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Top Chef Houston’s Last Chance Kitchen winner named after a two-part, half-dumb episode

Top Chef Houston’s Last Chance Kitchen winner named after a two-part, half-dumb episode
Last Chance Kitchen's final competitor, Jae Jung, plus the five chefs who judged part of Last Chance Kitchen: Evelyn Garcia, Ashleigh Shanti, Damarr Brown, Buddha Lo, and Nick Wallace. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

After watching Top Chef: Houston’s NASA-themed challenge, during which the contestants had to make meals that would be good in space, and during which I learned that astronauts eat more than dehydrated ice cream sold at museum gift shops, it was time to watch Last Chance Kitchen.

And it was time to go through a range of emotions about the structure of the final LCK showdown of the season, because right when it seemed to have an amazing idea, it turned left and drove itself into a ditch.

Last Chance Kitchen winner Sarah Welch competes in Top Chef Houston episode 11, her first back in the competition
Last Chance Kitchen winner Sarah Welch competes in Top Chef Houston episode 11, her first back in the competition. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

In this final episode of Top Chef’s version of Redemption Island, Jae Jung faced off against Sarah Welch, who packed her knives so long ago it seems like it was during Top Chef: Portland.

Actually, when I went to check, I was surprised to see that Sarah went home in episode four, alongside Robert. That was the “Doppelgängers” challenge, and they were eliminated as a pair. I thought her exit was earlier, because I truly didn’t remember her from the actual show.

However, I absolutely will remember her now, because of her streak in Last Chance Kitchen, which started with her win during the third LCK episode.

Considering that Last Chance Kitchen episodes are filmed in batches of back-to-back-to-back battles, Sarah’s streak is even more impressive.

Her strategy, it seemed, was to make versions of dishes she cooked in her restaurant, adapting them to the challenge. As Monique said from the sidelines, “that’s her go-to, which is super smart.” It is, and also impressive his her repertoire of dishes, since she wasn’t just making the same thing over and over again.

Why isn’t Last Chance Kitchen part of Top Chef?

Tom Colicchio in the intro of Top Chef Houston's Last Chance Kitchen
Tom Colicchio in the intro of Top Chef Houston’s Last Chance Kitchen

We actually started watching the second half of Last Chance Kitchen episode 10, because I just went to the most-recent one, not realizing there were two episodes.

At a total of 40 minutes and 49 seconds, the two halves (part 1, part 2) actually almost make a whole Top Chef episode. And I kind of wish they would.

Why is Last Chance Kitchen still just bonus content? It’s outstanding cooking by contestants we already know and are invested in, and they’re competing in challenges that are often framed as a kind of redemption.

Why not add Last Chance Kitchen episodes to the end of Top Chef, just like RuPaul’s Drag Race does with Untucked?

That’d also prevent me accidentally seeing Andy Cohen in his hoard, which typically causes me to scream like this and claw for the remote control. Heaven forbid I hear that theme song (“Andy Cohen’s got the 4-1-1”) because it makes me want to call 9-1-1.

Last Chance Kitchen’s last twist

Top Chef Houston's final six in Galveston, Texas: Damarr Brown, Nick Wallace, Buddha Lo, Ashleigh Shanti, Sarah Welch, and Evelyn Garcia
Top Chef Houston’s final six in Galveston, Texas: Damarr Brown, Nick Wallace, Buddha Lo, Ashleigh Shanti, Sarah Welch, and Evelyn Garcia (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Last Chance Kitchen’s Houston finale started simply enough: Jae struggled with texture in the NASA challenge, so she and Sarah were tasked with making a dish that was crunchy, chewy, and creamy.

That’s a perfect challenge. Tom Colicchio told them that “this challenge will have a few layers of complexity,” promoting Sarah to say: “I am Charlie Brown, and Tom’s holding the football.”

The twist, Tom announced, was that a “panel of culinary experts” would judge the dishes blind.

As a huge fan of blind judging, and as someone who isn’t thrilled that Tom Colicchio single-handedly judges Last Chance Kitchen, I thought this was a perfect twist.

“This is it; one of you will return to the competition,” Tom said before they started cooking.

What a tease! Because while the panel—which turned out to be the remaining contestants, Ashleigh, Buddha, Damarr, Evelyn, and Nick—did judge the final dishes blind, that was not the end.

First, they were introduced to whose dishes they’d just judged, and when the final five saw that one of the two chefs was Sarah, they were so surprised it was as if she was carrying a hook and saying, I know what you did last summer!

Next, Tom dropped the axe. “Your challenge isn’t over yet,” he said. From the sidelines, Jo asked, “What kind of fresh hell is this gonna be?”

The fresh hell of producers throwing shit against the wall for no actual reason, that’s what!

Tom explained that time was the “great equalizer” on Top Chef, and what better way to illustrate than than…giving the chefs different amounts of time to cook. After they just competed. And were judged.

