By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 29, 2024 at 7:01 AM

After serving up a tasty appetizer of a debut last week, "Top Chef" really got cooking with Wednesday night's suds-heavy second episode. 

While the season premiere had to spend a lot of time setting the table and introducing itself, hour two felt like a proper episode of the "Top Chef" that we know and love. Chef-testant personalities and backstories finally showed up. (Hat Guy doesn't count.) There was an actual quickfire challenge. Even the traditional egregious product placement was back. (Did anyone catch what kind of beer was used in this week's episode? I couldn't tell.) Now we're cooking with gas!

Actually, we were cooking with beer this week – because WISCONSIN, RIGHT!? Yes, after a pretty restrained season premiere, "Top Chef" quickly hopped onto one of the predictable Wisconsin tropes: hops, quite literally with a quickfire dedicated to cooking with hops of all sorts, before an elimination challenge centered on Miller High Life. In fairness, though, the hops quickfire was a clever way to cook with beer without being too obvious, while the Miller elimination challenge got to showcase the hidden gem that is the gorgeous Miller Caves and was more focused on bar snacks than blunt beer usage. In general, for the second straight episode, there was little for locals to complain about (beyond the fact that none of the chosen salty bar snack ingredients were Gardettos). 

But would the champagne of beer result in the champagne of "Top Chef" dishes? Who would be the toast of the episode – and who would commit a party foul? Did local chef-testant Dan Jacobs survive the sudsy challenges? And should the producers have "oop, lemme squeeze past you quick" through all of Charlie Berens' bits? Let's feast on the five biggest takeaways from the latest "Top Chef" course. 

1. Teamwork actually makes the dream work

Damn you, Bravo producers. Besides the audience's deep seething hatred of Hat Guy, there was little to no drama or tension to report from the season premiere. In fact, the biggest conflict of the hour was between Dan Jacobs and some anonymous driver on the road. But clearly Bravo saw all this Midwestern Nice infecting its cast and needed to cut that right the heck out ... so they introduced a team challenge in Wednesday's episode and braced for the fireworks show to follow. 

Or ... not?

Usually, the first team challenge is where the knives come out and the villains truly introduce themselves – your Stefons or Marcels or Heathers, who demand to take charge of the team or insist on cooking their terrible idea or chuck somebody under the (BMW-branded) bus at the judges' table. But working together for the first time this season, the new chef-testants instead saved the cutting, slashing and flame-throwing for their ingredients as they worked on two teams of seven each tasked with served a seven-course menu, each cook taking an individual dish inspired by a classic bar snack: potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, pickles, olives, mixed nuts and roasted corn kernels. 

Not that there weren't opportunities for drama during the challenge. In fact, right off the bat, it seemed like there might be tension between Dan and Rasika as they both wanted dibs on their team's dessert course – a crazy situation considering desserts are typically the Dish of Death on "Top Chef." But instead of the two simmering and boiling at each other, Dan just kindly and calmly let Rasika take dessert while he took a savory course with popcorn. See, we really are nice! The decision paid off, too, with their meal claiming victory and Rasika's bizarre pretzel mustard cake dessert winning top honors. 

But it wasn't just Dan and Rasika behaving like adults and driving the producers mad off camera. Kenny was clearly all in his head at the start of the team challenge, but instead of eye-rolling him away, his team worked to encourage his (eventually top-three-ranked) dish. Charly was seemingly spending the entire cook time putting "scales" of potato chip on his fish instead of actually seasoning his food – but nothing came of that either. Even when the teams had to start putting ingredients back because they went over-budget at the grocery store, no one grumbled about losing a key item or steamrolled their cohorts to their own advantage.

Surely things will start getting spicy between the chef-testants at some point, looking like the stands at a Brewers-Cubs game – but for now, the only grudge match appears to be between Kristen and dairy-based starting courses. 

2. Dan delivers some big news

Hometown chef-testant Dan Jacobs may not have been the judges' favorite on the night – that would be Rasika and her mustard pretzel barley cake granita sabayon ... thing – but he certainly became viewers' favorite after dropping some big personal news during the episode. 

During the team elimination challenge, Dan was seen struggling to use his tweezers to place the popcorn where he wanted on his dish – so much so that the rest of his teammates hopped in to help assemble the final plating. At the time, he laughed it off as age catching up to him, with maybe a little bit of anxiety hitting at just the wrong moment too. However, Dan later confessed to the confessional camera that it definitely wasn't age or nerves: A few years ago, he was diagnosed with Kennedy's Disease, a neuromuscular disorder that slowly deteriorating his muscles and his ability to move. He's learned and adapted over the years to his condition, but it still can make the job – and certainly this competition – even more difficult. See his struggle to finish plating his dish, or even earlier in the episode when his fellow chefs raced to the hops table while he calmly walked to his station. Maybe it was just his older, wiser demeanor – but also maybe it was Dan being carely about where he was expending his effort. 

