By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 24, 2024 at 6:01 PM

I'll be honest: I was kind of dreading the most recent episode of "Top Chef" in Wisconsin.

Four episodes in, we've had plenty of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and croquettes ... but we've been desperately lacking flavor – and if the fifth hour followed suit, I was worried we'd have to accept the sad truth that our Sconnie-set season was turning out to be a disappointment. But thankfully, after the Wednesday episode, I was happy to see my fears were unfounded. Finally: a truly riveting hour of "Top Chef!" Tension between chefs! Potential emerging villains! Predicted favorites flopping! More actual food and cooking than architectural tours! For me, it was the best episode of the season thus far – and I'm not just saying that because local favorite Dan Jacobs claimed his first win of the season. (Though it didn't hurt, either!)

How did Dan claim his first victory – and potentially move himself amongst the season's favorites? And speaking of frontrunners, who surprisingly fell short? Who are we keeping an eye on next episode – for good reasons and for bad? And was that the fanciest Wisconsin supper club you've ever seen? Let's dig into the latest course in this "Top Chef" meal. 

1. Dan's the man

As the hometown hero of the season, and as a seemingly amicable guy on the show living up to the Midwest Nice reputation, Dan Jacobs has already been a favorite here in Wisconsin – but he's always found himself landing just shy of becoming an actual favorite to win the title of "Top Chef." That changed last episode, though, as Dan claimed his first victory of the season – hopefully his first of more to come. 

It helped that Dan had somewhat of a homefield advantage with the episode's elimination challenge – even more so than his usual literal homefield advantage – as Kristen Kish divided the chef-testants into two teams and tasked them with cooking up an elevated supper club menu at what appeared to be the state's fanciest supper club in Harvey House. (But really, it looks lovely – but no Christmas lights or shabby carpet?!) Most of the chefs seemed a little lost about supper clubs ... except for Dan, who seemed rather pumped about the prospect of delivering his take on the Sconnie classic to nationwide audiences. Each team's menu needed to consist of the supper club staples: courses featuring beef, fish and chicken, plus a dessert to top things off and a relish tray to kick things off.

Now, if you're like me, the relish tray typically gets ignored – but Dan made the veggie appetizer course impossible for the judges to overlook. Serving up plates of chicken liver mousse, steak tartare, veggies with an edible soil (aka toasted breadcrumb) and toast, Dan started his team's meal on the right foodie foot as Gail and the rest of the judges – including Madison restaurant locals Tory and Kristine Miller – were ready to paw up the remaining mousse with their fingers. In fact, their own complaint on the plate was that there weren't enough veggies to mop up as much as they wanted – and you know the old Hollywood axiom about always leaving folks wanting more ... 

Indeed, it worked out in Dan's favor as his team won – and he got the top marks of the bunch, winning the elimination challenge and earning immunity, guaranteeing at least one more week as Wisconsin's rooting interest. One could call it ... a performance to relish. 

2. We finally have our first villain?

Good news, Hat Guy: You are no longer the only polarizing figure of this season. We've got a villain, folks! It took forever, but it finally happened: The Midwest Nice wore off and the gloves came off ... well, OK, the gloves are still mostly on, but at least we've finally got someone who just might not be here to make friends: Laura.

Wait ... there's a person named Laura on this season? 

Yes, Laura's been mostly forgettable and middle of the pack through the first several episodes; in fact, literally, before episode five, she'd never been in the bottom or the top of an elimination challenge. Her most notable moment? Causing the cheese slick that almost took out Dan (and certainly took out his gnocchi) in the cheese fest episode without seemingly caring for a single second. And it turns out that's not wholly out of character for her, basically sabotaging several members of her supper club challenge team by hogging a hilarious chunk of their $1,000 budget for her dessert course. While Danny was stuck desperately clinging to whatever veggies he could for his relish tray, Laura was coughing up bucks for jugs of expensive liquor.

And for what?! For a dessert that basically everyone knew wasn't going to end well.

Laura's plan for the sweet final course was a "four leches cake," aka an Old Fashioned-inspired tres leches cake with a bonus chocolate brandy cocktail on the side. For starters, a tres leches cake mixed with chocolate – inspired in part by a classic minty grasshopper cocktail – seems like bad match. But even if the flavors rhymed together perfectly, any seasoned "Top Chef" knows: NEVER MAKE MORE THAN YOU HAVE TO. If the challenge asks for one dish, make ... just ... one ... dish. A part of your brain might say you'll stand out to judges if you make more than expected ... but that part of your brain should be ignored and quarantined, if need be. Almost every time a chef-testant has thrown on an extra cocktail or a bonus bite, the judges proceeded to toss that person in the bottom and maybe off the show – because inevitably one, or both, of the components underdelivers or even actively harms the enjoyment of the whole dish. And, predictably, that's exactly what happened with Laura's dessert course, baffling the judges with the flavor combination and leche-ing too far. 

Making a flawed dish isn't villain material, though. What makes Laura a frustration and a villain in the making is how she trampled through the team's budget – and Danny's relish dish – in the process AND how she seemed wholly unaware that it was a problem in the aftermath. After hearing all her teammates complain at the judges' table about how they had to sacrifice for the budget and sideeye in her direction, Laura seemed utterly clueless about how much money she'd spent – and on a component that actively hurt her dessert. That's quality cooking reality show villainy.

Laura's certainly no Philip or Stefon or Heather yet – but she's earned the season's first real eye-rolls from viewers. And judging from her reaction to her team's gripes, it sure seems like she might earn some more as this season goes along. 

3. The welcome return of the Quickfire

Watching the latest "Top Chef," I came to a realization about the prior Frank Lloyd Wright episode: For a 75-minute episode, the chef-testestants each only cooked one dish across the entire running time. No wonder I felt so unfulfilled afterwards: They barely made any food on the dang food show!

