A long, long time ago (OK, six weeks ago), Sarah Welch was eliminated from the main competition of Top Chef. The following week, Ashleigh Shanti, freshly booted, dropped into Last Chance Kitchen, won, and got back in.
While Ashleigh got back into the competition, Sarah grinded it out in the Last Chance Kitchen, knocking out chefs left and right to get to this moment.
The loss to Ashleigh is on Sarah’s mind this week, the Last Chance Kitchen finale, where Jae Jung is standing between her and getting back in.
“I have to beat Jae with a stellar dish,” Sarah says. “I don’t want a repeat of what happened with Ashleigh where I was on a streak and somebody bops me on the head and heads back into the competition. So this means a lot because I really do want to take this.”
Head judge Tom Colicchio says their challenge is to create something creamy, chewy, and crunchy in 30 minutes. The twist is that he won’t be judging — they’ll have to present their food to a panel of five “culinary experts.”
Sarah is doing something she’s done at her restaurant before, crispy delicata squash with whipped chevre and spicy raisin relish. This strategy has served her well in the past and she’s not going to change it up now.
Jae, who got axed for doing something she’s never done before, is doing something she’s never done before. She’s doing shrimp boil with andouille sausage emulsion and crispy potatoes.
Both are feeling pretty confident that they’ve made the winning dish. They bring up the six plates to the table next to their designated color — red for Sarah, blue for Jae — and leave the kitchen.
Tom goes into the stew room where the remaining Top Chef cheftestants are decompressing from their Elimination Challenge, which was to create a meal fit for outer space. They are confused. Evelyn doesn’t know whether they’re going to taste food or start cooking again.
Tom says they’re going to do a blind tasting. They make their decisions and then put their chosen card face down in front of them.
Jae and Sarah come back into the kitchen and the chefs are floored to see that Sarah is still in the competition. Tom says both dishes were nice but what he has to say doesn’t matter because it’s the chefs who will weigh in.
But since this is Top Chef and Tom is sadistic, he says the challenge isn’t over.
Jo sums it up succinctly, asking “What kind of fresh hell is this?”
And Part 2 starts now! The cheftestants aren’t picking the winner; every vote means more time on the clock to cook one more time, which is cruel and unusual punishment. The chefs reveal their choices and Sarah sweeps the win. Sarah gets 45 minutes compared to Jae’s 30 and Sarah, even though she won, looks exhausted and unhappy. Tom also brings in Top Chef alum Shota Nakajima, one of the finalists from last season. He’ll be judging part 2 of this challenge with Tom.
Now Sarah and Jae get to make whatever they want and use whatever they want. Sarah gets a head start and decides to make ricotta gnocchi. It’s something she’s made before, but things look a little dicey for her as she makes the dough — it’s too wet but she presses on. She says the extra time is allowing her to be present and intentional with every choice she makes. She makes a parmesan bread crumb and a black olive and sardine relish. She also fries garlic and fresh herbs for extra texture.
While she’s making gnocchi, Jae is just standing there, cool, calm, and collected as she waits for the clock to hit 30 minutes. It seems like she has the advantage because she is watching Sarah and knows what she’s making, plus she gets time to plot out what she’s going to make instead of frantically running into the pantry and grabbing random things.
Finally, it’s time for Jae to jump into the competition and her plan is to make spaghetti squash with red snapper.
Tom comes through one last time for his walkthrough of judgment. He strolls and sneers by Sarah’s station and comments that her dough is too wet. Could this be the end for Sarah?
Time’s up. Sarah presents her gnocchi pomodoro. “This is one of my favorite dishes to eat in the heart of summer in Michigan [when] tomatoes are just exceptional.” (Facts.)
Jae offers up her sauteed snapper with spaghetti squash noodle salad in clam broth with a drizzle of brown butter.
It’s the moment of truth for Sarah’s gnocchi.
“In my restaurant, Craft, we have made gnocchi for 20 years every single day. It’s good gnocchi,” Tom says.
Shota and Tom pile on the compliments for Jae’s snapper dish: The fish is cooked perfectly, the broth is nice and bright, and the clam broth has good salinity. It seems like a home run.
But it’s not enough to overtake Sarah, who wins one last time, a record-tying seven victories to become one of the final six competitors on this season of Top Chef. And with that Sarah becomes the first Top Chef competitor from Michigan who’s currently working at a Michigan restaurant to make it this far in the competition.
The five remaining Top Chef competitors congratulate Sarah. “I’m surprised it doesn’t say ‘Sarah’s Kitchen,’” Ashleigh says, pointing to the sign that says, “Last Chance Kitchen.”
“I’m back, baby,” Sarah says. “I love you Last Chance Kitchen. But it’s time to go get my ass kicked by five incredible chefs.”
Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo, and stream Last Chance Kitchen on YouTube following each episode. For more information, visit bravotv.com.