By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 21, 2024 at 5:16 PM

It's time to unpack your knives, maniacally run around a kitchen, product-place the heck out of some cars and GE appliances, and get cooking! That's right: After months of anticipation and Instagram stalking, Bravo's "Top Chef" season 21 – shot right here in Wisconsin and featuring a Milwaukee chef in the competition – finally served up its first course on Wednesday night.

So ... was the first Wisconsin "Top Chef" challenge all cheese and beer? How did new host Kristen Kish do in her debut? What Sconnie locales got the season premiere spotlight? Was local chef Dan Jacobs a cut above competing on his home turf? And will anyone miss Hat Man for a single second? Let's answer those questions and more with five takeaways from the season premiere of "Top Chef" here in Wisconsin.

1. Milwaukee, you look great

As excited as we've all been about "Top Chef" setting up kitchen camp here in Milwaukee, we've also been somewhat apprehensive about it. Would this be an awesome moment for Milwaukee in the spotlight? Or would it just be a feast of cliches and condescension from the show and the contestants alike, folks grumbling about being in a smaller city, shots of farmland and challenge after challenge of beer, cheese and beer cheese? Listen, we love those things as much as anyone – just ask my arteries and liver – and they're critical parts of Wisconsin culture ... but they're far from the only parts that deserve attention. And unfortunately, when many outsiders come to town, they're often the only ones that do. 

So I went into last night's premiere cautious, certain that I'd see a lot of cheese, beer and maybe some "Happy Days" – and amazingly I saw none of that. Instead we saw Milwaukee ... looking good. Like, really good! From the opening B-roll (has the Pere Marquette Park sign ever looked so shiny and beautiful?) to the brief contestant meet-and-greet at the Pfister, Milwaukee came off glimmering and glowing, a cool and exciting place home to both fresh modernity and textured time-honored tradition, worthy of being a culinary TV centerpiece for the next several weeks. And there was no one griping about the setting or talking down to Wisconsin in the cast; the closest was someone describing the culture as meat and potatoes, which ... guilty as charged. 

Even the choice of venue for the first challenge – Lupi & Iris, the fairly new Milwaukee dining spot and James Beard finalist – wasn't an obvious or predictable pick. But it was an awesome one, setting a gigantic and gorgeous scene for the creative kitchen chaos to ensue. If you didn't know Milwaukee well before "Top Chef" last night, you might not have known the city had such a nationally renowned and glamorous looking spot – heck, even if you live in Wisconsin, you might've been underinformed about it. But now you do – and you want reservations. 

Listen, we can't wait to see supper clubs and cheese and beer and brats and maybe a cannibal sandwich play a role this season – but this first episode showed they're digging a little deeper than just the Brew City basics. 

2. A good start for Dan Jacobs

Milwaukee itself wasn't the only one coming out of the blocks strong on Wednesday night, as local chef Dan Jacobs looked like a contender to reckon with in the "Top Chef" premiere. 

For the first elimination challenge, the chefs were divided into groups and each given one of three challenges: roast a whole chicken, make a stuffed pasta or cook up a soup. Dan got the final one, brewing up a tomato and fennel soup spiced up with some dashes of Chinese and Asian flavor and influences – a passion of his since childhood, one that lives on now through Dandan. He was one of the first three soups sampled by the judges ... and the judges loved all three, specifically noting that if Dan and company kept up that level of cooking, they'd be sticking around the competition for quite some time.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to win the first Wisconsin "Top Chef" challenge, as Manny and his comfortingly classic green pozole was selected as not only crowned the best soup but the best dish of the whole night, earning him the victory as well as immunity for next week's episode. But judging by night one's culinary efforts, Dan Jacobs won't soon have to pack up his knives and go ... or, uh, stay put in Milwaukee.

But that's just the cooking side of the equation. As for the personality side ... well, this was episode one, and between all the new hosts, new rules, new locales and new constants to throw into the fire almost immediately, there wasn't much time to let personalities marinate and get much flavor. (Except for one behatted gentleman we'll get to shortly.) But in his limited screen time, Dan seemed like a good, pleasant contestant as well as host to his fellow competitors visiting the city. Plus, in his greatest non-soup achievement on Wednesday, he perfectly demonstrated the Midwest needing only four seconds, explaining to his fellow contestants that "Midwest Nice" is totally real ... smash cut to him complaining about other drivers on the road. You can't represent Wisconsin much more accurately than that. 

3. A bad start for people with bad hats

Showing up with a permanent cowboy hat, oversized glasses out of the '80s, a bright KoOkY patterned shirt and zingers for Tom Colicchio, David Murphy from San Francisco arrived with plenty of personality in the premiere. Too bad he forgot to pack the cooking skills to go with it. 

Indeed, David seemed to think he was on "Hell's Kitchen" where Being A Character can keep you around longer – and he was quickly corrected on Wednesday night, irritating everyone with his vibes before irritating everyone with his food. Tasked by Gail Simmons with making a stuffed pasta dish, the San Francisco chef (after announcing his hatred of pasta) decided to make a stuffed gnocchi – which, as devastating as this is for a gnocchi addict to say, sounds like a terrible idea. The point of gnocchi is that they should be light, fluffy, delicious little pillows; stuffing one would seem to negate all of that and make them big, thick and stodgy.

