Everything Chicagoans Need to Know About ‘Top Chef: Wisconsin’

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Top Chef, the Grande Dame of reality television cooking competitions, is back again for Season 21, as the first episode of Top Chef: Wisconsin debuted last week with a Milwaukee-centric episode.

In addition to geographical proximity and midwestern pride, Chicagoans have plenty of reasons to tune in, including two “cheftestants” (sorry) repping Chicago in a crowd of 15 competitors. There’s also a new host-slash-judge, tweaked Quickfire rules, and ample opportunities for Wisconsin culinary cliches (see: beer, cheese). New episodes air at 8 p.m. CT/9 p.m. ET each Wednesday on Bravo and are available to stream the following day on the Peacock app.

Even after 18 years of Tom Colicchio’s questionable millinery choices, there are still novices and eager viewers ready to get their first taste of the Top Chef universe. Here’s a primer to get started.

Top Chef is Bravo’s original cooking game show

Now an international phenomenon with more than a dozen spin-offs, Top Chef first hit screens in 2006 and rapidly established itself as a competition for serious hospitality professionals — even a kingmaker — in the world of food celebrities. Born of the big brains behind Project Runway, its basic premise has remained static throughout. Ambitious (and often young) chefs cook their way through a series of challenges in pursuit of a $250,000 prize, with a panel of judges eliminating contenders in each episode along the way.

Initially, Top Chef leaned on interpersonal drama-laden, alcohol-soaked conventions of early aughts reality television, but over the years, producers have wisely refocused on cooking skills and an atmosphere of mostly collegial competition. Nonetheless, the stakes remain high — there’s a lot of money at play, and those who clinch the title may gain the kind of nationwide visibility most chefs only dream about.

Three “Chicago” chefs are vying for the title this season

Chef Soo Ahn and Tom Colicchio.
David Moir/Bravo

Oddly, Midwestern chefs are in the minority on Top Chef: Wisconsin. Chicago’s representatives are Alisha Elenz, now a private chef who previously won a local Jean Banchet Award for her work at Spanish hit Mfk in Lakeview (she was most recently at Bambola in West Loop); and Kaleena Bliss, the newish executive chef at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel and a fairly recent transplant from the Pacific Northwest. Milwaukee chef Dan Jacobs (DanDan, EsterEv), the season’s sole Wisconsin-based competitor, might also ring a bell for Chicago diners as he and collaborator Dan Van Rite have been known to occasionally pop up around town.

Both Elenz and Bliss survived week 1, as Bliss briefly grappled with her recent move to Chicago; she gave a somewhat backhanded compliment to the Midwest’s stereotypical love of meat and potatoes. At least there was no deep-dish pizza mention.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 26, Bravo announced a third Chicago chef would be joining. Soo Ahn, the chef at Adalina, an Italian restaurant in the Gold Coast, will compete on the digital-only Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen. Ahn has a chance to earn a promotion to the main show if he’s successful. Chicago’s very own Joe Flamm (BLVD Steakhouse, Rose Mary), a Top Chef champion in Season 15, is a judge on Last Chance Kitchen.

The flow is a bit different, but some standbys remain

Each at a whopping 75 minutes, Season 21’s episodes are markedly longer than in the past, adding an extra half-hour to a previous 42-minute runtime. Quickfire Challenges are different too. Previously, these mid-episode activities (generally sponsored by a corporate partner) offered chefs the potential to win money or immunity from packing their knives in the subsequent Elimination Challenge. This season, immunity is only offered to Elimination Challenge victors.

The departure of longtime host and judge Padma Lakshmi was a hot topic last spring when she announced that she would opt out after 18 seasons to pursue other television projects, including Hulu docuseries Taste the Nation. Season 10 winner Kristen Kish has stepped into the role, building on her onscreen experience on numerous shows like TruTV’s Fast Foodies, Travel Channel’s 36 Hours, National Geographic’s Restaurants at the End of the World, and Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. Amid all the changes, fans aren’t completely set adrift — stalwart judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons have both returned and lend a sense of normalcy to the season.

On, Wisconsin!

Season 21 is set in Wisconsin, which means that viewers can expect a focus on Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, and Madison, its capital and home to the massive University of Wisconsin–Madison. Other parts of the state — namely Door County, famed for its cherries — will garner mentions as well. With an arsenal of quirky regional culinary quirks at the showrunners’ disposal (think supper clubs, the brandy Old Fashioned sweet, frozen custard, and beer that’s cheaper than water), it’s fair to say that locals are hopeful that the nation will learn there’s more to America’s Dairyland than squeaky cheese curds and Happy Days.

Wisconsinites aren’t used to garnering media attention from the likes of Top Chef (it did take nearly two decades for the show to acknowledge its existence). On top of all that, 2024 is set to be an especially weird one for locals, escalated by the fervor over July’s Republican National Convention in Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s purple swing-state status in November’s presidential election.

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