By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 10, 2024 at 8:31 AM

Maybe even more than the finale, Restaurant Wars is the episode every "Top Chef" fan looks forward to each season. Faced with opening a restaurant in basically a day with a team of collaborators who are simultaneously also competitors, it's the ultimate test – and tends to bring out the ultimate testiness in the chef-testants. 

Yet here we are, watching the credits done roll on this season's bistro battle ... and still waiting for a signature moment, signature villain or signature conflict for this Wisconsin season. Come on, Laura! This was your time to shine – to upgrade from cheese treachery and budget blasting to ultimate "I'm not here to make friends"-ness! Instead, the biggest nemesis the show had was limited grocery stock. Restaurant Wars? More like Restaurant Mild Squabble.

That being said, even without the usual fireworks, Restaurant Wars still produced some compelling tension as the chefs furiously tried (and failed) to stay on schedule and guide their respective services. Oh, and cook tasty food – which they must have, because the judges didn't seem to have much to complain about in terms of the dishes so they debated more theoretical ideas like conceptual coherence and thematic consistency. Plus, I can't complain too much about an episode that ends with a certain local rooting interest coming out on top.

So with that, let's dig into the five key takeaways from the latest battle in "Top Chef" Restaurant Wars lore – besides "never make needless extra appetizer cocktails when you don't have to."

1. Dan the Man does it again

I must say: I thought Milwaukee chef Dan Jacobs was done last week, cooked like one of the racing sausages cheering the chef-testants on at American Family Field. The show still has an extra person to eventually eliminate, after all, and his losing brat dish struck out pretty hard with judges, questioning his creativity – a tough knock at this point in the competition. Thankfully, though, Kevin made the bigger error in thinking he could make a risotto without the "Top Chef" gods punishing him for his hubris (while you're at it, why don't you make an ice cream on "Chopped" or say "I think the coast is clear" in a slasher movie or be the Detroit Lions) and Dan got to live to see another day. 

And boy, did he make the most of it, going from potential "Last Chance Kitchen" nominee to ... one of the potential favorites to make the finale? 

Unlike Kevin, Dan avoided another classic "Top Chef" pitfall and served as neither front of house nor head chef on his team – two easy ways to get the axe during Restaurant Wars. Instead, he was just on cooking duty, making one of the lead appetizers for his team as well as a dessert – and while the latter, a maple cremeux that didn't taste like maple, wasn't a home run (sorry, still stuck in baseball pun mode after last week), his smoked walleye appetizer was a standout. The opener tasted like a scrumptious yet elegantly assembled sour cream and onion potato chip while also capturing his team's concept – regional, water-centric cuisine – in a way the rest struggled.

As a result, he earned his second Elimination Challenge victory at the judges' table – and the most spectacular of the two. After all, winning top marks in Restaurant Wars carries a lot of weight. Now, to see if it can carry him to the finale too.

2. Everything but the food fizzles

With all the chaos of opening a whole restaurant in about a day, normally the food quality takes a bit of a hit. But while this season's hit a lot of the "Top Chef" cliches – don't make risotto! Look at this incredible BMW! – this trope wasn't on the menu as everyone generally made good food. Which left the judges only ... pretty much everything else to complain about. 

Indeed, while the dishes landed pretty well, they took their damn time actually landing at their Discovery World-set tables thanks to both kitchens getting overwhelmed, especially in the second of the two services. Danny at least set up a very easy and basic ticket system to help keep confusion to minimum, while Kaleena and Laura tried to expedite as best as they could but ended up getting servers mixing up tables and even dishes going to the wrong places – at least thankfully not to Tom, Kristen, Gail and special guest judges including "Top Chef" vets Kwame Onwuachi and Stephanie Izard. Even so, it still took sometimes up to 30-45 minutes for dishes to arrive at their tables – a wait that likely dinged a few plates in the process, such as Soo's tough rice cakes and Laura's soggy tartare cracker.

Even Michelle wasn't immune from service woes, as the favorite to win wasn't a favorite on Wednesday, taking her sweet time greeting the judges' table then unable to break free to say goodbye to them. We finally found something Michelle struggles with this season!

The judges' real nitpick, though, was the restaurant concepts and menus themselves. Yes, it was a big night for menu theory, meal progression and conceptual semantics, as both teams' themes didn't land for the judges. The "Dos By Deul" team – made up of Manny, Laura, Soo and Kaleena – had a seemingly clear idea with Asian Latin fusion, combining all of their key culinary backgrounds into one menu. But by the end of the meal, the judges felt like the two cuisines never actually fused, turning out separate plates and ingredients where the fusion was just that they happened to be on the same menu – except for a pork tenderloin entree that was fusion in the fact that it was a combined team effort ... but also, in the process, forgot to fuse any flavor whatsoever to the dish too.

The other team – "Channel," comprised of Dan, Michelle, Amanda, Savannah and Danny – had an even tougher time with their theme, according to the judges. "Channel" was meant to refer to the channels of water connecting all their separate regions, focusing on seafood-centric dishes. But then why also a vegan gumbo? And a clam chowder but with a focus on that famous seafood ... the carrot? Instead of feeling like a menu, it felt again to the judges like a bunch of separate dishes – a point they beat to death throughout the night, like it was the croquette of critiques. 