Quickfire Challenges may not have the same oomph this season now that immunity is no longer on the menu for the winner – but they're still essential to brewing up tension between chefs, to testing their abilities, to showcasing different culinary trends and regional traditionals, and to simply providing audiences something interesting (and hopefully mouth-watering) to watch across its whole episode length.

And thankfully they were back on Wednesday night. Not only back, but perhaps better than ever this season, as the Quickfire Challenge taught audiences – even Wisconsin natives – a lesson about Carson Gulley, his role as the longtime head chef at the University of Wisconsin and his role, along with his wife Beatrice, in food history as the first African American couple to host a cooking show on TV. To pay tribute to his ceiling-shattering work, each chef had to make a dish featuring one of his signature sauces – such as raisin sauce, a condiment so bizarre sounding that the show defined it not once but two separate times ons creen – and using ingredients they shopped for at the farmers market without knowing the challenge. The results were good dishes and even better television. Because as much as I appreciated the extended Wisconsin tour last week, teaching people something interesting and underrated about our great state going a third of a "Top Chef" episode without a pan hitting a burner is a "Cubs fan infiltrating AmFam Field"-level problem. 

The only issue I had with the Quickfire Challenge: How come Madison got the coolest challenge of the season!? Milwaukee got all the cliche cheese and beer challenges, while Door County got the shrug of ... I don't know, doors. And then Madison gets this awesome challenge, going in depth on an important and underappreciated Wisconsinite while also shining a spotlight on the capital's biggest and best farmers market. Sure seems like we've got some Badger alums in the research department at "Top Chef" as opposed to Golden Eagle or Panther fans. I'm just saying Milwaukee better get a good deep cut Quickfire Challenge next episode ... like about how the guy who invented SpaghettiOs and Chunky soup was from Wisconsin, or something. 

4. The favorites take a hit

Manny, Michelle and Rasika all got out to early starts this season, but for the supper club episode, they each took a turn falling back to the rest of the pack – with one almost even going from sharpest knife in the kitchen to packing his knives. 

After spending each week talking about how she's not cooking in her wheelhouse – only to crush it again and again – Michelle finally tripped up in this episode's Quickfire Challenge. In fairness, I don't think raisin sauce is anyone's comfort zone – but she struggled with blending her uniquely sweet and sour condiment with the rest of her egg dish. It didn't take long, though, for her to pick herself back up as she not only survived making a dessert on "Top Chef" but thrived, landing in the top three during the actual supper club challenge while also helping out her teammates rather than hindering them like some contestants we know named Laura. Plus, if you're going to bomb a dish, at least make it bad enough that the judges have something entertaining to say – and W. Kamau Bell saying her raisin sauce dish reminded him of Taylor Swift and Slipknot certainly qualifies. 

As for other favorites, Rasika wasn't at risk since she was with Dan and Michelle on the winning team, but for the first time in a while, her flavors clashed with the judges with everyone noting the salt levels on her fish dish were out of whack. Between her and Charly – plus Alisha, Kenny and Hat Guy all getting bounced with unappetizing aquatic dishes – is seafood the new dessert curse of this season?

While Rasika was safe on the winning team, fellow former favorite Manny had no such luck – and neither did anyone apparently eating his steak, earning complaints for being too tough and chewy. After winning the first episode with a pozole, then almost claiming two in a row with his chicken mole dish in the beer episode, Manny's fallen off the leaderboard hard, botching the cheese challenge and now putting himself at stake with poorly cooked steaks. I'd say maybe he did well early on with variations on comfort foods – like pozole and mole – and now the show is stretching his range and abilities ... but steak and potatoes is, quite literally, meat and potatoes cooking. However, he ended up safe, so he's got time to redeem himself next episode.

Plus, Manny didn't even cook the worst steaks of the episode; that dubious honor would go to Kevin, whose meat was so off that the show used "how bad ARE they?" as a commercial break cliffhanger. Prediction time: I'm not seeing Manny's "Power Bottoms" brother lasting much longer here.

5. Charly wins some, loses more

Let's be real: Though we liked him a whole lot, no one was predicting Charly to make it much further on "Top Chef" this season. Since episode one, the New Orleans-based chef kept on promising big, bold Caribbean-inspired flavors ... and then failing to deliver, ending up in the bottom of one Quickfire Challenge and on one elimination challenge already. And unfortunately that trend continued on Wednesday night. 

The worst part? He basically called it!

While assembling his take on the team's supper club fish dish, he told the camera that he was making a Haitian pikliz-style relish for the trout – and specifically that if it's not spicy, it's not a proper pikliz. Unfortunately he must've caught a case of Wisconsin spice tolerance, because lo and behold, at dinner time for the judges, Gail Simmons couldn't find that requisite heat while W. Kamau Bell was searching for the Cholula for some spark. And while his pikliz lacked heat, his fish apparently got too much, landing on their plates overcooked – and significantly so. When he told the judges he cooked the fish almost a half-hour before serving, Kristen practically gasped. With all of that, Charly was sent packing for serving up a dish doing its best impression of the first four episodes: lacking flavor.

Thankfully, it wasn't all sad news for Charly on Wednesday night. The charming chef did get to head back home with a little extra change in his pocket – $7,500, so no chump change – for winning the episode's Quickfire Challenge with his take on (fittingly) Creole sauce with fingerling potatoes. So even though he lost, he still got to leave a winner in some regard. And who knows: Between Amanda disappearing late in the episode with a mystery illness as well as hubbub in the previews about chefs new and old joining the cast, maybe we won't end up missing him for long ... 

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.