By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Feb 09, 2024 at 11:01 AM

This week, Bravo announced that the first episode of “Top Chef” Season 21 will air on Bravo on Wednesday, March 20 at 8 p.m. (with episodes re-aired on Peacock the following day). 

The season, which was filmed last fall in Wisconsin, will feature quickfires and challenges in Milwaukee, Madison and beyond. Even more exciting, the show will feature Milwaukee’s own Chef Dan Jacobs, co-owner of Dandan and EsterEv, as one of its 15 competitors.

Jacobs' appearance on the show is significant. It marks the first time in the show’s history that a chef who currently works professionally in Wisconsin will participate in the long-running national chefs’ competition. 

But how much do you know about Chef Jacobs? We’ve rounded up a history of his personal and culinary pursuits, plus fascinating and fun facts about the “Top Chef” contestant in preparation for his debut on the show.

After all, the more you know about Jacobs, the more you’ll want to cheer him on from the sidelines.

Dan Jacobs (Photo: Clay Williams)
Dan Jacobs (Photo: Clay Williams)

The basics

Daniel Patrick Jacobs (born Jan. 30, 1978) is an American chef and restaurateur. He is the co-owner of EsterEv, a globally inspired tasting menu concept, and DanDan, a modern Chinese-American concept infused with Midwestern sensibility. Jacobs and his business partner Chef Dan Van Rite have been honored by the James Beard Foundation with five semi-finalist nominations for Best Chef Midwest (2018, 2019, 2022, 2023, 2024).

Jacobs is a board member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC). He was instrumental in the creation of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which raised $28.6B in 2021, and was one of four Americans to speak to President-Elect Biden on behalf of the independent restauranteurs. 

Dan and Mike Jacobs
Dan and Mike Jacobs

Early Life

Jacobs was born on Jan. 30, 1978, in Chicago, Illinois, to Cathy and Terry Jacobs. He has one younger sibling, Mike, who he often describes as the yin to his yang. As kids, Jacobs dreamt of patrolling the streets as a police officer. His brother supposedly aspired to being a robber.

Dan and Mike Jacobs as toddlersX

That doesn’t mean that Jacobs was a model child. 

“If you ask my mom, I was a very precocious kid. I couldn't wait to grow up and all I wanted to do was be old enough to do things with the adults,” said Jacobs.

“In grade school I always played team sports, got really good grades, and always tested at a high level. As soon as I got to high school, I started having a really good time with friends and became more of a trouble-maker. My grades dropped and I started cutting class to the point where I almost dropped out.”

Early cooking experiences

In a 2012 OnMilwaukee interview Jacobs shared that he did not grow up in a cooking family. “My parents both worked, and if it didn't come out of a bag, a box or a can, we didn't eat it …” he said.  “There weren't a lot of fresh vegetables. We had fresh mashed potatoes twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time they came from a box.”

In fact, his first cooking experiences took place alongside his father.

“My dad was out of work in 1987,” Jacobs said. “The stock market crashed, and he didn't have a job for almost two years, so he started playing around in the kitchen making pasta sauces and chili. My way of getting out of chores was to hang out with him in the kitchen. We would throw stuff in pots to see what would happen. For some reason, his spaghetti sauce is one of the memorable things. He’d put this really shitty wine in it, but it was really so good."

The time spent with his father in the kitchen didn’t cement his interested in a cooking career; but it did infect him with what he calls “the cooking bug.”

“When I moved out into my first apartment when I was 18, my roommates and I cooked,” Jacobs reflected in an interview. “We really didn't cook anything good, but it was fun for us. For me, cooking was always something fun. It wasn't something I thought I could do as a career.”

Dan Jacobs as a teen
Dan Jacobs as a teen

Early Career

Jacobs made his first foray into the restaurant world in 1997 when he took a summer job as a short-order line cook for a breakfast restaurant in Fish Creek (Door County) called The Cookery. The structure that he didn’t find during his first year in college, he found in the kitchen.

From there, he took a position at the Inn at Cedar Crossing in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Jacobs notes that this position opened his eyes to the breadth of the culinary profession. He says it was the first time he saw people as chefs, not just cooks making omelets on the flat top.

Ultimately, his experience there cemented his love for food and convinced him to pursue his career as a professional chef. He took a few courses at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, but soon abandoned them for a hands-on role working with Carlos Nieto at Carlos' Restaurant in Highland Park.

