By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 05, 2024 at 6:01 PM

It took most of the season, but "Top Chef" is truly cooking coming into its final stretch – as seen in its latest episode. We've got a new surprise "villain" enraging us even more, as well as an old villain (at least to responsible budgeting) making a return to the fold. We've got shocking eliminations with long-time favorites saying unexpected farewell. We've got chefs asking terrible questions and making terrible choices that they know are terrible, but going with them anyways because tempting death is fun. We've got a main challenge forcing our chef-testants to be even more creative with tables than Buffalo Bills fans. And we ... well, we don't have much Wisconsin at all in this hour, but that can be forgiven.

Sure, it took a while for this Wisconsin-set season to marinate, but between the fiery fun of the fish boil episode and the unpredictable emotional highs and lows of this tabletop test, the flavor is starting to finally erupt – and speaking of eruptions, WON'T SOMEBODY PLEASE SEND MANNY HOME ALREADY!?

And with that, I think that's enough table setting. So let's get to, uh, the table setting and nosh our way through five takeaways from the latest "Top Chef" – including a few that made me want to flip a table in rage.

1. Budgets beware: Laura's back

Just when you thought it was safe to responsibly meal-plan and shop at the grocery store ... 

Indeed, thanks to a successful run on "Last Chance Kitchen," Laura – last seen as a part of the double elimination in the Native American cuisine episode thanks to a confused and complicated plate of food – gets invited back into the game. And no one seems excited about this development. No, not because everyone thinks their Whole Foods trips just got more intense or because people are worried about more spilled cheese oilslicks in the kitchen; everyone seems anxious about Laura's re-arrival because she's actually a damn good cook. I'll have to take their word on it because, before her departure, she won one quickfire challenge but otherwise she was never in the discussion for an elimination win, compared with two weeks in the danger zone. As a chef-testant, she was the definition of mid-table and, save for her dabbling in light sabotage, pretty forgettable. 

That was all before Laura's "Last Chance Kitchen" resurrection, though, and if this first episode back is any sign, she's come back a different chef – one much closer to the intimidating competition the others describe.

She had a rocky start, finishing on the lesser side of a "20 Questions"-like quickfire that had the chefs trying to figure out Tom Colicchio's mystery dish using a limited amount of yes/no questions and leftover table scraps, but she quickly recovered with the elimination challenge. This week's main test asked the chefs to serve up a table of food – literally, as their dishes needed to be served directly on a large white table, meant to be used as a canvas for edible art. Laura's table came last but certainly wasn't least: a swirling dessert display of delectable sauces and sweets, complete with some smoking liquid nitrogen for extra theatricality as well as circles of tenderly crispy baklava that may have looked like toilet bowl seats but certainly tasted better.

The sweet tabled treat was a big, bold finale that earned Laura her first elimination win of the season thus far – and earned her serious contender status going into the final few episodes (especially if she gets to be in charge of the dairy and dollars at any point). 

2. Manny accidentally becomes a menace

There are actually several types of "Top Chef" villains. The most famous kind is the classic rabblerouser, someone who's overcompetitive, overconfident, who "bravely" "says what everyone else is thinking" and will almost assuredly say they're not there to make friends – your Spikes, Tiffanis or Heathers. Then there are your pretentious villains, those chef-testants whose lofty ability to cook on the show is only exceeded by their ability to be perpetually unimpressed by anyone and everyone else in the competition. They think they're God's gift to the culinary world and also they're maybe addicted to foams or some other molecular gastronomy technique that'll be out of vogue in about two years. Here's where you'd find Angelo, Stefan, Phillip and Marcel. 

And then there's your accidental villains, chef-testants who don't actually do anything wrong other than overstaying their welcome, somehow clinging to life deep into the show while other better chefs fall by the wayside due to unfortunate twists of fate or judging nonsense. They're the Indiana Pacers of "Top Chef," sneaking by round after round despite never impressing anyone throughout the process – all while favorites miss out on such luck. And make room, Nick Elmi and Lisa, for the latest in this esteemed steam-from-ears-inducing company: Manny.

Manny seems like a great guy and a good cook who's done nothing personally wrong or offensive. (And he DID win the first challenge, to be fair.) He also seems like he should not be on "Top Chef" anymore this season – and I'm not just saying that because he made my loathed aguachile last episode. He just ... hasn't been that good for quite a while now! Yet here he is in the top five, outlasting surperior competition and now sitting just one challenge away from the finale – despite landing in the bottom more than twice as many times as any other contestant this season.

And he almost seemingly WANTED to get eliminated this week. I mean, how else can one explain his decision to make the cursed dish, risotto, for this week's elimination table challenge?! Even putting aside that it's truly a doomed dish on this show – a fact that Manny knows all too considering his buddy Kevin was eliminated for the dish a month ago – risotto was a wholly misguided choice for this challenge in particular. As Dan points out, their table canvases are going to be cool temperatures – and therefore a risotto, already a texture risk, is almost certainly going to hit the surface, seize up and become unsatisfyingly goopy. LO AND BEHOLD, what happens to Manny's black risotto? It coagulates up by the time it reaches the judges. But hey, at least his seafood was overcooked, the spice level was poorly calibrated and the presentation was sloppy too!

