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'Group Chat': Local chefs breakdown what 'Top Chef: Wisconsin' got right and wrong

Chef Greg León and Chef, and WI State Representative, Francesca Hong
Jimmy Gutierrez
Chef Greg León & Chef and WI State Representative Francesca Hong

Top Chef is a reality TV show that pits up-and-coming chefs against each other to see who will be standing at the end as the show’s top chef. This season, the show was filmed in Milwaukee and all around Wisconsin. It even included one of the city’s top chefs, Dan Jacobs of EsterEv and DanDan, as a contestant.

But what did the show get right and wrong about cuisine in the state? And what did they miss altogether? We asked three of the state's top chefs to weigh in for this month’s Group Chat segment, which gets Milwaukeeans (in this case, Wisconsinites) in conversation with each other, letting them ask their own questions while we provide the mics and get out of the way.

Today’s guests are Greg León, chef and owner of Amilinda; Luke Zahm, chef and owner of The Driftless Cafe; and Francesca Hong, co-founder and chef of the now-closed Morris Ramen and state assembly representative.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Francesca Hong: Luke, you were on the show, how did that go?

Luke Zahm: There's a kind of associated headache, always with doing things that are being run by national networks, like a lot of NDA work... I had this duality for the show because I had done some of the background work with parties or agencies in the state of Wisconsin, just like, OK, these are some of the people that we really, really need to talk to when we talk about Wisconsin food. Our cheese, our beer, our sausage, all those things are great, but I tend to look at it with a longer perspective. And that, for me, always centers into the Indigenous food movement. It's been part of these place's history longer than the cheese and the beer and the sausages.

Hong: I thought the episode that highlighted Elena Terry, as you mentioned, Luke about Indigenous cuisine, we've got 11 tribes here in Wisconsin, and I think that that was the episode where it's like, we're really transcending beyond the broad cheese narrative, and that was so important. I think, though, we shouldn't be able to just have one episode like that, right? Like never was there a mention of the prominence and the influence of Hmong farmers here in Wisconsin. And there was one contestant at the farmer’s market who was surprised by Asian ingredients at the market, and it's like, no, we have the third largest Hmong population in the country.

Greg León: I do feel like they did go for the low-hanging fruit when they were trying to show what comes from Wisconsin. So it's like cranberries, beer, sausages, cheese curds.

Hong: Yeah, but where was the ginseng [or go] to a wild rice field?

Zahm: It was a very interesting perspective being there. I really wanted to emphasize all those pieces. And then, when I get on the actual location set, I got to sit next to a dear friend of mine, Charlie Berens; he actually had no idea what he was doing there... And then we're escorted down into the Miller caves and they keep feeding the table beer. I told the producers before I went on, ‘Yo, I'm sober. I've been sober for almost five years now.’ And it was their prerogative to keep the Miller High Life in front of me. And it goes back to that idea: you're here to make television. And the optics of television are more important than the personal optics that you hold as a human being.

Luke Zahm
provided by Luke Zahm
Luke Zahm

Hong: I was thinking about how one of the biggest winners of this show is actually High Life. Maybe some folks would argue it's Whole Foods and BMW, but I actually noticed that too, that so much of the taping of the chef's — prior to judgment and verdict — was around drinking. I think especially since 2020, there has been way more conversation around wellness in the industry. And to me, it was kind of disappointing that once again we're really perpetuating this notion of, go hard and play hard. And everybody drinks after your shift. I think there's a lot more of us in the industry thinking very differently about how addiction is prevalent.

I haven't watched Top Chef in a while, but there was way more storytelling of individual contestants and I was surprised at how diverse the cast was compared to previous years. But I was also nervous because sometimes when that happens a lot of the stories were actually about people's vulnerabilities and insecurities of wondering, should I really be here? And then you take away from this usual reality show frame like Survivor and there's always a villain and there's always an antagonist, and there's always someone that you kind of want to root for.

León: There was no villain in this one, everyone was actually very nice.

Hong: Then my fear is that, OK we don't have that in the cast, is it gonna be lower viewership and then people are going to go straight to well, this is what happens when you focus on diversity and inclusion.

León: I was part of the Facebook Top Chef Wisconsin [group] and actually got kicked off and banned from the group. Because I would go on there every, you know, after the episode just to see what people were saying, and they were just trashing the show. And they were saying it wasn't as exciting as before, that the people were boring, that there was no drama. And they were talking smack about Wisconsin. And I went then one day and was like, why are you guys talking all this garbage about Wisconsin and the contestants? I'd like to see some of you on there.

That's the only cooking competition show that I watch because I feel like it doesn't have a lot of drama. And it's more about the food. You get to know the contestant and a little bit about their background. Like episode two, when Dan [Jacobs] is telling the rest of the cast that he has Kennedy's disease.

Hong: Small pivot here to talking about not just diversity and workers, but most of the diners on the show were white.

León: Yeah, it was a really white show.

Hong: I was really disappointed in the Madison episode. I have so much respect for Tory Miller; I was so happy to see Jamie Hoang on the episode as well. But like in The Harvey House dining room, I don't think I found one person of color or Black person there.

León: Restaurant wars also looked pretty white.

Hong: And that's where you could have done a lot more to try to get folks out because we already have an accessibility issue, especially like higher-end restaurants. And who's able to go, right?

León: Do you think it even crossed their mind? Is it something that they even think about diners of color?

