By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 17, 2024 at 5:31 PM

Is it possible for an episode of "Top Chef" to be simultaneously the best and worst one of the season thus far? I guess that's the argument I'll make for the most recent hour of the cooking competition: a road trip to Madison which featured the most (much needed) drama of the season thus far and really showcased the state in a way that wasn't shallow or stereotypical ... but also made me really wonder if we really NEED these jumbo-sized episodes. And generally speaking, it's not great for a work of entertainment if I'm asking if I want less rather than more. (If only there was a famous Hollywood axiom about this very situation ... )

But what's been working this "Top Chef" season thus far? Who caused the first proper conflict of the season – and would they survive it? And would local chef Dan Jacobs continue his quality run on the cooking competition? Let's fuel up our LUXURIOUS BMW SUVs and discuss the five key takeaways from the last course of "Top Chef."

1. A sense of duality, indeed

The elimination challenge this past week – and the only challenge, since there was no quickfire once again – was all about duality, about our chef-testants finding contrasting concepts in architecture and translating those dueling themes onto their plates. How fitting – because my brain was feeling all sorts of contrasts and dueling sensations during the episode, loving parts of the episode while also worrying about this season's overall quality at the same time. To paraphrase the great poet Bart Simpson: "Top Chef" was a land of contrasts. 

You see, half of my brain really dug the strong Wisconsin focus of Wednesday's hour. Now that the show's already hit beer and cheese, "Top Chef" could move on from the obvious themes we all saw coming before the season even started and dive into something a little more deep-cut – in this case Frank Lloyd Wright, the innovative architect who many (especially beyond Wisconsin) might not know called our state home along with some of his most notable works, both big and ostentatious as well as modest and populist. And this was no "Door County has doors ... ?" level of commitment either. The episode spent almost the entire first third of its running time far from the kitchen and instead adoringly touring some of Wright's buildings around Milwaukee, Madison and in between – from renowned giant landmarks like Taliesin and Monona Terrace to the smaller, perhaps lesser-known (but not lesser works) found in Burnham Block. For those cringing at the simplistic "Wisconsin loves cheese and beer!" themes of the early episodes, this was a strikingly in-depth look at a local icon – so much so, even locals could appreciate and learn something from the glowingly captured tour. 

That being said ... where's the cooking and the competition in my cooking comeptition show?

As much as I enjoyed the warm spotlight Wisconsin received in the episode, it made it all the more clear that ... there just isn't that much going on this season thus far, especially not to merit the Cheesecake Factory menu-sized episodes. One assumed, before the season, that the 75-minute running times were to accomodate even more cooking, even more memorable moments and even more heated drama in the kitchens – and four episodes in, that hasn't really been the case. The Frank Lloyd Wright episode, for instance, only had one cooking challenge across its extended show length, and despite serving as yet another team challenge – usually when the fireworks start exploding or at least simmering their fuses – there really wasn't much more cooking tension, interpersonal conflict or even just personalities period to showcase. Instead, the "more" we've gotten this season has basically just been more filler rather than flavor.

The result, to stick with the episode's theme, was a duality of a spotlight and a blacklight, an episode highlighting great things and elements – especially as a proud Wisconsinsite – but at the same time also revealing the season's early problems hiding in plain sight thus far. 

2. Finally, a fight ... kind of?

Thank Andy Cohen, it only took four episodes, but we finally got a noteworthy tiff between chefs this season! Yes, we got some spice last Wednesday ... even if it was admittedly only, like, mayonnaise-level heat. 

When all the chef-testants got into their pairings for the double elimination challenge, I had an easy front-runner for the episode's bottom rung: Laura and Savannah, aka Team Huh You're Still Here? Save for Laura spilling her cream on the floor, and spilling Dan and his gnocchi in the process, last episode, neither chef has made much of an impact this season. (Not that many have.) So it only made sense, using reality TV logic, that the show would eliminate the folks that received the least amount of invested time.

But it didn't take long for a new top contender for the worst team to emerge: Alisha and Kaleena, who may both hail from Chicago but worked together as well as a Cubs fan with a White Sox fan. 

Yes, while Team Huh Who Are You Again? did just fine at the judges table with their pistachio-themed take on comfort and discomfort, Alisha and Kaleena served up two dishes of disaster – and it wasn't hard to see it coming considering how the episode went.

Things were fine in Milwaukee, but as soon as the two arrived in the state capital, they put the "mad" in Madison – even before they got talking food, as Alisha made an offhand comment that she hates geminis ... only for Kaleena to reveal that she's a gemini. Alisha tried to paper over the awkwardness with a "oh, well, gemini women are different" ... and just made things more awkward in the process. Already we're at Aaron Rodgers/Brian Gutekunst levels of team chemistry before even a single step was taken into the kitchen. Things didn't improve, either, as the food planning started, as they couldn't even agree on calling their theme "land and sea" or "land and water." OBVIOUSLY THEY'RE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! Well, surely things will improve once knives, fire and judgement get introduced to this equation!

