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“Please pack your knives and go.”
For the first eight seasons of Bravo cooking competition Top Chef, those six words spelled the end for its aspiring chef contestants. But in 2011, the show introduced web series Last Chance Kitchen to give eliminated chefs a chance at redemption. The unique twist? The winner of the digital show was allowed to re-enter the main competition.
In the years since its launch, Last Chance Kitchen has become integral to its progenitor in a way that few web companion series have. New episodes of the Tom Colicchio-judged shortform show play right alongside full-length Top Chef episodes in Bravo’s connected TV app, and three Last Chance Kitchen winners have gone on to be named Top Chef.
“This is more than a bonus,” says Colicchio, who also serves as a Top Chef judge along with host Padma Lakshmi, food writer Gail Simmons, chef Graham Elliot and a rotating cast of culinary experts. “It’s part and parcel now to the competition.”
The series has taken on new relevance among Top Chef fans as digital video has become more widely viewed over the years. The most recent season, filmed in Colorado with the 15th season of Top Chef, was Last Chance Kitchen‘s most popular to date, generating 11.5 million streams across platforms for all 12 of its episodes, which typically range between 10 and 15 minutes in length. Of the people who watched the last season of Top Chef, 43 percent also tuned in to Last Chance Kitchen.
Now, the series is nominated for its second shortform Emmy, in the nonfiction or reality series category (competing against four other spinoff digital series: CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Explore Parts Unknown; CNBC’s Jay Leno’s Garage; FX’s The Americans: The Final Season and FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story — America’s Obsessions). Producers will learn Sept. 9, during the second night of the Creative Arts Emmys Awards, whether they will add another trophy to their collection. (Last Chance Kitchen was honored with a special Emmy — for creative achievement in interactive media, multiplatform storytelling — in 2013. Top Chef, nominated in the reality competition category this year, has won two Emmys since 2007.)
“Back in the old days, digital was a little bit of an afterthought,” acknowledges Lisa Hsia, who has overseen digital for Bravo since 2005. “We realized the way to change that was to have a digital series that actually could change the outcome of the show itself.”
She attributes much of Last Chance Kitchen‘s success to the way in which Top Chef producers Magical Elves and sponsor Hidden Valley Ranch embraced the idea. Because it shares a production schedule with Top Chef, the show doesn’t feel like a low-budget marketing product but, says Hsia, “almost like the last act in the series.”
In fact, those involved say that Last Chance Kitchen has helped ratchet up the drama during the main fight for the top prize. To wit, during Top Chef: Seattle, Boston chef Kristen Kish took the fall for a teammate during the competition but fought her way back during Last Chance Kitchen and ultimately won the show. It was the first time that a Last Chance Kitchen winner was named Top Chef.
“It adds a pretty interesting element to the competition,” explains Colicchio. “If you know that you have the possibility of coming back, you can probably take some risks.”
Over the years, Bravo has built a slate of digital series on the back of Last Chance Kitchen, including originals like Beats + Bites, which brings together musicians and foodies for a culinary adventure, and travel food show Going Off the Menu.
“The value of digital video has really grown,” says Hsia. “Besides shows that tie to on-air linear shows, we’ve had a lot of success with digital-only series. Digital video and social video is part of our DNA now.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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