Why let blind judging determine a winner when you can unnecessarily complicate things?

Seriously, Sarah won her fellow chef’s vote unanimously. Why was that not good enough to get back into the competition?

“I’m tired,” Sarah said. Ditto. And all I did was sit on my ass on the couch and watch her cook week after week after week (which, again, for her was hour after hour after hour).

Sarah had 45 minutes to cook—three minutes extra for each of the five votes—and Jae had 30 minutes to cook and 15 minutes to think, probably about her dish. I would have used that 15 minutes to plan my revenge, but that’s me.

I was so ready to be appalled if Jae pulled out a win in that final challenge, because Sarah’s streak would be broken by a dumb twist.

That’s nothing against Jae, who’s great. And I particularly loved Jae’s sass during the final LCK. “These bitches,” she said when she saw the final five Top Chef contestants. And then when she saw their votes, she said, “every bitch is voting for Sarah!”

Then, during her 30 minutes of cooking, when Tom came over to chat, she said in an interview “I think it is rude to tell him to go away” but asked, “is he going to chop my veggies?” Yes, leave her and her 15-minute deficit alone!

Ultimately, Sarah won yet again, with Tom declaring her dish was “exceptional,” while I declared all of this to be “so dumb.”

Sarah tied the record for most Last Chance Kitchen wins: eight in a row. (Louis Maldonado did the same in season 11.)

Three Last Chance Kitchen winners have returned to win everything: Kristen Kish (Top Chef: Seattle), Brooke Williamson (Top Chef: Charleston), and Joe Flamm (Top Chef: Colorado).

Will Sarah be able to do that? Will she stick with her strategy of cooking what she knows? Or will the producers invent new ways of torturing her for our amusement? Will we, the Top Chef audience, ever find out of Jackson lost his sense of taste and smell before the competition?! Some things are just unknowable, I suppose.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Happy discussing!

Stacey

Friday 13th of May 2022

I was thrilled to see the blind judging (as the ep. started, I said to my partner "How is Colicchio going to send Sarah home now? Come on!"). We've seen this story before and if a chef isn't awesome when they go to LCK, we've seen that those who put together a streak of wins seem to come out even stronger on the other side.

If Tom and Shota (where did he come from?) had chose Jae in the end, I think there would have been a revolt!

Do you think it's possible they added the last demi-challenge just so Sarah had a chance to tie the record?

Robert Karp

Wednesday 11th of May 2022

I liked the blind judging which I have been a big advocate of previously. Twists that make the outcome more complicated indicate that the producers don't have confidence in the show's structure. Take note Survivor producers. Let the contestants play the game that they thought they signed up for unless you want to become the mess that Big Brother's "expect the unexpected" has become.

adobe blue

Monday 9th of May 2022

Yes, that was ridiculous and the final challenge wasn't even equal to the one before it. It let the chefs cook whatever they wanted which is where Jae shines. She does well with dishes she is familiar with and not well so cooking on the fly. I thought during the judging that Tom almost chose her but thankfully he had a come to Jesus moment and chose Sarah.

As an aside, this seems to be the new innovation on cooking shows, have a final challenge and then announce that was NOT the final challenge and there is another sudden real final challenge.

Food Network's Spring Baking Championship had that this week, adding an extra step to the finale, and one baker, Romy walked off. He potentially could have won the whole championship, and taken home the 25,000.00 but he was so insulted by a "sprinkles challenge" interjected before the final leg that he walked off the stage and quit.

I think this innovation is doing the chefs a big disservice. Each challenge as they get to the finale is intense and to insert another one just for the surprise element serves no purpose and really surprises no one.

In short, food contests, respect your chefs and knock off the corny twists.

Stacey

Friday 13th of May 2022

@Beth, Re: Top Chef - Do you think it's possible they added the last demi-challenge just so Sarah had a chance to tie the record?

Re: Spring Baking: Totally agree! Molly Yeh brought the level of the show down to a childish, simplistic level. I was offended on Romy's behalf, and while I usually hate quitters, I understand why he made that choice. Enough with the sprinkles already - it's not cute or funny anymore.

Beth

Monday 9th of May 2022

@adobe blue,

I totally agree with you. On both Top Chef and Spring Baking Championship. If I were Sarah, I would have been as easily annoyed as she looked. Either you won the challenge or not. By adding another one after you say it puts you back into the competition came across as untruthful. And I would have done exactly what Romy did. Sprinkles? Seriously? For a professional pastry chef to embrace sprinkles only shows how unprofessional SBC has become. The new host is a thumbs down IMO. It used to be professional and now it’s cheesy.

Damien

Monday 9th of May 2022

I could not agree more. My husband and I actively tuned out the 2nd part of the episode (after struggling to find it; we watched the 1st part of the episode released on 5/5 thinking it was THE only episode only to find the 2nd part released on 5/4).