At that point, he became obsessed. When his friends were partying, he was spending money on cookbooks (including Charlie Trotter's tomes and "The French Laundry Cookbook"), taking notes and creating menus.

The French Laundry Cookbook
Jacobs says reading "The French Laundry Cookbook" was a game changer.

His inaugural exposure to the farm-to-table movement came under the tutelage of Bruce Sherman at North Pond in Chicago. It was further cemented when he landed the position of chef de cuisine at the farm-focused Bistro Campagne, where he sharpened his talents alongside the late local food pioneer Michael Altenburg. Both positions led to his career-long commitment to supporting locally and responsibly grown products.

Jacobs says his time at Bistro Campagne was among his most memorable in Chicago. “It coincided with my marriage to Kate. It’s also the stage in my life where we met some of our best friends. We were young and we had a really great time hanging out together before everyone moved on and established families.”

His career has also included work at Chicago restaurants including TRU, North Pond, Abriot, Naha, Pluton, Narra, Green Zebra and Spring.

Dan Jacobs, 2012
Dan Jacobs, 2012

Career in Milwaukee

Looking for a change in scenery, Jacobs and his wife Kate moved to Milwaukee in 2011.  Here he accepted the position of Executive Chef at Roots, a restaurant that contributed early on to the development of the local farm-to-table movement. He also led the restaurant into its second phase as Wolf Peach, a concept that focused on locally sourced rustic European fare.

Jacobs still looks back fondly on his time on the opening team at Wolf Peach. “I worked with an incredible team and we put out a killer opening menu. I was young and poured so much of myself into that restaurant,” he says. 

In 2014, he moved on to join the crew at Odd Duck, where he was able to exercise his creativity and contribute to the restaurant’s ever-changing menu of eclectic globally-inspired small plates.

Melissa Buchholtz, Ross Bachhuber and Dan Jacobs at Odd Duck
Co-owners Melissa Buchholtz and Ross Bachhuber with Dan Jacobs at Odd Duck

In 2016, Jacobs departed his post at Odd Duck to launch his first restaurant alongside longtime friend, colleague and James Beard honoree Dan Van Rite. Dandan, a modern Chinese-American concept with Midwestern inflection, has evolved to be a perennial favorite in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Named after both the popular Sichuan noodle dish and the two Dans who own it, Dandan is also meant to embody the spirited, fun atmosphere on which the concept was founded.  [Learn more about the Dans in this episode of the FoodCrush podcast].

Dan Van Rite and Dan Jacobs
Dan Van Rite and Dan Jacobs

Just three months later, the duo debuted EsterEv, a chefs tasting menu restaurant located inside of Dandan. The restaurant, named for the chefs’ grandmothers, offers diners an ever-changing menu of dishes that evoke nostalgia and joy, Examples include ricotta gnudi that reminds Jacobs of his Eastern European grandma's slow-cooked pork ragu; a butter popcorn macaron that might just whisk you away to the movies; and a baked Alaska that tastes like Fruity Pebbles. 

In recent years, Jacobs has also overseen the opening (and closing) of two notable concepts: Fauntleroy, a modern French restaurant, that took its leave during the early part of the pandemic and its successor, Fool’s Errand, a short-lived, whimsically branded eatery focused on nostalgic comfort food. He has also consulted on various restaurant-related projects including the menu and operations for Ash, an open hearth concept at the Iron Horse Hotel. [Watch Jacobs and Van Rite talk about the tenets of the Ash concept here].

French onion soup
The luscious (vegetarian) French onion soup served at Fauntleroy

In the kitchen

Among Jacobs’ culinary passions is Asian cuisine. His longheld appreciation for the diverse fare not only plays out in the cuisine at Dandan, but also in the exhaustive list of condiments that fill his refrigerator. Take a peek at this story from 2013 in which he offers guidance for navigating the aisles at local Asian grocers, as well as top notch product recommendations.

When asked what “one” thing he can’t live without in the kitchen, he replied: “I love my fish spatula. It's a multi-purpose tool. It could be a whisk, a spatula. It could be a spoon sometimes, in a pinch. I've even used it as a knife. But, I love spoons. I'm obsessed with spoons. There's something about someone doing a one-handed quenelle. It's one of those simple, pretty things that takes forever to learn how to do. But, holy crap, that's awesome.”  

