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Last Chance Kitchen Has Changed Top Chef for the Better

The show's kindness era wouldn't be possible without its online companion.
  • Charbel Hayek, Tom Colicchio, and Lorna Maseko in Top Chef: World All-Stars (Photo: David Moir/Bravo)
    Charbel Hayek, Tom Colicchio, and Lorna Maseko in Top Chef: World All-Stars (Photo: David Moir/Bravo)

    There are several reasons Top Chef: World All-Stars is poised to become one of the show’s most essential seasons. By gathering winners and finalists from the brand’s global franchises to compete in an ultimate showdown, it promises an “all killer, no filler” lineup that’s even more stacked than a typical All-Stars cycle. It also offers an incredibly diverse array of culinary styles, with contestants from over a dozen countries bringing their perspectives to the table. And more than ever before, this season can prove that Last Chance Kitchen is not merely a digital spinoff of the original, but a crucial part of its recent excellence.

    For some, that will be a controversial opinion. Ever since its 2011 premiere during Top Chef: Texas, the web-only side competition has inspired vocal resistance. Some object to the very idea of the format, which lets a chef reenter the main competition by winning a series of brief, head-to-head challenges against other eliminated contestants. Detractors claim this is grossly unfair, arguing that it’s much easier to win what amounts to a string of Quickfire challenges than it is to slog through the grueling demands of, say, Restaurant Wars. They also argue that since Last Chance Kitchen only requires cooking for one or two people — host Tom Colicchio, with occasional guest judges — it doesn’t test the same skills as mothership challenges that involve feeding hundreds of guests.

    That’s undeniable. The demands of Last Chance Kitchen are not exactly the same as those on Top Chef. It’s also fair to argue that the digital show creates narrative chaos when it thrusts a chef back into the main series, and that it can suggest racial bias. Still, the digital series has spearheaded crucial shifts in the brand that arguably trump the downsides.

    Consider the kindness. In its first eight seasons, Top Chef was certainly addictive, but it was marked by viciousness. Chefs regularly yelled at each other, accused each other of sabotage, and in one heinously memorable moment, mobbed a fellow competitor and shaved his head.

    That’s alien to this era. Though the competition is still fierce, most seasons are driven by a sense of genuine respect among the competitors. They often seem to be building a community more than entering an arena, and when a chef is willing to give up his immunity to spare a more worthy player from being sent home, it’s clear the tides have shifted. Some of this might be called “The Great British Bake Off Effect,” since that show’s phenomenal success proved gentleness can ground a competitive reality series. But whether it’s a cause of Top Chef’s pendulum swing or simply a reflection of it, Last Chance Kitchen is critical to its current identity.

    Most importantly, its existence gives contestants more space to prove themselves. After winning five consecutive Last Chance Kitchen challenges on Season 19, self-deprecating contestant Sarah Welch returned to the main show and eventually made it to the final. Instead of grousing, her fellow contestants cheered her on, inspired by her determination and ingenuity. She didn’t come across as someone who had skirted the hard parts of the series, but as someone who found her confidence in a looser, lower-profile environment that better suited her personality.

    There was a similarly triumphant spirit when Kristen Kish (in Season 10) and Brooke Williamson (in Season 14) returned from elimination to win their respective seasons. Last Chance Kitchen is explicitly designed for these rousing underdog stories, which couldn’t exist in regular game play. By giving both the chefs and the audience something positive to focus on — namely, redemption – the show makes cruelty seem almost unnecessary. Why let failure make you mean, when you get to keep showing your stuff in another context? (This inherent hopefulness might explain why Last Chance Kitchen has been a ratings blockbuster.)

    The feel-good stories land because the web series gives viewers more time with contestants they might otherwise barely remember. Sasha Grumman, for instance, was eliminated in the second episode of Season 18, but by winning so many Last Chance Kitchen face-offs, she not only learned to relax and enjoy herself, but also demonstrated her creativity with dishes that somehow made pistachios and oysters seem like a good combination. She went from an also-ran to a standout presence. Meanwhile, Colicchio himself seems to have used the informality and intimacy of the format to loosen up. There’s a backyard barbecue vibe to the way he talks to the chefs on Last Chance Kitchen that underscores both his collegial warmth and his enthusiasm for food in general. That has spilled onto the main show, where he has traded his earlier gruffness for a more compassionate (though no less thorough) style of critique.

    It’s a boon that Top Chef: World All-Stars is happening during this era. Since they’re the best of the best from around the globe, these chefs will inevitably be fascinating, and the digital series guarantees we can spend more time getting to know them as people and professionals. Competitors at their level deserve the chance to be known and to be appreciated, and even the first chefs sent home have already proven they can contribute to Top Chef’s particular universe. That almost guarantees they’ll be worth the time it takes to watch Last Chance Kitchen.

    That can boost the Top Chef brand for several reasons. First, many of the global spinoffs are available for streaming in the U.S., so getting viewers hooked on these players just increases the chance they’ll hunt down the international versions. Plus, viewers of Last Chance Kitchen pad corporate bottom lines, no matter which season is airing. That’s the power of synergy, and it’s what everyone’s chasing in the entertainment industry. But in this case, the cash-in web series also happens to be good for the show and the viewers who love it. It’s a brand extension gone remarkably right.

    Top Chef: World All-Stars airs Thursdays at 9:00 PM ET on Bravo. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Top Chef, Bravo, Brooke Williamson, Kristen Kish, Sarah Welch, Sasha Grumman, Tom Colicchio