By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 19, 2024 at 9:22 PM

It was a packed house tonight at the Zocalo Tavern, where the crowds gathered in anticipation of the announcement declaring the winner of "Top Chef" Season 21.

And when the verdict came in, declaring Danny Garcia as the next Top Chef, you could feel the emotions, thicker than the early summer humidity in the air.

But let's talk about this.

It's tough to believe that we've already reached the end of Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 21, a show that's had my full attention since the crews began filming in Wisconsin in August of 2023.

But it feels even more surreal to realize that 14 weeks have passed and Wisconsin is officially home to a “Top Chef” runner-up. (Top Sous Chef?)

The final act

Chef Dan Jacobs' determination to conquer "Top Chef" traces back to well before the show ever came to Wisconsin. In fact, as he confessed this evening, he auditioned 11 times before making it onto the show.

But no challenge this season was more deceivingly simple than tonight's elimination challenge: A four-course dinner (AKA: cook anything you want, but be sure to blow the judges away).

 The theme for Jacobs' "last supper" was apropos: Living in the Moment. And – for one of the first times all season – he clearly expressed that theme through all four of his courses, infusing classic dishes with his own culinary inflection while also conveying a distinct sense of place (on a cruise ship near Curaçao).

His four courses included:

  1. Tuna Tartare with grapefruit, Caribbean pepper paste, garlic chips and black garlic labneh;
  2. Grilled Snapper with ginger and scallions, braised pumpkin and smoked snapper bone dashi;
  3. Oxtail Ragu with tomato concasse, a yeasted dumpling and pikliz made with cabbage, carrots and scallions;
  4. Yogurt Mousse with coriander, olive oil, salted phyllo crisp, lemon oil and grilled pineapple.

Overall, his dishes impressed the judges. Guest Judge David Zilber called his grilled snapper "a perfect uami-ish song to seafood". Gail Simmons, Kristen Kish and Guest Judge Emeril Lagasse all glowed over his oxtail. And the toasty salty phyllo dough got nods from both Simmons and Tom Colicchio. 

Meanwhile, Savannah Miller – who'd singlehandedly won the most challenges of any chef throughout the season – let her nerves get the best of her, trailing behind with a symphony of avoidable mistakes.

As a result, the competition boiled down to Jacobs versus one of the more formidable talents in the group: Danny Garcia, an accomplished chef whose resume includes top honors at the Ment’or Young Chef competition, work at Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry and an executive chef role with the late Chef James Kent’s team at Saga Hospitality Group in New York.

And, in the end, Garcia's talents for delivering on the unexpected won out.

Danny Garcia Cooking
Danny Garcia cooking during "The Good Land" episode (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

The real Dan Jacobs

But, let's be honest.

Jacobs' appearance on the show is a victory from so many different angles. Not only did his participation give viewers a glimpse of his talents and style of cooking, but a clear view of his passion, personality and – maybe most importantly – his determination to continue working in the industry he loves, despite his diagnosis with Kennedy’s disease.

That wasn’t an actor up there. That was the real Dan Jacobs – a passionate chef, industry advocate and overall down-to-earth human – defying his limitations to represent our state (and check off a box on his bucket list). 

Daniel Jacobs and two finalists
Finalists: Daniel Jacobs, Savannah Miller, Danny Garcia (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

If you’ve worked in the restaurant industry, you know how physically demanding it is. It means long days on your feet and loads of repetitive activity. Both of those can lead to physical exhaustion and chronic pain, particularly in the feet, back, and legs.

Just imagine doing those same tasks while dealing with muscle weakness, numbness, and an inability to contract muscles. That sums up Jacobs’ day-to-day life, which he lives to its fullest, despite the challenges and frustrations of a genetic disorder he didn't choose nor deserve.

But he's taken a situation that some might find soul-crushing and made it into an opportunity to live life to its fullest and help others to do the same.

In fact, part of Jacobs’ mission as he dove headlong into his participation on the show was to inspire others.

“A big reason I wanted to compete on ‘Top Chef’ was to inspire people with disabilities,” he said. “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.”

Thank you, Dan Jacobs. Mission accomplished. If that's not a win, I'm not sure what is.

Dan Jacobs with Snapper
Daniel Jacobs cooking during the finale (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

What now? We all win.

“Top Chef” might be over, but in a sense, it's made each one of us a winner. It's a victory to see our home state in the limelight and to see firsthand how many things we have to appreciate about where we live, work and play.

I hope we’ll continue to bask in the limelight of the season and – if we haven’t already – consider it as further proof that our fair state is no longer the fly-over zone it once was.

I also hope that – if you love food and appreciate the dining scene – you’ll feel a renewed desire to support our local restaurants. We’ve gotten this far not only because we have amazing chefs who’ve chosen to call our State home, but because we’ve put our pocketbooks behind their work and allowed them to continue to grow, evolve and hone their crafts. We need to keep that going if we want to keep our scene vibrant, healthy and innovative. 

If you can afford full dinners out multiple times a week, that’s cool. But even if your budget only allows you to grab a drink and appetizers or dessert and coffee at some of these spots, you’re making a difference.

Definitely make it a point to visit Jacobs’ restaurants: DanDan and EsterEv. Both are worthy of your dining dollars in very different ways. DanDan offers delicious takes on Southeast Asian fare, while EsterEv offers diners a glimpse into Chefs Jacobs and Van Rite’s fine dining past with beautifully presented dishes that will challenge your palate in a very good way. 

And yes, you should grab a bowl of DanDan noodles (of course), Sichuan Pork Dumplings or Egg Rolls from the DanDan vendor stand when you head to Summerfest

But I’d also encourage you to consider supporting the other talented local chefs featured on this season’s show. That includes James Beard honorees like Chef Karen Bell of Bavette, Chef Kyle Knall of Birch, Chef Gregory León of Amilinda, Milunka Radecevic of Three Brothers, Chef Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat and more.  Get the full list by checking out my Ultimate Guide to Top Chef Wisconsin

Challenge yourself to take it all in and I'm pretty sure you'll find a new appreciation for the bounty of great dining options we have here in Milwaukee and beyond.

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.