravo.— Kari Bentley-Quinn (@KBQWrites) December 5, 2016
There’s also the issue of some of the language used in the episode by host Padma Lakshmi, who, rather than actually saying the word “slaves” in introducing viewers to Boone Hall, instead euphemistically refers to them as “those who worked and toiled here.” In a weirdly tone-deaf moment, Lakshmi then looks to Sombright and asks “Gerald, what’s going through your mind right now?”
"Joe what's going through your mind right now?"— The Kitchenista (@MissAngelaDavis) December 2, 2016
"Well Padma, you brought my black ass to a plantation." - real answer
Colicchio makes it clear that the show’s producers knew what they were getting into when choosing the plantation as a filming site. “We could have easily cut out where we were shooting and played as a location near a marsh,” he tweeted, adding that they wanted to “show the complete history of Charleston.” He also seemingly understands how insensitive the episode may have come off, though:
I understand how bad this looks which is precisely why I brought it up and am willing to discuss it. https://t.co/SwVUtqwTJW— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) December 5, 2016
We certainly didn't mean to disrespect anyone, clearly people are upset and I apologize for that. https://t.co/GVFsi6Ah0z— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) December 5, 2016
Notably, Colicchio is the only Top Chef representative actually addressing the controversy:
The head judge has previously said that Season 14 would deal with the racial issues of Charleston’s history, though it will remain to be seen how that looks going forward.