For the first eight years of Bravo's Top Chef, as soon as you heard Padma Lakshmi say, "Please pack your knives and go," your time on the series was up, and you went home. Eliminated chefs were allowed, however, to come back and audition to serve as sous chefs to the two (or three) finalists for their last meal. All eliminated chefs were also invited to dine at the finale meal. I used to fantasize about being just good enough to get on the show and go home in the first episode, just so I could come back and eat the extraordinary finale meal.
But Season 9 changed the post-pack-your-knives life of chefs. Instead of getting on the next flight home, you were automatically shipped off to Last Chance Kitchen. 15-minute segments are conducted in the aftermath of each episode--although never aired on Bravo itself, but are available on the network's website--and eliminated chefs compete against each other, tournament style, in order to win a spot back on the show. Generally, the last chef standing gets to come back for the semifinal episode, in order to qualify for the final. The inclusion of this new mini show, hosted by co-head judge Tom Colicchio, was particularly momentous in Season 9 because Chef Beverly Kim, after being on the receiving end of relentless bullying from cast members Heather Terhune and Sarah Grueneberg, battled her way back into the finale. Only three eliminated chefs have successfully used Last Chance Kitchen to come back and win it all: Kristen Kish (Season 10), Brooke Williamson (Season 14), and Joe Flamm (Season 15).
Full episodes of Last Chance Kitchen are available only to cable customers; Bravo's website provides short 2-10 minute clips of full episodes (which run to about 30 minutes), which you can access by logging in with your cable provider login. I was initially skeptical of what Last Chance Kitchen could provide that Top Chef itself does not. Certainly the level of competition, the intensity of the challenges, and the contestants' level of talent is gripping enough to keep our attention--here we are, writing and reading about it! But after I watched a few clips of the ongoing season, plus full episodes on YouTube from previous seasons of Top Chef, I can see the intrigue of the idea.
Last Chance Kitchen is basically a Hail Mary pass for a chef who's been eliminated. Chef Colicchio is the only person who runs the kitchen. He designs the challenges, dictates the terms, and most of all, seems to have a really good time doing it. Most tellingly, during a promo for Season 15, Chef Colicchio says, "Last Chance Kitchen has had the best cooking all season."
During the early days of any Top Chef season, Colicchio serves as the only judge, but as the regular competition winds toward the finale, previous competitors and winners are brought back to taste and comment, if not to judge outright.
Whenever TC alumni have returned--many of whom didn't even have Last Chance Kitchen as a rescue option after their elimination--they have been consistently impressed by the talent of the chefs, especially since these are chefs who have been dismissed from the regular show. Season 8 competitors Spike Mendelsohn and Marcel Vigneron have appeared on Last Chance Kitchen repeatedly, both as commentators and contestants. I can easily see why Last Chance Kitchen is such a novelty for them: The challenges bend the limits of what a reality cooking competition can do.
For example, during a Season 15 LCK challenge--which took place in the Top Chef kitchen, in front of all the chefs--the theme was "cook your heart out." Literally. The chefs had to cook with offal cuts and entrails of meat. And the results were no less appetizing than a regular episode of Top Chef.
During that particular episode of Last Chance Kitchen, Chef Leanne Wong made stunning dumplings, fit for the cover of Food & Wine. (I still dream about them.) Wong's return to Top Chef that season was particularly sweet because she'd been eliminated during Season One; many viewers thought she'd been robbed. Last Chance Kitchen has the potential to provide redemptive arcs, and paths to victory, that often aren't available during the regular run of Top Chef. I'm hopeful that the current season will prove no less exciting.