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Top Chef’s great Downtown Abbey picnic defers its climax to Last Chance Kitchen

Top Chef’s great Downtown Abbey picnic defers its climax to Last Chance Kitchen
The Top Chef 20 contestants during episode 7, filmed at Highclere Castle, setting of Downton Abbey: Amar Santana, Sylwia Stachyra, Gabriel Rodriguez, Nicole Gomes, Buddha Lo, Sara Bradley, Ali Al Ghzawi, Charbel Hayek, Victoire Gouloubi, Dale MacKay, and Tom Goetter (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Top Chef World All Stars’ trip to the home of Downtown Abbey, Highclare Castle, was one of my favorite episodes so far this season, yet its odd structure kicked the actual elimination over to Last Chance Kitchen.

This 75-minute episode needed just 10 more minutes to conclude. What is Bravo in such a rush for? To get to Andy Cohen babbling in his playpen?

Of course, Bravo is in a rush to get us to tune in to the BMW-sponsored Last Chance Kitchen. But let’s rewind to the start of the episode—which also opened with Last Chance Kitchen.

Padma knocked on Sywia’s door, telling the chefs to come downstairs to their hotel’s beautiful restaurant for the Quickfire. But they didn’t need their knives because they were not cooking, but judging.

Yes, this was the first return of chefs from Last Chance Kitchen, and it was between Dale and Begoña.

Four people standing facing other people who are sitting at tables in a restaurant
Top Chef 20 episode 6 began with the end of Last Chance Kitchen, with Begoña Rodrigo and Dale MacKay facing off (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

They each had to prepare several tea towers, each with sandwiches, scones, and pastries, in just one hour. Then, the chefs would help decide who returns, getting one collective vote. They voted blind, as did Tom and Padma.

Last Chance Kitchen is even more subjective than Top Chef itself, with just Tom Colicchio deciding, so I really appreciated having blind judging. (And it’s interesting how the results of a blind-judged show are very different than Top Chef’s.)

Sara was thrilled to be judging: “just let me know and I’ll judge the shit out of you,” she said.

Alas, the challenge was so challenging that Begoña only served two of three plates—and possibly some plate chards, as she tripped and dropped a stack of plates during her last-minute rush to, well, plate.

Begoña said the challenge was the clock, and clearly ran out of time, but also had other issues: her eclairs didn’t puff up, and their topping was just splattered on. Dale said that, with that limited time, “you can’t really use too much creativity,” and he was right.

By unanimous vote, Dale won. I’d hoped for Begoña to return, so it’s sad to see her go out this way.

Dale got a hug from Padma—and then she revealed another prize. “Not only do you get a hug from me,” Padma said, but immunity also. “That was the goal the whole season,” Dale said, meaning the hug, not the immunity.

Dale also revealed that he used to be a “very very aggressive tyrant,” which was illustrated by footage of him on Top Chef Canada screaming at people, Gordon Ramsay style

Four people sit at tables with white tablecloths in front of a large castle
Judges Table on Top Chef 20 episode 6, with Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and guest judge Graham Hornigold, took place on the lawn of Highclere Castle Gail Simmons (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The chefs then learned their elimination challenge: In two teams, prepare and serve a five-star picnic basket with at least five dishes including a dessert. That would be served at Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey.

What I particularly loved about this challenge was that the chefs only had one chance to cook, and then had to pack the picnic baskets up, which would not be served until the next day. That meant designing creative cold dishes, and ones that would not just survive the trip, but also sitting in a fridge overnight.

Before they cooked, they went shopping, and that gave me a chance to do some Top Chef logistics investigation.

Their hotel, we learned, is the Kimpton Fitzroy London, and they served at Highclere Castle, which would be a 90-minute drive there and back. But that drive wasn’t until the next day.

On shopping and cooking day, they drove from the Kimpton to Fortnum & Mason, a super-fancy grocery store where each team had £200 to spend, and Tom spent all of his team’s money on stuff no one could taste.

That’s about a 1o- to 15-minute drive from their hotel. Then they drove to Whole Foods, on Kensington High St, about another 10-minute drive.

Then they went to the Top Chef kitchen, and I have no idea where that is located exactly. Wikipedia says “just outside of Richmond,” but the sources linked don’t actually mention Richmond, a London suburb where Ted Lasso takes place and its exteriors are filmed.

What’s interesting is all of those things are basically on the way to each other, so while it seems like they were driving all over, it was a relatively simple and direct route with stops. Even with that, I imagine the logistical planning it takes to get the contestants, camera crews, and producers there, never mind to book locations and get permission, is a considerable task.

At Highclere the next day, the episode did not go inside those hallowed halls. Instead, the picnic was served on the grounds, using the castle as a backdrop.