He’s also a big fan of his eight-quart purple Le Creuset. 

Jacobs credits his work in restaurants with imbuing him with a keen sense of discipline. 

“It takes a high-level of discipline to do this work,” he says. “You have to be mentally tough to get through those formative years and get to creating things at a high-level.”

Dan Jacobs, 2017
Dan Jacobs, 2017 (Photo: Lori Fredrich)

A life-changing diagnosis

In 2016, the same year that he opened DanDan and EsterEv, Jacobs was diagnosed with Kennedy’s Disease, a genetic neuromuscular ailment commonly mistaken for ALS. Although the disease does not typically impact lifespan, its hallmark is muscle weakening and atrophy, which over time can severely impact patients’ mobility.

In Jacobs’ case, the disease manifests in daily pain and weakness in his hands and hip. It has impact on his throat and vocal cords; his voice is sometimes raspy, and he says he sometimes finds it difficult to swallow. He has also lost strength in his legs over the past six years, requiring him to wear braces.  These things have dramatically changed how he approaches his everyday life, as well as his work in the kitchen.

Despite living with a disease that often makes simple tasks like walking upstairs, opening cans and chopping onions feel like massive undertakings, Jacobs has persisted. He is active in operating his two restaurants and his positive attitude and persistence has made it possible for him to take on larger tasks like competing on “Top Chef”.

“A big reason I wanted to compete on ‘Top Chef’ was to inspire people with disabilities,” notes Jacobs. “I hope this platform allows me to inspire people who are differently-abled to pursue their passions, especially in the culinary world where physical constraints can be a big barrier.”

With this messaging in mind, Jacobs has also dedicated time and efforts to raising awareness about Kennedy’s Disease and working to eradicate it. Through community events like Dim Sum Give Some, Jacobs has raised $100,000 for the cause since his diagnosis.  This year’s Dim Sum Give Some takes place on Sunday, March 3. Get more information and tickets here.

Dan Jacobs and Kate Riley
Dan Jacobs and Kate Riley (Photo: Kate Bonamasso)

Random (fun) facts

Jacobs is married to artist and ceramacist Kate Riley, with whom he launched a dinner series and pop-up collaboration, The Plate Collective. Riley created all the serveware for DanDan and EsterEv, and her work can be found in restaurants and local retailers in Milwaukee and beyond.

He has competed twice against three-time James Beard honoree and Iron Chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network series "Beat Bobby Flay." No, he has not beat Flay.

While working at Tru in Chicago, he had the honor of crossing paths with numerous celebrities including Michael Jordan, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain and both Jacques Pepin and his daughter, Claudine.

When he’s not in the kitchen, Jacobs is an avid swimmer. He loves golfing, drawing, flash doodling and reading fantasy books. He also values every moment spent with his wife, Kate.

Jacobs' Octopus tattooX

Jacobs has a growing collection of tattoos [Read about the meaning behind six of them here]:

  • A wedding band 
  • A teapot 
  • A chef’s knife 
  • An octopus 
  • A goblin hand holding a 20-sided die 
  • A Chicago flag with utensils instead of stars

In recent years, he has added an homage to his favorite band, The Grateful Dead, to his left bicep. He is also working on completing a Star Wars half-sleeve. 

Jacobs’ is an avid sports fan. In fact, his favorite color(s) are dark navy blue (he’s a Chicago Bears fan) or dark green (he makes up for it by cheering on the Milwaukee Bucks).

As for Jacobs' favorite foods, they fall solidly in comfort food territory.  First up is a well-made double cheeseburger with American cheese on a potato roll accompanied by housemade fries.

“I also like to argue that chicken wings are a food group,” Jacobs said in a recent interview. “I love crispy dry-rubbed or grilled chicken wings. In my opinion, wings are the best part of the bird because the skin-to-meat ratio is perfect… other than that, a damn good fried pizza or fried chicken dish.”

Dandan wings
Dandan wings (Photo: Lori Fredrich)

That likely explains the bang-up wings they serve at Dandan. The marinated, fried wings are meaty and tender, with a sweet and salty kick achieved through the magic of five spice powder and chiles. They’re served alongside an irresistible beautifully green sauce that’s fresh and bright with hints of citrus and roasted pepper. Truly a must try.

Curious about Jacob’s favorite restaurant dishes? Read more here.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.