All in all, there was little to recommend about Manny's table ... and yet, despite all of that, despite making his fifth trip to the bottom on the season and despite barely surviving the week before with premade chips and guac, Manny got to live to see another day in Milwaukee. He dodged the risotto curse! Curses indeed! As annoying as his unearned endurance is, though, it does give this "Top Chef" season something it's been missing this entire time: someone to root against. 

So if Manny's mangled risotto didn't get binned, who left instead?


For maximum table-flipping rage, not only did Manny not get sent home for his table of terrible ideas, but one of our long-time favorites – both as a chef and as a personality – got the axe instead: Michelle. And perhaps the worst part? Despite Manny's best efforts, she did kind of deserve it. 

Tasked with plating a meal directly on a table, Michelle's mind gravitates immediately toward a crawfish boil – finally, a chance to make her style of food after AN ENTIRE SEASON of saying she was cooking outside her comfort zone! Unfortunately, though, whether it was because Kristen Kish brought up crawfish boils in her challenge introduction or because she thought it'd be too obvious and predictable, Michelle starts overthinking things and ditches that concept for something completely different: brunch, in particular a take on gravlax and bagels. And even more unfortunately, it was a disaster. The elements didn't cohere together, while her biscuits and chips for scooping the components were unpleasant to eat.

To make matters even worse, she didn't understand the assignment at all with the table. Instead, she clumped all of her ingredients together in a small I-shaped island in the center of the table that almost seemed like an accidental mockery of the challenge. When asked why, just ... why, she gave some rationale about wanting diners to interact with the dish, but then gave the honest answer that time escaped her. (She also noted to the camera earlier that stylized "tweezer food" is not her jam – all the more reason to do the SEAFOOD BOIL YOU WANTED TO AT THE START!) 

It was all juuuuuuust bad enough to beat Manny out for the bottom spot in the challenge – even though she did do well in the quickfire challenge while Manny landed in the negative bunch, and here I was thinking quickfires were supposed to mean something for their overall judgement. Really, though, Michelle did make the worst dish of the day – and with that, a favorite in every sense of the word falls short of the finale. Risotto, you cursed the wrong contestant this time! What kind of sloppy "Final Destination" shenanigans are you playing!?

4. Dan keeps being the man

A little over a month ago, hometown favorite Dan Jacobs almost got tagged out in the sausage race challenge, landing in the bottom two with an uncreative dish while the judges had a potential double elimination in their pockets. That must've scared Dan straight – not that he struggled too much before that episode, but ever since then, he's been one of the season's top performers, either winning or landing amongst the top dishes each week afterward. And that trend thankfully kept going into this episode's tabletop tasting.

Visually inspired by Jackson Pollock's signature splatters, Dan's table had a lot going on – somehow none of it meat. Instead, the Brew City chef went with beets, showcasing a beet tartare amongst a pile of other delicious fixins – including the ingenious "puffin," the beautiful bready lovechild between an English muffin and a pita that I need the recipe for yesterday. With creative and crave-worthy elements perfectly complimenting one another, it was all so good that Kristen mushed all of the various elements together into a gigantic mush sandwich in between two puffins – which, admittedly, sounds digusting and it didn't look all that great either. But hey, when you ate the table as intended, it was delicious, earning Dan yet another top three finish just as this season's Milwaukee chapter comes to a close.

Here's to the home court advantage helping Dan out one more week, then packing some of those Cream City vibes along with him to Curacao.

5. So who will make the final four?

Somehow, we've almost already reached the end of "Top Chef" – or at least certainly the Wisconsin-set portion, with next week's episode the last filmed in the state before jetting off to Curacao. So who will be flying down to the Caribbean – especially now that Michelle, an early favorite to at the very least make the finale, is gone for good. (With Laura's re-entry, "Last Chance Kitchen" is all wrapped up for the season.) 

If I was a betting man ... well, I'd already be down significant money because Michelle, Rasika and Soo are all out of the picture. But if I was chasing my losses with more bets, I'd for sure expect Dan and Danny to get some fresh passport stamps from Curacao; again, Dan's been on a roll ever since his near-elimination at American Family Field while Danny's constantly been near the top this entire season without ever falling into the bottom, with food that seems regularly refined and sophisticated even under the time-crunching circumstances. 

Things get a little cloudier after those two, though. Considering how well Laura performed in her return – and how much the other chefs seem to genuinely dread having her skills back in the contest – I'll guess she earns a trip down south as well ... along with Savannah, who hasn't crushed it in elimination challenges lately but she did fine enough with the table test and seemed to fall apart last week more due to stabbing her hand like she was cosplaying Michael Myers in "Halloween" than anything else. Plus, she's won the last two quickfires so even if the elimination cook-offs haven't gone entirely her way, she's still shown off skill.

That leaves, by my predictions, Manny being the final Milwaukee elimination – and not a moment too soon. Consider it the revenge of the risotto. You cannot escape the wrath of risotto. Risotto is inevitable. 

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.