His most egregious sin, though – and that's saying a lot considering the wardrobe – was when I say he made a stuffed gnocchi, I mean he made A stuffed gnocchi. Like ... one single gnocchi. "But Matt, surely he made one very big, satisfying gnocchi then?" INCORRECT! He made one very normal, inadequate-sized and apparently not very tasty gnocchi lump, surrounded by a small solar system of sauce dots that even I as a culinary outsider thought looked like out-of-style plating. But at least David looked confident, like he knew what he was doing, in the Lupi & Iris kitchen. (Spoiler: He did not; from the second the challenge was announced, he was loud confused chaos in a hat.)

Yet despite making a bad first impression with both his fashion and his food, it seemed horrifyingly possible that David might scrape by and live to see another dish. While his gnocchi landed as the bottom of the pasta bunch, the worst performers from each group had one last chance to impress the judges: make a tasty plate out of the scraps left behind by the elimination challenge, aka essentially what David does back in San Fran, running a restaurant that focuses on using food waste rather than making waste. Dang it, we're gonna have to endure another week of this guy, aren't we!? 

Apparently not! That straw fedora must've been too tight and cut off his circulation to the brain, because despite nabbing a challenge right in his wheelhouse, David seemed clueless throughout the final task, whipping together a bunch of sauces with no purpose, anxiously yelling out to his fellow cooks to distract himself and throwing blizzards of salt into his dish with reckless abandon. The final result? A salty, unfocused mess – made even worse when he limply attempted to toss fellow bottom three chef Amanda under the bus at the judges' table for "stealing his fish," aka getting to the fish before he could. Dignity, always dignity, even to the end for this guy.

After all of that, one didn't have to be a foodie or "Top Chef" whisperer to predict who would pack their knives and go home first: It was indeed David, who proved to be all hat and no cattle. 

4. Kristen Kish and more make good first impressions

All eyes were on more than just Milwaukee last night, as new host Kristen Kish took her first step toward filling Padma Lakshmi's massive shoes. Padma hasn't been there since season one of "Top Chef" (don't watch the clumsy first season to check; just trust me on this) but it sure felt like it. She was an integral part of turning "Top Chef" into the diverse and respected foodie showcase it is, while also serving as stern yet compassionate, knowledegable yet inquisitive, hands on the (all new BMW X1's luxurious) wheel. It threatens to be a massive loss – but if the first hour was any sign, Kish is up to the task.

The show thankfully didn't revert to Katie Lee Joel-era stiffness, as Kish seemed at ease with both her host duties and personality duties, comfortable walking in both worlds bantering with the contestants and judges alike. As someone who's been bingeing through "Top Chef" recently, her first challenge to the competitors – making a soup – served also a fun nod to Kish's origins on the show. After all, her first episode in the Seattle season also required her to make a soup while two other groups of chefs battled their own separate culinary quests (this time around, making an omelette for Wolfgang Puck and working a dinner service for Tom). Again, considering how much the premiere had to cram in – even with its supersized 75-minute running time – there wasn't much time for personality to breathe or for Kish to claim this new era wholly as her own. But she proved that, even with this new ingredient, the recipe still works – and I imagine we'll see more personality and pop as the season goes along.

The same goes for the entire cast of new contestants. With all the hubbub, there wasn't a lot of time to get to know the humans beyond the Mad Hatter and a French guy who was on "Top Chef France" (which ... apparently there's been a "Top Chef France" this whole time). However, one chef made an impact where it really matters on this show – in the kitchen – and that'd be Michelle, who seemed really nervous about making pasta for the first time in forever for her opening challenge. But unlike David, she thrived as a fish out of water, delivering the best dish of the pasta group with beautifully thin handmade dough and good flavors. Michelle didn't end up with the overall win, but she's still an early favorite, because if that's how she cooks when she's out of her comfort zone ... 

5. Mixing up the recipe right off the bat

New locale, new host ... but why stop there? Throw in some more twists, maybe some broth and a potato, and baby, you got a stew going. 

For instance, instead of the quickfire challenges testing the chefs and – most importantly – granting immunity for the winner, each episode's first culinary quiz will come with a monetary prize instead of guaranteed safety for the week. (The actual elimination challenge will provide its winner with immunity now.) And then they changed up the quickfire portion of the show even more during Wednesday's premiere ... by not having a quickfire challenge at all! Who needs it, apparently! Instead, we had one mega elimination challenge that was three different challenges all at once, followed by a surprise sudden death mini challenge (which only served to super-duper-confirmed that David needed to go). As that may sound, even without a qiuckfire, it was a lot of challenges – and arguably a bit of a challenge to follow who was cooking what and who was all bringing up dishes in what order for which group. 

As with any recipe, there's maybe some refinement to be had – but like the judges with contestants' dishes, I'd rather see more from a show shaking things up and trying new things than one just sticking with the same tried and tired dishes.

And most importantly, it knew the right ingredient to take out of the recipe: the guy with the bad hat and the worse gnocchi.

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.