By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 19, 2024 at 5:01 PM

"Top Chef" may have shipped off to the Caribbean, but the first part of the season's Curaçao-set finale was far from a vacation for our final four chefs. Indeed, I haven't seen this much disappointment and disaster centered on a cruise chip since "Speed 2: Cruise Control," as just about everyone struggled in the penultimate episode of the season. (At least Chef Masaharu Morimoto seemed to have a good time, though.)

But who stayed afloat after this brutal batch of challenges? And who had to walk the plank at the most heart-breaking time? And was Dan TRYING to make me root against him with that aguachile in the quickfire challenge?! Let's savor those questions and more from the second-to-last slice of "Top Chef: Wisconsin."

1. Does, uh, anyone want to win this episode?

There are four excellent chefs remaining here at the end of "Top Chef: Wisconsin" ... though you may not have entirely gathered that if you had just hopped in to watch the elimination challenge, where the pressure seemed to get to our competitively cooking quatro, resulting in some of their most harshly received work of the season.

In fairness, the judges typically pull their knives out in the second-to-last episode – in part so they can light a fire under their chef-testants' butts, but also in part so they can get all their most vigorous criticisms out now rather than in the finale where the vibes are supposed to be celebratory. Plus, our cooks were out of practice and out of rhythm, getting time off from the show to relax ... or run a marathon in Danny's case. (Psh, show-off.) It can't be easy to go from recompressing and normalcy to getting dropped back into the pressure cooker that is "Top Chef" – a pressure cooker miles upon miles away from home on a cruise ship docked in a foreign country. Not a great recipe for getting our chefs' best. 

And indeed, the judges did not, as the finalists hitting far more icebergs in the elimination challenge than smooth sailing. 

Look away, Big Mouth Billy Bass: For their test, Danny, Dan, Laura and Savannah had to team up to craft an eight-course fish dinner, with each chef-testant taking on two dishes each, with a different fish and a different cooking approach represented on every plate. Atlantic salmon, black bass, black grouper, dorade, monkfish, rainbow trout, red snapper, sea bream and striped bass were all the menu, with raw, steamed, mousse, poached, fried, roasted, smoked and blackened all needing to make an appearance throughout the meal.

But while there was a lot of variety for the chefs to fight over, there wasn't as much variety when it came to the quality of the plates: They were mostly pretty whelming, according to the judges, with no clear winner standing out but plenty of potential elimination options. 

Savannah got things started on a shaky foot with her raw course: a salmon sushi roll that was too clunkily big for some of the judges and featured a sauce on the grainy side while not featuring the fish well enough. Things didn't improve with Laura's second plate, serving up a steamed black bass that was cooked and flavored well ... but was cooked inside banana leaves that weren't cleaned enough, meaning all that tasty food was rendered bitter and dirty-smelling – rarely the adjectives you're aiming for in the kitchen.

Hopefully Danny could break the losing streak? Unfortunately, his sea bream mousse could not rise to the occasion. It actually never rose, period, failing to souffle as intended and instead coming out the judges looking like flat eggy Jello skin. Tom's face at the judges' table hearing about the mousse's origin story says it all:

Tom ColicchioX

At least Danny took a swing – and he made some delicious spheres made of green garlic and scotch bonnet peppers. Alas, it was a fish challenge, not a garlic-and-pepper sphere challenge. To wrap up the first round of dishes, Dan came out with a poached dorade that he felt great about, especially after seeing Tom snarf down pretty much the whole plate. That's gotta be positive, right? WRONG! Tom may have eaten the plate, but he apparently didn't like the experience, savaging the dish by saying that "Dan said he hasn't cooked dorade since 2005 – and he still hasn't" – a burn so hot it could've finished cooking his raw dorade. The flavors landed better than the fish itself, but there was still a clunky yucca fritter on top of it all too. 

OK, so first time through the lineup was all strike outs – but surely SOMEBODY would serve a dish that the judges would enjoy, that wouldn't feature some significant error? Welp, it wouldn't be Savannah, as her fried striped bass sandwich was similarly clunky thanks to too much bread, too little fish and a safe unimaginative approach – and it wouldn't be Laura either, as her roasted grouper looked pretty and colorful but didn't taste that way. Her sauce combo had a split texture (or, to use a dreaded food word, mouthfeel) while the fish wasn't properly roasted ... or technically roasted at all, poorly baked instead. With that, it reached the point that Kristen almost seemed apologetic to the guests from the cruise line, insisting that their final four had cooked well earlier this season.

