"Top Chef" frontrunner Dan Jacobs on cooking with Kennedy's disease — both on and off the show

"I hope that being on the show inspires anyone to pursue their dreams," Jacobs told Salon Food

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published June 11, 2024 12:25PM (EDT)

Daniel Jacobs on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)
Daniel Jacobs on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

On "Top Chef: Wisconsin," Dan Jacobs has unquestionably been one of the top competitors.

He's the hometown guy, he's a James Beard nominee, he's won multiple challenges with some terrific-sounding food and he's been upfront about the challenges and difficulties of Kennedy's Disease, both in general as well specifically as someone working in a frenzied, highly physical kitchen environment, both on the show and in "real life."

Now, with only two episodes to go, he's made it to the final four as the competition departs his home state and heads to Curacao for the final challenges. How will he fare? We'll find out shortly.

In the meantime, Salon Food spoke with Dan about his experiences on the show, his adoration for food and his background in the restaurant industry in general and his hopes that he can inspire and impact others watching the show.


The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congrats on the James Beard nomination! Tell me about your come up — everything you did prior to this season of Top Chef. 

I grew up in Chicago in a very humble, hardworking family. Neither of my parents cooked much, but when my Dad got laid off in 1987, he would pass the time by making pasta sauces, chili and more. I would hang out with him in the kitchen as an excuse to skip chores. I have fond memories of us experimenting in the kitchen and throwing things in pots to see what would happen. This is what gave me the cooking bug.

After high school, I got a job at The Cookery in Fish Creek (Door County). Then, I went to work at the Inn at Cedar Crossing in Sturgeon Bay. This is where I really fell in love with cooking and knew that I wanted to make this my career.

I went on to take a few courses at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute in Chicago before taking another role with Carlos Nieto at his Restaurant in Highland Park, Chicago. I worked at several Chicago restaurants including TRU, North Pond, Abriot, Naha, Pluton, Narra, Green Zebra and Spring.

In 2011, my wife and I moved to Milwaukee where I took the Executive Chef position at Roots, a restaurant that contributed early on to the development of the local farm-to-table movement. We instantly fell in love with everything about Milwaukee and Wisconsin and the great quality of life — the people, culture, community, food scene . . . all of it. 

What led to your being on Top Chef? 

I tried out for Top Chef over a dozen times before getting picked for Season 21. I've always wanted to challenge myself in this way and inspire differently-abled people on this national scale. It's truly a dream come true. 

Top ChefDaniel Jacobs on "Top Chef" (Stephanie Diani/Bravo)

Can you explain Kennedy’s Disease for those unfamiliar with it? How is it managed? 

Kennedy's Disease is a rare and progressive genetic neuromuscular disease that will slowly affect my ability to walk, speak, and use my hands. It's often mistaken for ALS or Parkinson's. It makes tasks like walking up the stairs, putting on shoes, or buttoning up my shirts pretty difficult and sometimes painful.

There is no treatment yet, but I've learned workarounds, and my mind is sharper than ever. 

Did you do any sort of special prep for Top Chef?

I read a ton of cookbooks. I spent a lot of time revisiting the fundamentals and mastering techniques that I may not practice every day in my kitchens. 

What surprised you most about competing on Top Chef?

No one can prepare you for how mentally challenging it is. The physical aspect is tough [like in] the cheese fest episode, but at the end of the day you have to have the mental toughness to push through some challenges. That voice that doubts yourself gets louder than ever. 

What sort of changes did you have to make in order to keep up with the grueling Top Chef schedule? 

I stretched every morning and took the time to get my mind right. But there's truly nothing you can do to fully prepare no matter what.  

Based on what’s aired thus far, of course (up to and through episode 12, "Goodbye Wisconsin"), what would you say is your favorite or best moment of the competition thus far? 

I might not have a favorite moment, but I've just loved how this show forces you to think in a way that’s completely unconventional to how we would do stuff in a kitchen in a restaurant. It pushed my creativity far beyond what I ever knew I could do. 

I'm always a sucker for a Top Chef friendship and your bond with Amanda is one of my faves. What do you think helped the two of you to connect? 

It was just natural! We're both nerds and it was obvious from the jump that we have a ton in common. 

What are some of the biggest challenges in a professional kitchen? 

Discipline: It takes a huge amount of time, energy and discipline to really cook at a high level. 

What are your goals for the future, both personally and professionally? 

My goals are to continue building up Milwaukee's vibrant food scene. We have such a tight-knit supportive community that has made it possible for me to be taking this interview right now. I want to continue to mentor my staff and pave the way for the next generation of chefs that define Wisconsin's restaurant culture. 

Top ChefDaniel Jacobs on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

Tell me about Dim Sum Give Some? 

Dim Sum Give Some is our annual Kennedy's Disease charity gala. We bring all of our closest industry friends together to cook for a cause and raise awareness. It's always a huge success and I'm proud to say that our team has raised $100,000 and counting. 

How would you explain the difference between EsterEv and DanDan?

I co-own both concepts with my business partner, Chef Dan Van Rite. EsterEv is a globally inspired tasting concept inspired by our great-grandmother's shared love for cooking, and Dandan is a Chinese American concept with Midwestern sensibilities inspired by the food that Dan and I grew up eating and loving. EsterEv is rooted in Wisconsin's agricultural seasons and Dandan is a nostalgic, comfort food spot that's inspired by the food that Dan and I love to cook and eat. 

What motivated you to get into Asian cuisine professionally ? 

Who doesn't love Chinese food? This cuisine has always been a passion of mine. I grew up eating Chinese food in Chicago and it's super nostalgic for me. It's so diverse that we're hosting a "Taste of China Regional Dinner Series" this year to celebrate the flavors of each unique region. 

What would you like to see viewers — or diners at your restaurants — take away from your experiences both in and out of the kitchen?

I hope that being on the show inspires anyone to pursue their dreams, able-bodied or differently abled. I'm also really pleased by how much attention Wisconsin's culinary community is getting. We have such a vibrant group of chefs, farmers, hospitality professionals and so on that are doing amazing things and deserve nationwide recognition. 

Congrats on winning "Restaurant Wars!" Your smoked walleye got such rave reviews. I loved what Kristen said about it. Can you explain a bit about the development and execution of that dish? 

Thank you! Man, what a dream come true. This was one of my favorite dishes of the season. I like to compare it to sour cream and onion dip in the best way. It's 100% Wisconsin smoked walleye with labneh, hash brown potato cake, and harissa. 

Watch Dan on the penultimate episode of "Top Chef Wisconsin" tomorrow on Bravo (and the next day on Peacock) to see if he makes it to the finale!

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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