The thing is: For all their talk of menu concept issues and service woes, I think those elements basically ended up nullifying themselvessince both teams struggled, and the food itself decided Restaurant Wars (as everyone would like it to). And since Dos By Deul had the lone stinker of a dish on the night with the taste-free pork tenderlion, that was likely the tiebreaker between two pretty evenly-matched performances. But otherwise, it may have been called Restaurant Wars, but with generally tasty bites, this episode on a culinary front was mostly Restaurant Contentment.

3. Midwest Nice survives Restaurant Wars

Dan may have technically been the winner this week – but really the winner was the concept of Midwest Nice, which continued to reign undefeated this season even through the gauntlet that is Restaurant Wars. 

But seriously, no one was snappy during menu planning, no one was snappy while grocery shopping (Laura even refrained from being a budget hog!), and no one was snappy on the line. No one even got mad at the random servers. Sure, things got a little tense between Kaleena and Laura as confusion took over with the tickets – but that was more people being frazzled than fighting. Honestly, the snippiest person this episode wasn't a contestant but a judge: Tom, who was a real grumpus for much of the episode, nitpicking issues all over the place.

Near the end, though, I was almost certain we were going to get some sparks when Dos By Deul was put on the spot for their lackluster pork dish – the lone true food flop of the night. During the prep the previous day, Manny had argued that the marinade needed more salt, noting that the flavor wouldn't transfer over as heavily as it seemed, but he was essentially downvoted by the rest of the team. Lo and behold, the pork was roundly criticized as flavorless and lacking salt by the judges. In past seasons, Manny – perhaps with Padma's help, slyly forcing him into an answer and detecting disagreement as she often could on the panel – would've probably nudged others under the bus, or at least taken a kind of victory lap for being right. But instead, Manny quietly took his lumps with the rest of the team – being the better man and teammate, while certainly not being the better star for the producers. 

And that was the moment I offically called time of death on drama this season. Because if Restaurant Wars can't defeat Midwest Nice, what hope do we have – beyond, I don't know, Marcel showing up out of nowhere maybe?

4. Enough with the aguachile!

Actually, we DO have a villain this season – and its name is aguachile. Everyone's gotta cut it out with the aguachile! It's like every week somebody decides, no matter the challenge, that it's aguachile time – and I've had enough! To borrow a famous "Top Chef" quote from Fabio about a scourge of scallop dishes: It's called "Top Chef," not "Top Aguachile!"

I get it: It's currently a very on-trend dish, full of flavor (or at least it's supposed to be) and considering how little time the chef-testants often have to cook, it's a smart quick option in a time crunch. It's the same reason why ceviche was the dish of choice for so many past "Top Chef" seasons. There's just one problem with this strategy: IT'S NOT WORKING! You'd think with all the aguachiles being made that it'd be some kind of miracle dish to win over the judges, but in fact, it's generally meant the opposite: DOOM! Alisha got eliminated on an aguachile in the Frank Lloyd Wright team challenge, then got officially eliminated in "Last Chance Kitchen" when she tried making it again. And despite being Alisha's teammate in that architecture test and seeing aguachile's killer ways first hand, Kaleena tried making an aguachile this week in Restaurant Wars – and lo and behold, it sent her home too. Meanwhile, no one's won with the dish; the best case scenario is that it's middle of the pack, while the worst case scenario is death. I call that a high risk, low reward proposition.

Maybe there haven't been THAT many aguachiles and it just seems that way because it's such a ear-catching word – but I say our chef-testants need to chill out on the aguachile and make something a little more novel and a little less overdone. Like, I don't know, croquettes ... 

5. A second chance at a second chance ... but not for who you think

I hope you have Peacock – not because it has secretly the best catalog of shows and movies (which, pst, it does) but because "Top Chef" actually saved its biggest twist for "Last Chance Kitchen."

I was looking forward to rooting on Kaleena in the streaming spin-off – because I say if you're going to lose, lose big. Lose the hardest anyone's ever lost. Lose so hard, you win your way into the record books. And since no one's ever lost three times in a single season, I was rooting for Kaleena to make some ridiculous "Top Chef" history. The Chicago chef, on the other hand, understandably thought otherwise and returned to "Last Chance Kitchen" ... just to turn down "Last Chance Kitchen," feeling drained mentally, emotionally and creatively from the drastic highs and lows she'd experienced already.

With Kaleena wisely calling it a day for her mental health's sake, the show's second chance at a second chance instead went to ... fan favorite Rasika, last seen getting defeated by Kevin last week. The two battled it out in basically a mini-Restaurant Wars, where they each had to make two dishes – one sweet and one savory – that represented a dream restaurant concept of theirs. (And to make it fair according to Tom, Rasika would have to win this week's challenge, plus one more, to overtake Kevin since he'd already defeated her.) That rule wouldn't be necessary, though, as Kevin's French bistro tandem beat out Rasika's south Indian duo, confirming her exit from the season and breaking the hearts of those hoping the flavor phenom would return. We'll always have that bizarre mustard barley pretzel dessert, though. 

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.