Hong: In a lot of those cases, you're working with the travel industry, and so it would depended on who you are partnering with to get folks onto that show. And I don't know if those organizations really prioritize who is dining on the shows.

Zahm: Fran, can I switch gears to a question that centers politics? As an elected official in the state of Wisconsin, different agencies in Wisconsin put out a lot of money to bring Top Chef here, to come here and film. What are the ROIs, the return on investments? What would you see as the metric for return on investment from having a production like Top Chef film in the state of Wisconsin?

Hong: Hard to quantify what the ROI would be from an investment like this. It's great to see communities come together and be really proud of Wisconsin. I think that's always an important, unifying issue. And it's one actually that when I go to different parts of the state, I really try to talk to people around being proud to be from Wisconsin. And I think it's one of those issues that kind of goes beyond economic or other cultural issues that are dividing us right now. But I think it's difficult again to quantify the ROI ... Maybe you'll see folks coming to great cities like Milwaukee because they've seen it on Top Chef, but is it redefining Wisconsin beyond beer, cheese and brats? I think so. I hear the hosts of the show talking about how Wisconsin is more than that. Did we need other people to be ambassadors for us? I'm not sure.

Zahm: In talking about that, the specific issue of ROI, how do you measure success? I think it's so ill-defined, quite frankly. So if it's a million dollars that's kicked out by state entities to bring them here to set up lodging, to negotiate all this, what would you like to see, given what we know now about where they taped where they were outside of like if we could go back in time and like bring them to some of our midsize cities like Wausau, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, maybe even La Crosse.

León: When you're negotiating a show like this, and I'm asking you, Luke, because you live in that world, could a Wisconsin or whoever was representing the state in the cities say, OK, you can come and tape here, but we need you to do X amount of filming in these towns or small cities. And we want X amount of people of color or people of different ethnicities to be featured. Can you set those parameters for a TV show?

Zahm: Maybe I'm not exactly sure what parameters that can be set. I think that the production company comes in with the idea of making a good television show. Obviously, the state entities want to be brand ambassadors for the state of Wisconsin and really try to pump up the industries that are here — thriving at the moment and maybe have thrived in the past. Fran, you touched on the ginseng industry, and that's a huge sleeper industry in the state of Wisconsin; the majority of that is exported out. But a lot of people don't really know what you utilize ginseng for.

Hong: I think a lot of [tourism] metrics is how much money is coming into a city, but we're not actually talking about who gets that money. And I think about how influencers go in, like the ones with bigger Instagram accounts, to restaurants and cafes and bars. We don't know what the ROI is on that, right? They're not going to be out here like, I saw this on this person’s IG story. So I wonder if it's a bigger translation of that for the tourism industry.

Again, I think culturally, we're seeing a lot of people get really excited about their city and their state when you are on a national stage on a show like Top Chef, but in terms of ROI, like, are we going to be able to connect a restaurant opening or closing because of Top Chef, we don't know.

León: I think also that the amount of restaurants that would benefit from the show being here is very limited. Like, I don't think, at least in Milwaukee, I don’t think every restaurant in Milwaukee is going to benefit from them being there.

Hong: I hope some in the cheese industry and some of the smaller producers that were featured get to see an increase in their revenue. I will say, when Morris [Ramen] was still open, we had a couple of folks from the production team stumble into the restaurant. And I'm very proud to say they were really excited that this was some of the best food that they'd had in Madison. But they had been given our name as a recommendation. But it’s hard to quantify how much of the production team was actually out here spending money in the cities that they filmed up. But again, those folks aren't coming back.

León: So we had the production team come in twice and executive producers to eat at Amilina. And then we had a group of eliminated contestants come in. But I haven't heard, and the staff hasn't told me whether anybody has come in and said, oh my god, I saw him as a judge, and that's why I came in.

It was a super fun experience. I would definitely do it again. I don't think I want to be a contestant ever. I think it will be good for the state. Hopefully, it'll bring some people to the state of Wisconsin; maybe it changed a couple of people's minds on what the state is like, and maybe they think it's prettier. I think people still watched the show, and when they turned it off, they're like, oh, yeah, all they eat is brats, cheese, and all they drink is beer. They could have done a better job and showed more of what's offered here in Wisconsin and what grows here.

Zahm: The really hard part for me in watching these types of shows is having everything narrowed down to a competition. I think the reason why I started my journey in food, and certainly the reason why I started my journey in television, was because when I was growing up in rural Wisconsin, I didn't have an identity piece to look towards. There was nothing that was representing me as a human being — be it through the trials and tribulations of being in high school and like trying to find who I was and my voice in the world. I came to the realization that I live, and we live, collectively in this gorgeous, gorgeous place with some of the best farmers and food producers in the world.

Watching Top Chef and seeing it all like sifted through the lens of competition and as those of us in the food industry know, taste is subjective. Food is subjective. Art is subjective. Music is subjective. I really get stuck watching this production and watching the episodes because I am to support my friend Dan [Jacobs] but like also, I hate that it's sifted through the lens of competition.

Hong: Top Chef is a competition show though. It's a competition show that is a part of a capitalist system that most of our food world is also tied to. I think for Top Chef to be here in our home, in Wisconsin, I hope it gets people to think about how food is ultimately personal, it's political, but it also brings people together and it makes folks feel proud. And it's a gateway for people to be able to tell their story.


Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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