It only took 75 percent of the meal, but finally some finale-worthy dishes showed up at the very end. First Danny made up a smoked rainbow trout in a puree that was classic Danny: intelligently and elegantly crafted, with the kind of flavor and nuance that the chefs couldn't stop raving about afterward. Then Dan ended the meal on a positive note, transforming a fairly outdated blackened snapper into the judges' favorite dish of the night with the help of some envigorating Chinese five spice, some exceptionally cooked fish and some cozy comfort food vibes. See, Kristen was right: They CAN cook really well!

Unfortunately for hometown fans, Dan's blackened fish wasn't enough to earn the Milwaukee chef the overall victory in the episode. Instead, the judges went with Danny for the win, with Dan and Savannah surviving to join him in the finale. Considering the feedback from the judges and their faces afterward, though, it sure didn't look like any of the three surviving chefs felt like winners. My prediction: This verbal butt-kicking and humbling is going wake up our trio and lead to some tremendous food in the finale – great news for us viewers and the judges at the last dinner, terrible news for the guests who landed spots at this episode's lukewarm meal instead.

2. Dan conquers his quickfire demons

Hometown hero Dan Jacobs has been impressive this season, representing Milwaukee and himself well all the way into the finale (and popping as one of the few notable personalities this round). But quickfires? Generally not his jam. Prior to this last episode, he'd never won a quickfire and finished in the bottom more often than the top – including that steak and eggs misfire from the previous hour that almost helped eliminate him. 

But hey, better late than never, as Dan finally figured out the quickfire and notched his first win of the season (just in time for it not to matter toward the judges' elimination decision, but hey, the money's good too). And not only did he redeem himself, but he redeemed my loathed villain dish of the entire season!

For their welcome to Curaçao, Dan and company were given tasty blue curacao cocktails ... and a quickfire challenge, introduced to the lionfish, an invasive punk of a fish complete with venomous spines, popular in the island nation because they're trying to make it go away. Thankfully the chefs didn't have to de-spine the fish – but they were given arguably an even bigger challenge. In honor of keshi yena, basically a stuffed wad of cheese (no complaints here) that serves as the island's national dish, the final four were tasked with cooking the lionfish with gouda cheese. You know, fish and cheese: that classic beloved combination. 

While Savannah and Laura both went with takes on crudo, Danny and Dan tried redeeming some familiar dishes from earlier this season. While Danny hoped the judges forgot about croquette-a-palooza earlier this season and tried making the fried bites again, Dan went with (*disappointed sigh*) an aguachile. How could you betray me like this Dan? I've been cheering for you this whole season ... and you go and make my archnemesis in the semi-final?

Unlike Kaleena and Alisha (both on the main show and "Last Chance Kitchen"), though, Dan didn't pay the price for making the dish. Instead, it was quite the opposite: He got paid! His mix of aguachile, tartare and a little Kewpie mayo was a hit with the judges, earning him his first quickfire victory of the entire season – and earning him a sweet $10,000 to take home with him. So even though he didn't win the elimination challenge, he was still a winner last Wednesday – so much so he finally gave aguachile a respectable name.

3. Laura loses (again)

For a moment, I thought that the chef-testants all performed so equally bleh that the judges wouldn't know who to eliminate and would instead keep everyone through to the season finale. Laura would've certainly preferred that approach, as the judges did manage to stick to the formula and pick a worst chef this week – with the San Francisco-based chef and "Last Chance Kitchen" survivor landing at the bottom. Again. 

While no one dished out perfect plates in this semi-final episode, Laura's banana leaf dish was a major flop; generally speaking, it's not a good thing when your food has an odor described as murky and dirty like a swamp. And that wasn't even her worst dish of the night, as Tom and company really disliked her grouper attempt, with its curdled-looking sauce combination and ill-judged cooking technique that didn't even technically qualify as roasting. It was between her and Savannah at the end, and while the latter certainly made some mistakes and wasn't exactly inspired, as Tom noted in his interview with me earlier this season, he'll always look at objective flaws first before moving on to subjective taste ones – and that being the case, Laura had more straight-up mistakes than misjudged ideas. 

