By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 04, 2024 at 5:56 PM

Last week was the beer episode, so it was only a matter of time before "Top Chef" hit the other obvious Wisconsin trope: (*extreme Wallace & Gromit voice*) CHEEEEEEESE!

Unfortunately, it wasn't easy being cheesy on Wednesday night as the latest installment was the worst of the three episodes this season so far. Cheese innocent, though; instead it was a lazy quickfire challenge and some even lazier dishes in the elimination test that made last night's "Top Chef" have a slight whiff of camembert stink about it. That being said, cheese makes anything better – so I can't complain too much about an episode throwing mouth-watering cheese, often fried, at my eye-mouths. 

Who would win Wednesday's curd skirmish? Who squeaked by? And who fell whey behind the others and out of the competition entirely? After winning with a dessert with mustard and pretzels, what quark-y dishes and flavor combos would Rasika come up with this week? Would local chef Dan Jacobs be able to overcome a fall to be feta-ed the winner this week? And do I have even more cheese puns to sustain this entire article? The answer to that last one is no – but let's answer the rest of those questions and manchego through my five takeaways from the latest episode of "Top Chef" in Wisconsin.

1. The Door County quickfire was a (cherry) bomb

Most people will probably only remember the cheese portions of Wednesday night's episode – in part because, come on, it's cheese, but also because I'd just rather forget the Door County-based quickfire challenge. 

Not that the cooking challenge itself – chefs having to use Door County cherries as well as an individually selected hidden mystery ingredient in a dish – was a problem, and not that the resulting food turned out particularly nasty. (And props to the show for shouting out the state's hefty ginseng production, a lesser-known factoid for sure!) 

No, it was the Door County of it all that left me wanting as the theme felt like the producers knew about cherries ... and stopped their research right there. Hmm, Door County ... so we'll make a wall of colorful doors to hide the secret ingredients, I guess? And who better to judge this Sconnie showcase of local ingredients than ... actress and L.A. native Clea DuVall? I'm normally very pro Clea DuVall on my screen, but she felt like a completely random choice, like she happened to just be in town hanging around on set to visit a friend and they threw her in as a guest judge. Maybe she's a huge door enthusiast? (This actually would've been a great place to plug in Charlie Berens, as opposed to his ill-fitting role at last week's fancy Miller dinner.)

Even Kristen Kish's introduction to the Door County quickfire felt like the result of a panicked last-minute Wiki search and some ChatGPT writing. I GUESS Door County is a "quaint coastal village" ... but I have a hard time describing anything in Wisconsin as "coastal." It's like calling a burger a sandwich: Yes, technically accurate, but it just doesn't sound right, like an alien trying to blend in with human speak. It wasn't a BAD segment – not like having to make an appetizer using only vending machine snacks. But in the end, to use "Top Chef" terminology, if the key ingredient of this season is Wisconsin, this quickfire didn't really showcase or highlight it – like Door County was a marshmallow and the show was Kenny. 

2. Croquette-palooza wrecks the cheese challenge

After the quickfire challenge, we reached the real star of the night: the cheese. Or at least it was SUPPOSED to be cheese, as instead the chef-testants' turned this fromage fight into a test of croquettes, resulting in a pretty repetitive episode centerpiece. Plus: I'm still having a hard enough time learning all these contestants' names and distinguishing between them all – and now most of the cast spends this entire episode practically making the same dish?

At least, unlike the Door County challenge, the producers seemed to do their homework for the cheese challenge, elevating it beyond the obvious. First Kristen and company brought our two legitimate cheese icons in Wisconsin in Andy Hatch and Pam Hodgson – the latter representing one of just two women master cheesemakers on the entire globe. The show then presented the literal big cheese of the night: a table piled with several varieties of Wisconsin fromage, from cheese curds to cheddar to a wheel of one of the most awarded cheeses on the planet. Instead of the quickfire where the thought process seemed to extend as far as "they have cherries," the elimination challenge really shined a serious spotlight on the people and the cheese Wisconsin creates. 

Gifted this cavalcade of curds of all varieties, the chefs ... all made the same thing. 