Spoiler: They did not. Instead, the two continued to work essentially as two individuals rather than one team, not communicating about where they were at on their separate dishes and what they needed in order to plate their food as hoped. In the end, an overwhelmed Kaleena had to pivot with the plating of her mushroom and goat cheese cheesecake, cutting the dish into rectangles rather than circles, all without telling Alisha – who was increasingly frustrated and losing focus on her own plate that now was shifting directions. The resulting meal was as off-kilter as their teamwork, a mismatched mish-mash with Kaleena's cheesecake having a crust that would test a jackhammer and Alisha's shrimp aguachile looking goopy and tasting amateurish. 

Sweet, we finally have some fighting spirit between chefs. And while that was a nice first bout, surely we'll get more tension and conflict when they're at judges' tabl ... oh, we're barely even doing a judges' table this episode? And they're both pretty relaxed and understanding after it all anyways? Oh ... well, maybe this will just be the start of a multi-episode tiff that'll get the audience picking sides and giving them someone to root for or cheer against and ... they're both gone because it's a double elimination? Never mind then. 

Four episodes in, there feels like a real "Great British Baking Show"-ification of "Top Chef," all amicable friendship with no rough edges or villainy. And hey, that's good for these chefs' personas and businesses, with no one putting a bad taste in prospective customers' mouths ... but it's not making for great TV yet. I know this is one of the most respected food reality shows ... but it can still have drama. Plus, it's also on the same network as "Vanderpump Rules" and "Real Housewives" – so let's start hitting this season with some seasoning please. 

3. Team Danmanda wins over audience, not so much the judges

On the opposite side of the teamwork spectrum from Alisha and Kaleena, there was local rooting interest Dan Jacobs and Amanda – who obviously joined together to form Danmanda. (I would've gone with AmanDan, but fair enough.) The duo meshed together perfectly – so much so that they called out for each other while grocery shopping that gave me delightful flashbacks to Carla Hall's iconic "hootie hoo"-ing. The pair also came up with a pretty clever and thoughtful take on their contrasting culinary duality: poverty and wealth, with Dan cooking with ingredients mostly known as "peasant" items, like leaks and potatoes, while Amanda would use foods known for luxury – pointedly caviar and seafood to tie in Wright's use of water features.  

Unfortunately, good food and good vibes did not equal a good set of dishes for Team Danmanda.

Before the plates even went out, Dan ran into some issues with his potato mousse, the flan-like cylinders failing to set up as intended and having to use liquid nitrogen instead – a first, according to him. And I'm sure the first time you want to try out a technique is on a double elimination challenge (though thankfully Amanda was actually helpful as a partner, as opposed to Alisha and Kaleena's cooking non-collaboration). The mousse's texture in Dan's leak cannoli didn't end up being a problem for the judges; sadly everything else pretty much was, with the leak served undercooked and the pretty potato chips not as pretty to eat thanks to too much salt. And while the judges had fewer criticisms of Amanda's plate, they seemed generally unenthusiastic, thinking the dishes were perhaps more interesting to think about than they were to actually eat. 

Thanks to the intriguing concept, I didn't think the dishes would be enough to send the two home, but I thought it might be enough to send Dan and Amanda into the bottom, defending themselves at the judges' table. But then the show never bothered to do a judges' table – so DANMANDA FOR THE WIN!

4. Do we have a new favorite to win?

I think everyone had the same reaction when Rasika won the beer episode two weeks ago with that crazy-sounding pretzel barley mustard whatchamacallit: Sure, your crazy flavor combo won this time, but how often you can stick the landing on these bizarre culinary gymnastics? The answer is apparently "as often as she damn well pleases," as she proved doubters wrong last week ... and then did it again, claiming victory on Wednesday – pretty resoundingly, at that – with her striking daal, beat, carrot and rasam dish, visually matching Danny's plate of scallop mousse to a gorgeous T while countering his nuanced approach with punchy flavor. The New York-based chef has now won half of the season's four elimination challenges thus far – and in one of the two weeks she fell short, she won the quickfire.

So sorry, Michelle, but you've been knocked down to second on my power rankings – less because you've lost front-runner status and more because Rasika's won it.

5. Did ... we forget to have a judges' table?

It's not just the chefs' fault that the season thus far is lacking much dramatic tension. Even the judges are avoiding conflict – at least that's the way it seems after ending the last episode by pretty much bailing on having a judges' table. 

But seriously, watching the episode I needed to rewind things because I would've sworn I missed something – but no, the show just didn't really bother having a judges' table segment, calling up only Alicia and Kaleena as the bottom performers and eliminating them both pretty much straight away without much debate or conversation. There wasn't even a semblance or attempt at drama considering the only other group called up was Rasika and Danny, the episode's obvious winners. And it's not like other dishes in the hour didn't fall short. I know, according to Tom, there was seemingly a clear and obvious worst dish pairing – but you still have to make a TV show, preferrably with some sense of tension! You still have to put up the facade of intrigue!

Instead, the big dramatic finale belonged to Kristen Kish and guest judge (and two-time "Top Chef" winner) Buddha Lo, who, after speeding through their table duties, went to visit the remaining chef-testants and give them a pep talk about cooking with more inspiration, with more passion, with more excitement and with more, well, "Top Chef" quality. And while it's not unfamiliar terrain for the show – there are typically early jitters as chefs cook to merely stay in the competition as opposed to getting the boot because you overshot the moon – it's probably not an optimal sign for the season's entertainment factor thus far when the host has to remind its stars to do SOMETHING compelling ... and when we know ANOTHER version of this speech is yet to come. 

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.