During his confessional, Dan noted that he didn't want to bring up the diagnosis to his fellow contestants so that they wouldn't look at him and his work differently. (And maybe also he saw "Top Chef" season six in Vegas, when Eli ridiculed Robin for talking about being a cancer survivor.) However, in the stew room after the challenge – and after his plating struggles – Dan confessed that it wasn't age that limited him but his Kennedy's Disease, making finessed muscle movements hard in the moment. And everyone received the news with grace and love! What kind of heated high-stakes reality competition show is this!? We've apparently come a long way since Eli and Robin. The show may not have anyone remotely like a villain yet – but with moments like that, it's rich in people to root for, with Dan now near the top of that list even if you're not a local. 

With his popcorn dish, Dan comfortably moved onto the next episode – but most of all, he moved audiences with his openness and goal of bringing attention to a tough disorder. 

3. It was not Valentine's day

It may be all nice vibes between cast members right now, but the episode still had to eliminate somebody – and unfortunately the judges had no love for Valentine on Wednesday. And just when we learned about his adorable daughter and their Uno games!

For the team elimination challenge, the Boston-born chef took on roasted corn kernels with a beer and corn soup that looked pretty tasty ... but apparently didn't taste very tasty. According to the judges' table, Valentine didn't pay particular attention to the starch level in his dish, resulting in a beer and corn soup that ate more like a sauce and landed him in the bottom three in the episode. Joining Valentine in the danger zone were Kevin and his olive-centric opening course as well as Charly and his intricately scaled but not intricately flavored fish dish – and unfortunately for Valentine, both of them had reasons to stay. In Charly's case, while his fish dish was a miss, he'd made a flavorful impact Kristen Kish and guest judge/former "Top Chef" winner Joe Flamm in the quickfire challenge. As for Kevin, as salty and one-note as his olive dish was, it showed technique, and part of the judges' complaint was more a team problem. After all, leading their meal with such a salt bath was ... a choice. (Their entire menu had problems establishing a coherent progression.)

And that left Valentine, whose soup (and quickfire shortcomings) sent him to Last Chance Kitchen against ... not Hat Guy? Yeah, apparently "Top Chef" was as done with him as viewers were, and Valentine instead went up against brand new chef Soo Ahn from Chiago, who defeated him on his quest to get on the show proper. And so, Valentine leaves this contest and returns to his true competition of choice: Uno. 

Side note: Considering his brain was scrambled from barely surviving the first week challenge, he said "twerking" instead of "tweaking" (and didn't even realize it) and he needed his teammates to help figure out his dish for him, I see Kenny joining Soo Ahn in Last Chance Kitchen sooner than later. 

4. Aw geez, Charlie Berens

Valentine may have struggled on Wednesday night, but he wasn't the only one, as Sconnie culture comedian Charlie Berens delivered some jokes that were a tough chew. 

Make no mistake: Berens didn't embarass himself on "Top Chef." If anything, the show didn't really put him in a great position to succeed. For the elimination challenge, the show assembled its judges, a few Miller reps and a dream team of Wisconsin foodies including Luke Zahm, Omar Shaikh, Jamie Brown-Soukaseume and Kyle Knall. And then there was Charlie Berens, who was dropped into this very serious challenge filled with very serious food opinions – with no context given to his schtick or comedy style. Perhaps joining as a quickfire challenge judge would've given him more room to establish his persona and a more relaxed, comfortable setting. Instead, it seemed kind of uncomfortable – particularly for Berens, who seemed caught in between being himself or being his Sconnie comedic personality. 

If you were a non-Wisconsin watcher, Berens probably just left you confused – and even if you are a local, you were probably a little confused too.

5. We officially have a front-runner

Rasika claimed victory on Wednesday night with her wild pretzel barley cake with mustard party (if there was ONE dish I wanted to hear Charlie Berens' verdict on ... ), but it's a different chef who claimed the title as the show's early front-runner: Manny. 

He already made an impression in the season premiere, winning the elimination challenge with his exquisitely crafted yet homey tasting chicken pozole. With immunity in his apron, Manny didn't have to go hard this week – but there he was in the top three yet again, cooking up a gorgeous-looking chicken plate with a mole sauce incorporating his bar snack of choice: mixed nuts. Sure, he fell jsut short of a second straight challenge victory – but that's now two straight top-flight performances in two episodes, both showing creativity while also getting to cook his kind of food.

Michelle, the BBQ chef with the surprisingly impressive pasta last week, continued to impress this week – especially in the quickfire, landing in the top three dishes – and obviously Rasika's creativity cannot be overlooked going forward considering she pulled off that bonkers pretzel dessert. But two episodes in, Manny's clearly the chef-testant living the High Life. (*Bravo producer nods in approval*)

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.