Yes, there were a few no-quette stations in the kitchen – for instance, Dan and Kaleena made pasta dishes, while Kenny made a cold crab salad – but an overwhelming majority of the chef-testants in the cheese challenge landed on making croquettes, or other similar mounds of cheese and starch, for their service: a 100-person "cheese fest" hosted at a picturesque farm out in Oconomowoc. There was a truffle-centric croquette and a yuca croquette and a ham-and-cheese croquette and ... well, at this point, even the most prideful French viewers would be like, "We've croquette-ed too far." Anyone who attended this cheese festival almost certainly left more croquette than human by the end of the tasting. 

The biggest crime? Even if a bunch of the dishes looked tasty, they also looked redundant, not exactly making for a scintillating or exciting episode of television, watching very similar dishes parade across the screen with not much to differentiate them. Not even the return of fan favorite Carla "HOOTIE HOO!" Hall could add variety to the parade of French poppables. Kristen Kish hasn't yet busted out the "you need to cook to WIN" speech we've been teased in previews – but after seeing 75 percent of the chefs choose the same easy and obvious choice this challenge, now certainly seemed like the time to me. 

3. Dan takes a fall, but not in the standings

Three episodes in, and there still hasn't been much to report in the drama department this season of "Top Chef" – and even stranger, the rare bits of tension have all involved our affable local contestant Dan Jacobs. Whether it's Rasika politely clashing with him over who claims dessert last week or the anonymous freeway driver from the premiere, people keep testing the freshly James Beard nominated chef – and he keeps passing the tests. (Or failing them, if you're a Bravo producer desperate for some fireworks to go off this season.)

Dan faced his toughest composure test of the season, though, on Wednesday night during the chefs' preparation for the show's festa fromage. While everyone was running around preparing their croquettes, Laura (who allegedly has been on the show this entire time; am I supposed to know who this person is?) spilled a bunch of her cream and cheese on the kitchen floor ... and then apparently determined that cleaning it up was someone else's job, accidentally leaving the slippery culinary obstacle behind like a Mario Kart-like trap. First Rasika almost biffed it on the cheese slick, and then Dan – who, as he noted, doesn't need any extra help falling thanks to his Kennedy's Disease – unfortunately walked into the creamy quagmire, losing his feet and, worst of all, losing a bunch of his handmade gnocchi in the accident. As the sound editor in charge of bleeping quickly found out, Dan was displeased. 

Bad news, Bravo producers chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" under your breath: Dan remains unflappable! Dan and Laura definitely exchanged some feelings in the heat of the moment – but after maybe ten seconds of snippy conversation, Dan quickly simmers down and the two move along with no further problems to report. Maybe that was his Midwestern Nice coming back out again; maybe he just knew he didn't have time to hold a grudge with a pile of gnocchi to redo. Either way, props to Dan for deciding it was no use (*puts on sunglasses*) crying over spilled milk. (*cue "CSI: Miami" theme*)

Even more impressive? Even with that slippery speedbump, Dan and his gnocchi kicked butterkäse in the cheesy elimination challenge. While he landed middle of the pack in the quickfire with his kimchi cherry concoction, the Dandan chef's gnocchi dish was a real standout at the cheese fest amongst the judges and the attendees – in part certainly because he was one of the few chefs to not cook up a croquette, but also because his gnocchi dish looked delicious. (My colleague Lori Fredrich, who attended the cheese fest and served as one of the dozens of attendee voters, confirmed that the manchego dumplings were outstanding, amongst her favorites of the fest even putting her local bias aside.)

In the end, the pasta plate scored Dan his first top three finish of the season thus far, and while he fell short of claiming victory and immunity, he has placed himself just outside the show's obvious betting favorites – aka the best place to be. Think about it: On "The Bachelor," the person who wins tends to be someone who performs well but not so much that they hog all the screentime and seem predictable. "Top Chef" often works the same way. Hmmm... 

4. The early favorites continue to shine

Dan's definitely in the top half of the "Top Chef" rankings – but there's a lot of fierce competition already staking their claims as favorites just three episodes in thus far. 