I’ve criticized several challenges this season for just using locations as backdrops, but I’ll give this one a pass. That’s not just because it’s a freakin’ castle and a beloved one thanks to Downton Abbey but because the challenge and location made perfect sense together. The judges had a fancy picnic on its lawn.

“Let’s unpack these baskets and see what you’ve done,” Padma said, making this episode a kind of reverse Chopped.

That’s especially true since it had a $10,000 prize that went to the winner, Nicole, for her salmon niçoise salad, which Tom Colicchio was skeptical about but loved.

The blue team won, while the yellow team really botched things, except for Ali and Amar. Tom said the rest of the team “overcomplicated things, and overcomplicated didn’t make it any better,” and Gail added, “on the contrary!”

Ultimately, Sylwia and Tom were the bottom two, and the editing—before and after a commercial break—tried to start a fight between them over the budget.

Sylwia said she tried to use less-expensive produce and “leave for my friends” the rest of the budget. Tom—contestant Tom—insisted “I think everybody got everything they wanted”

Gail asked, “Sylwia, is that true?” and Sylwia screamed “NO! THIS ASSHOLE TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME” and then ran at Tom, hitting him with a croquet mallet and kicking him as he rolled around in the grass.

Okay, not really, but that’s really what it seemed like the editing wanted to happen. But Sylwia, bless her, was not taking the bait. She just explained that “Tom said he needed a lot of ingredients”

Tom is interesting in that he seems like a cocky dick while cooking, but is surprisingly reflective in interviews. In an interview, he said he and Sylwia had the “two shittiest dishes of the day,” and added he was “very disappointed in my dish.”

When they learned that they were the bottom two, Padma said one of them would pack their knives—”just not yet. Come with me.”

And this is where the episode ended, telling us to watch Last Chance Kitchen to see how the episode ended, even though we’d watched the end of Last Chance Kitchen during a regular episode. Alas.

If you haven’t watched Last Chance Kitchen, wait until you do to read on.

Was Sywia or Tom eliminated in Last Chance Kitchen?

A person stirring a whisk in a pot
Sylwia competes in Top Chef 20 episode 6’s cook-off, which ended on Last Chance Kitchen (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

When the trunks popped open, I expected Mr. Pamuk’s body to roll out. Instead, it the chefs’ pantry items that were inside the bowels of this season’s sponsor.

Their task: prepare a sandwich.

When asked what he was preparing, Tom said a “cioppino sandwich.” He’d ended up in the cook-off because of his bad cioppino, so the other chefs thought he was joking and laughed. “I’m dead serious,” he said.

In an interview, though, he said, “I realized cioppino sandwich, it’s not smart,” so he pivoted to a filet sandwich.

Sylwia told us she didn’t want to “overcomplicate it,” because “when i’m overthinking, I’m generally in trouble.”

That was a nice callback to Begoña’s error in the opening Last Chance Kitchen, and provided a nice arc. Why wasn’t this part of the episode arrgh!?

Weirdly, the press photos for this Last Chance Kitchen part are all labeled  “‘Top Chef Is No Picnic’ Episode 2006,” as if they were part of the episode.

Tom ultimately made a filet sandwich with watercress, while Sylwia prepared a crab salad with champagne hollandaise sandwich. Sylwia flipped her bread to keep the crispiness on the outside, and both put ingredients on the outside of the bread.

Sylwia lost because, as Tom said, her sandwich had just one texture: soft. Now the loss of one of Top Chef 20’s best characters is relegated to something many people won’t watch. Or maybe now they will and Bravo has won with its clever ploy.

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Happy discussing!

Robert Karp

Sunday 16th of April 2023

I'm not with you Andy on this episode. Real waste of a great location at Highclere Castle. You might as well have painted a backdrop. I didn't understand the guest judges. I didn't see any captions for who they were or an explanation of why they were there. Producers couldn't dredge up at least one cast member from Downton Abbey? Couldn't afford it? Perfect casting would have been the Downton cook or the young cook as guests. Hilarious. But instead the episode was oddly disjointed from the location.

Make a sandwich so we can get an explanation of about the Earl of Sandwich? Sigh. Also no explanation of how the baskets were stored over night. We didn't see them going into coolers. Was the entire basket put in? Weird. More transparency on how long the food sat before after it was prepared before it was served.

To be honest I can't think of any picnic food that would be great after sitting for 18 hours or so.

Andy Dehnart

Sunday 16th of April 2023

Very good points on the guest judges and lack of any Downton Abbey connections. And I agree that I would have loved to see more details about the storage overnight. The contestants get details about that kind of thing, so it'd be fun if they showed us, too!