By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 22, 2024 at 6:56 PM

Across two months and nine episodes, “Top Chef” has taken a bite out of some of Wisconsin’s biggest food traditions. In their latest episode, however, the popular Bravo culinary competition will sink its teeth into certainly one of our beefiest: the meat raffle. 

You can find all sorts of contests in bar rooms across the country, from trivia to pool to darts to all varieties of video games and pinball machines. But around much of the Midwest, the big bar competition of choice is the meat raffle, gathering people together in the hopes of scoring some prime slabs of raw meat in the name of charity and communal camaraderie. And now “Top Chef” will serve up its take on one of our most carnivorous customs, raffling off a table of meats – ranging from the prime to the pedestrian to the downright peculiar – to the season’s six remaining chef-testants to cook up for Wednesday’s quickfire challenge. 

I got a chance to visit the show’s Oak Creek set while filming this quickfire back in September – and while I have no spoilers to report on whose beef was best, I did get to sit down with “Top Chef” stars Kristen Kish, Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio about their high-stakes steak strategies for the challenge, as well as their feelings on the Sconnie-set season on and off screen, the hardest part of competing on “Top Chef” and more. 

OnMilwaukee: If you were a part of this meat raffle quickfire challenge, what would you really want, and what would you have loathed to get?

Kristen Kish: So the one thing I learned from “Top Chef” is that, when there’s a selection of things, unless it’s something you’ve never worked with before and you have no idea how to use it or you’re just not inspired by it, whether you get stuck with something or you have first pick, like Gail was saying out there, it doesn’t matter what you choose. It matters what you do with what’s been given to you. That’s the whole purpose of this competition.

Tom Colicchio: Loathing would’ve been any of the canned stuff. If I had first pick, I can see why someone would grab the wagyu, but it all depends on what dish you’re going to make with it – because you still have to make a dish. You’re not just cooking the meat. Walking in and thinking about what I would do, I know we have these little peppers – I think making a little stuffed pepper with the ground chicken could’ve been fun, with some aromatic vegetables and spices and stuff. I don’t know if you’d have enough time to get rice done, but maybe there’s something you could put together, then stuff the little peppers and pop them in the wood-burning oven – I think that would be fun.

Gail Simmons: My pick would’ve been lamb chops. Just feels like a bit of a way to differentiate yourself. I love cooking lamb chops; you can do anything with them, and it just has a different flavor than beef or pork. 

And I would think corned beef would be the one I would dread. I’ve never cooked with it before – I mean, I’ve had corned beef but never canned corned beef – and it’s very salty, and it’s hard to turn it into something else. I can think of a few things I would do, but you’d really have to nail it, or else it can go really bad. 

What do you think is the hardest part of each challenge: coming up with the dish or the cooking?

TC: The clock. The clock is always the hardest. The cooking part is interesting because I think where a lot of the chefs get tripped up is they’re trying to do too many things, and the actual cooking is lacking. Because they’re running around and whatever they’re cooking isn’t cooked correctly. 

Also: The way the kitchen is set up, your prep table is nowhere near the stove, so you’ve got to keep one eye on the stove and one eye on the prep at the same time. 

GS: It’s all hard. I think to come up with something that’s sound and putting away the noise, choosing something, trusting your instincts and doing it is really, really hard for all of our chefs. You have two seconds and then when you get into it, you start looking at what other people are doing and you start thinking about what you could’ve done and something else comes to you, and it’s very easy to get caught in that. And then the clock is always an issue. 

When you’re judging, what would you rather have: a perfectly cooked but predictable dish, or a unique or inventive dish that is imperfectly cooked?

TC: Neither. (laughs) But you’re touching on something! When I judge, when I look at whether or not something is technically cooked, I’m not subjective. Seasoning to me isn’t subjective either – especially if something’s really under-seasoned or over-seasoned. This season we’ve had a lot of over-seasoned dishes that have been really salty. But that part’s not subjective, so I get through that first.

So if all of that is equal, then you look at the challenge and what they actually did – the composition, did they find inspiration in the challenge. But also I try to get an idea of what the chef was trying to do. A lot of times it’ll never show up on camera, but I ask questions, because for me, intention’s important. So if they intend to do something and they accomplish it, great; if they don’t, then it’s a mistake. So it’s not one thing, and it’s not an either/or. And it’s also by degrees too. We’re not looking for the best dish in the world; we’re looking for the best dish out of the chefs that just cooked and the worst dish. It’s all on a scale. 

And then it comes down to having a discussion with the other judges. Because often there are things that they’ll pick up on that maybe I won’t, or that I’ll pick up on that they won’t. Especially if you’re on the fence, you take it all into consideration, and you hopefully come up with the right winner. 

Kristen, how’s it been taking on this massive role for the first time?