For instance, at this point, I'd be shocked if Michelle doesn't make it at least to Restaurant Wars week. The Houston-based barbecue expert hasn't even gotten to play with her preferred cuisine (and realistically won't, considering Wisconsin doesn't exactly have a serious BBQ legacy to spotlight; maybe a tailgating challenge?) but no bother as she continues to prove she's quite the cook episode after episode. After almost claiming victory in week one with her pasta and performing well at the quickfire last week, she finally scored her first challenge win with her take on a curry coconut Indian saag at the cheese fest, blending together collard greens and her chosen award-winning cheese for a dish so good that Kristen Kish couldn't stop swearing up and down about it. It looked so good, Milwaukee won't even resent the fact that she bought the city out of collard greens. She'll have immunity for next week now – not that anyone thinks she'll need it, considering the cooking prowess displayed so far. 

She wasn't the only person establishing her frontrunner bonifides on Wednesday night as Rasika proved she was no fluke last week. And really, I think a lot of viewers thought she was, winning the Miller Caves cookoff with that bizarre-sounding pretzel barley mustard dessert monstrosity that won over the judges. Was that the sign of a chef with unique but thoughtful flavor combinations ... or the sign of a quirky chef just throwing things together, seeing what sticks and getting lucky? Her performance on Wednesday sure hinted at the former, coming away with the quickfire challenge win (and a cool $5,000) with her cipollini onion and cherry plate before also scoring high marks at the cheese fest with her paniyaram. 

Three episodes in, it sure feels like there's a clear top three already emerging: Michelle, Rasika and Manny. Yes, Manny, even considering ... 

5. For the first time, Manny wasn't the man

While Michelle and Rasika kept their momentum going, Manny seriously cut the cheese during this week's cheese challenge – not enough to go home, but certainly enough to put his frontrunner status a little in question. 

After an uneventful quickfire challenge, the Denver-based chef took on cheese curds in the elimination round – seemingly a bafflement to the best chef-testant thus far this season. His brain eventually came around to doing a play on poutine – maybe not the best idea considering they were going to be serving people outdoors during the hot late Wisconsin summer. Because when it's scalding and balmy outside, you know what I think: GRAVY! But hey, it's a comfort food – and Manny thus far this season has pulled ahead with the help of comforting classics like pozole and chicken mole. 

This week, however, there was no comfort to be found in his take on poutine – for Manny, the judges or local guest judge Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat (who got an impressive and appreciated large speaking role this episode). The potato aspect of his dish didn't come together – he attempted to press the cooked potatoes into thin slices and quick fry them at the festival but they never set right and became mush – the gravy sounded too salty according to the judges and the cheese, the whole focus of the challenge, was literally just tossed on as a side note. I know a traditional poutine tends to just plop the curds into the mix ... but this is "Top Chef." You can do better than what you'd expect from the local pub and grub – and Manny's astonishingly didn't manage that, not by a long shot. And that's how you land yourself in the bottom three for the first time.

Thankfully, there wasn't much worry that Manny would be be told to pack his knives, considering his performance in the previous two episodes – and considering the other two dishes in the bottom with him. Joining him in Failure Town this week was French Kevin, who apparently wanted to appease the typical American palate with a melty brie croquette that had double the breading but none of the flavor (other than excessive truffle, because on a food competition, there is no other type of truffle flavor besides "too much"). It was a dish that, whether you were in Wisconsin or France, resulted in a facepalm. 

But really, there was no doubt who was leaving this episode, arguably even before it aired: Kenny. 

Listen, I like Kenny. Kenny seems like a good chef and a good person. He said twerk instead of tweak, and that's great. But the dude's brain has seemed cooked since the premiere. He even admitted as much last week, when he noted the survival cook-off in the premiere totally drained him. Sure, he came back and landed in the top three last week – but if I remember right, his teammates sure did a lot of help in nudging him toward that dish's direction. Otherwise, he's been a regular in bottom three territory – and that continued this week in both the quickfire and the elimination challenge. In the quickfire, he got stuck with marshmallows – not his favorite ingredient, a feeling he wanted to pass along to the judges with his weak-sauce take on dessert. He then followed that up with a resoundingly disliked take on crab rangoon salad that was soggy and flavorless – despite the presence of gorgonzola. He chose to make a refreshing cold dish on a hot day, a creative dish when everyone else made the same thing ... and he fumbled it all. So with all that, Kenny was told to pack his knives and asiago.

Considering he lost to defending champ Soo in Last Chance Kitchen, that'll be the last we see of Kenny this season – and hopefully it'll be the last we see of croquettes, too. 

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.