So Laura said goodbye on Wednesday night – but we couldn't say goodbye to this quietly divisive chef-testant without one last micro-fight with Dan. And indeed, during the fish draft for the elimination challenge, the two got into a small tiff over the snapper, both wanting to claim the fish for their own. Dan tried a little strategy by taking on blackened – one of the less desirable technique options – and hoping that would earn him some brownie points or sympathy when it came time to claim his preferred fish. And it seemed to work, at least with Danny as he hopped into their minor debate to not-so-subtly nudge Laura away from roasting snapper and toward roasting monkfish instead. She ended up settling for grouper and black bass while Dan got his snapper – and while Dan's take on the fish was the night's most winning plate, Laura went home. 

Maybe this was the guys' way of getting modest revenge on Laura for both the supper club budget blow-up and the Great Cheese Slick debacle. Because you know what they say: Revenge is a dish best served raw (because you baked the dish instead of actually roasting it).

4. Hmm, was there a sponsor for this week's elimination challenge? I couldn't tell ... 

"Top Chef" has never been a stranger to some polite product placement, from heavily featured ingredients to chef-testants marveling at their BMW's ability to charge their phone – but man, oh man, did Holland America Line get their money's worth on Wednesday.

The show may have come down to the island of Curaçao, but most of the penultimate episode was spent docked next to it on a Holland America Line cruise ship, where everyone got to learn about their wonderful accomodations and Global Fresh Fish program (the basis of the elimination challenge) and how chef icon Masaharu Morimoto might just be around on board to handmake you fresh fish dishes – all with enough zooming, glimmering B-roll of the boat to make the first half of James Cameron's "Titanic" look modest.

I'm sure there's been far more flagrant product placement in the history of "Top Chef" – and the extended dinner sequence wasn't as annoyingly filler-y as it could've been thanks to the effervescent Morimoto and the equally enthusastic reactions from the chefs. But it was one (hopefully) final reminder that, while "Top Chef" added 15 minutes to every episode this season, they never seemed to figure out what to actually DO with that extra time – like a mandatory challenge ingredient that the chefs just plopped on top of an otherwise complete dish. 

5. And the winner of "Top Chef" will be ... 

My apologies to my fellow Milwaukeean Dan ... but if I was a betting man, I would put my chips down on Danny claiming the "Top Chef: Wisconsin" title.

The Brooklyn-based chef's just been more consistent this entire season, winning the most elimination challenges of any chef-testant with four, plus two quickfire victories – all while only landing in the elimination danger zone only once this entire run. Plus, from this week's smoked rainbow trout dish to the scallop chou farci he made for the chaos cuisine episode, he makes the kind of food the judges tend to reward – food that tickles the judges' brains with its intellectual and playfulness, that they tip their caps to even if it doesn't entirely work. (See this week's mousse ... thing.) It's food that makes them think and ponder beyond just "this is very tasty." If he makes something with his beloved carrots, it's game over. 

Savannah could possibly pull off the upset; before the semi-final shellacking she took, she'd won pretty much everything over the past few episodes. One would think she'd be pretty motivated to show what she can do after narrowly making it to the finale – but then again, pretty much everyone took a beatdown from the judges, so that's not a particular advantage for anyone. Danny's just been a little more consistent, so he just gets my nod. 

And as for Dan: His dishes have sometimes been a little too rough to confidently predict a "Top Chef" win. (After all, we're just two episodes removed from him almost getting eliminated in part for bad steak and eggs.) But I will confidently predict this: This isn't the last we're seeing of Dan Jacobs on "Top Chef." The show regularly assembles all-star seasons, bringing back favorites from past years – and in a season otherwise fairly devoid of personality, Dan is one of the few that popped and made a memorable impact with his charmingly modest demeanor and wearied one-liners. If Bravo needs somebody to represent this season in future reunions, he's the obvious pick (with Michelle, Rasika and Amanda in the conversation too). The only question would be, with his age and health concerns, if he'd say yes. 

I don't get a vote – but I'd love to see it ... just as long as he doesn't make another aguachile.

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.