KK: You know, everything has been going really, really, really well. I didn’t know what to expect, and I think that was the best part about the whole thing. Obviously I know what Padma has done and created in this role, but my job was to come in and do me and be me. She left a wide open space with freedom and opportunity in it, to sort it all out myself.

Have there been any surprises through the process for you?

KK: Everything has already felt like a happy surprise already – the fact that I’m here, that I got this job. I’m surprised every day by it – but it also feels really familiar and expected in a lot of ways, because I know how the show runs. 

Why are Milwaukee and Wisconsin such a good pick for this season of “Top Chef”?

GS: You know, we really haven’t explored much of the Midwest at all. We did Chicago in season four, but it was so focused on the city. I think the Midwest is a big swath of the country where, number one, “Top Chef” has had a lot of chefs from – and if we’re going to tell the story of food in America, I just think it can’t be ignored. It’s the perfect time of year, there’s a lot going on here, and it just seemed like the right moment to do it.

TC: What’s really interesting is we always get solicits saying, “We have great restaurants!” That’s not what we do; we don’t go to restaurants and try restaurants. But anywhere in this country, there’s great food traditions – usually traditions that were brought here by the people who settled this area back when and also recently as well – that our producers do a great job of finding. And then we kind of bring them to life and really focus on them and have fun with it. We haven’t been here yet, and with the exception of the Chicago season a long time ago, we really haven’t spent much time in the Midwest. So why not!

KK: After 20 seasons, I feel like it was a natural progression to come to this part of the country, this area of the Midwest. I feel like “Top Chef” does a really great job of selecting a location – no matter where it is – and shining a light on it, bringing awareness to places that some people haven’t been. But for me, I think it was a great choice because I grew up right over the lake in Michigan, so it feels familiar.

How’s that feel to help shine a light on this part of the country – because Michigan similarly can get overlooked in terms of cuisine.

KK: Every place you go, there’s always great chefs and great food to be had and wonderful families and history and tradition that brings food to all parts of the country – and that’s the beautiful part about it. There’s a huge Hmong population here which I’m learning, and with that comes great food. There’s a great population of Eastern Europeans here, so that brings great food. That’s the best part of going anywhere: to see the melting pot of what has been formed.

Any favorite dishes or spots on your travels here in Wisconsin?

KK: I keep saying the same thing over and over again, because as much as it would make sense in everybody’s head that we have tons of time to go out to dine, we don’t. And our job is to eat, so it’s not like right after shooting, I’m hungry but I’m not going out and having another whole meal afterwards. It’s really just trying to get to a variety of places in a short amount of time. I wish I had more time to really eat through the city, but I don’t. But the tastes that I have had make me want to come back and explore more.

GS: Lots and lots! I’ve been to Three Brothers, Allie Boys, 1033, Harbor House. I’ve known Paul Bartolotta for a long, long time – long before I came here, when he was in the early opening of his restaurant in Vegas – so I was really excited to reunite with him and try his Milwaukee restaurants, his legacy Bartolotta restaurants. Been to Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern a couple of times. Gotten great Vietnamese and Laotian and Hmong food a few times from a few different places. Been to Zocalo, which was really fun on a Friday night. We’ve also been to Madison and went to the Tornado Room and the farmers market and A Pig In A Fur Coat. 

Is there anything you feel like the Milwaukee food scene is missing?

GS: Especially with “Top Chef” all these years, I try not to think about what a city’s missing. A city’s made up of the immigrants who built the city and the pathways of the people who came here, and every city is different. So I don’t know if it’s missing anything.

Look, we are traveling so we want to eat on Sunday nights and Mondays, and I think with the combination of the size of the city and the post-pandemic life of restaurants, I’m finding it hard to find places that are open. We’ve cooked a few nights ourselves, but mostly we’re in hotels – not always a place to do so. So I would say that’s the one issue: We need more late-night places, and we need more Sunday and Monday places, because that would fit our shooting schedule. (laughs)

Did you have any prior notions of Milwaukee or Wisconsin that being here kind of surprised you?

GS: I’d been to Wisconsin before – to Madison on my book tour, one night in the middle of winter, and then Kohler for the Food & Wine Experience a few times – so I’d had a little bit of understanding. But just like any city that you’re getting to settle into for a long time, there’s so much nuance. The populations are different, and the people surprise you. I’ve really loved how happy and excited Wisconsin – and specifically Milwaukee – have been for us to be here. We’ve been stopped everywhere, and we can’t eat anywhere without people knowing. That’s been really nice. 

But also getting to dig a little deeper into the culinary history of the place, you find so much more than you think superficially on the surface. When we moved here, everyone was just like, “Oh, beer and cheese curds and frozen custard” – and yes, those are all here and they’re all great. But there’s obviously so much more – and even within those three categories, there’s nuance and story and history and the people who make them and the farms that supply them. And that’s been really interesting to learn.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.