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How did Milwaukee’s Dan Jacobs perform in the ‘Top Chef’ finale?

Visit Milwaukee says the season increased visibility of the city and Wisconsin

Dan Jacobs stirs a pot on the stove.
Dan Jacobs preps food in the kitchen Friday, March 1, 2024, at DanDan, a Milwaukee restaurant he co-owns. (Angela Major/WPR)

Milwaukee Chef Dan Jacobs placed in the top three contestants on the season finale of the cooking competition show “Top Chef.” But Jacobs lost in the season finale which aired Wednesday.

Although he didn’t win, Jacobs said in an interview with WPR that he’s proud of himself for making it as far as he did.

“(It was) really kind of a dream realized to be able to cook that final meal,” Jacobs said. “I knew that I could do this at a high level and I was happy I was given the opportunity.”

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All season long cooking challenges honored state traditions like a fish boil and cheese festival. The contestants used local ingredients including cheese, cherries and Wisconsin-grown cranberries.

The season was based in Milwaukee but multiple Wisconsin restaurants and businesses were features on the show. Contestants visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home in Spring Green, a supper club in Madison and the Brewers stadium.

Jacobs was competing on his home turf. He has been living in Milwaukee since 2011 and has worked in kitchens ever since. In 2016, Jacobs and his friend Dan Van Rite opened American-Chinese restaurant DanDan and EsterEv, a private fine-dining experience. Both chefs have been James Beard Award semifinalists many times over.

Jacobs said he auditioned for “Top Chef” about a dozen times. He said this season was probably his last opportunity to compete. Jacobs is living with Kennedy’s disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder, which can make things like griping a knife difficult.

Jacobs performed well throughout the season, regularly one of three top finishers each episode. There were a few instances where he underperformed. He said he did his best when he was relaxed and having fun.

Jacobs said the competition taught him how mentally strong he is.

“You got to think quick on your feet, but also when you have a bad cook, you have to turn around and get ready for the next day,” Jacobs said.

A close up of an onion in Dan Jacobs' hands as he peels it and discards the peel into a bowl.
Dan Jacobs peels an onion Friday, March 1, 2024, at DanDan, a Milwaukee restaurant he co-owns. Angela Major/WPR

Good visibility for Milwaukee and Wisconsin

“It’s been a true honor to represent the City of Milwaukee in the state of Wisconsin, and just show how we do it here in the Midwest,” Jacobs said.

May was the busiest month for DanDan since it opened nearly eight years ago, and June is on track to outpace the previous record.

Season 21 of the Emmy-winning show was filmed in Milwaukee and Madison last summer. Eight weeklong hotel stays for cast, crew and judges alone generated just under $4 million in economic impact, according to Claire Koenig, a spokesperson for Visit Milwaukee.

She said it’s too soon to measure how the show impacted, and will continue to impact, travel to an around Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

According to the New York Times, “Top Chef” is “one of the most influential forces shaping the way Americans think about restaurants and chefs.” 

“Food based experiences and dining experiences, those can be the main reason someone picks a (travel) destination,” Koenig said.

Twelve days after Uplands Cheese was featured in an episode in March, website orders were up 3,300 percent compared to the previous 12-day period, according to its owners. They also gained social media followers and email subscribers.

Other businesses, attractions and restaurants have also reported positive impacts from the visibility of the show.

Visit Milwaukee and other partners started pitching Milwaukee as the destination for a season of “Top Chef” in 2019. Koenig said the years of work were “totally, completely worth it.” She said the show acted as free advertising that reached new audiences.

“There are millions of people just reading about Milwaukee and why they chose Milwaukee and seeing the word Milwaukee and Wisconsin out there in places maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Koenig said.

Jacobs hopes the 21st season of “Top Chef” showed people there is more to Milwaukee and Wisconsin than meets the eye.

“I just hope people travel here, see the beauty that I think I see in the city and the kindness that I’ve seen in the people here,” Jacobs said.

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