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.
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?
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.
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
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.