Top Chef, S14E13.

Two links before we get to the recap: I have a new Insider post on how the Mets should handle their rotation, with five of six guys coming off some sort of injury; and I reviewed the boardgame Ulm for Paste.

* I think we got a glimpse of Drunk Shirley in the prelude where she slurred “Let’s dooo this” in the toast. Drunk Shirley is the best Shirley.

* The three remaining chefs are flying from Guadalajara to Riviera Maya, on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula. They walk into the resort (I think it’s a Secrets location, although I didn’t see an orgy anywhere so maybe not) and Sheldon asks “are we in a Jay Z video man?”

* Why are we seeing so much of the chefs in bathing suits? The shot of the three of them walking into the water, which meant clear shots of Brooke’s and Shirley’s behinds, was kind of inappropriate for a cooking show.

* Their first stop is in Valladolid, a city of about 45K located inland on the Yucatan, a beautiful town with lots of Old World Spanish architecture. It’s named for a city in central Spain that was once the Spanish capital.

* Quickfire: Cook a dish that showcases the habanero. (No tilde, please.) The winner gets a one-week vacation for two at any Secrets resort. Their guest judge is Chef Ricardo Muniz Zurita, who literally wrote the book on Mexican cuisine (in Spanish, of course).

* They have to buy all of their ingredients at an open-air food market in the town center, and it looks like chef heaven, with an unbelievable variety of produce and meat being butchered to order. 13/10, would shop there.

* Sheldon appears to speak no Spanish, which I think would be impossible for a chef cooking in the continental U.S. given how many native speakers typically work in restaurant kitchens. Perhaps that’s not true in Hawai’i, though. Brooke at least speaks quite a bit, although she could stand some work on her accent.

* Sheldon’s looking for queso fresco and somehow can’t find any at the market; I guess it’s possible there wasn’t a vendor selling cheese, but I find that a little hard to believe, since there is cheese in Yucatecan cuisine. He then buys a tamal colado without knowing what it is because he thinks it looks like cheese. (It’s actually a traditional Yucatecan tamale with roasted pork or chicken and an achiote and roasted tomato sauce.

* Shirley says that sometimes to wake herself up in the morning she takes a bite of a habenero. I prefer coffee.

* Brooke can’t get her blender open, briefly at least, which is yet another stupid equipment issue that doesn’t tell us anything about who the best chef is. It’s Top Chef. Maybe we could get the chefs some stuff that works?

* The dishes: Brooke made a roasted pork loin with orange and green habanero salsas, with the green ones in a raw fruit and vegetable salsa with jicama, pineapple, and cucumber … Sheldon made a pan-roasted chayote stuffed with the tamal colado and a roasted habanero/tomato/onion salsa. … Shirley made a masa dumpling with poached egg, habanero, and crispy chicharrones.

* Nobody really did poorly here, although I thought the final order was pretty clear. Sheldon’s was too spicy, and the tamal did nothing for his dish. Brooke ends up the winner. It seemed like her dish showcased the habanero best and was the most balanced overall, and Muniz Zurita didn’t hide that that was his favorite.

* Elimination challenge: Jeremiah Tower is there; he’s a California chef who now lives in the Yucatan, which seems like a pretty good place to retire, actually. He has a new book, Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America, coming out on April 4th (that’s a preorder link), as well as a related documentary about him produced by Anthony Bourdain.

* The challenge is to make a dish entirely of local ingredients and cook it over an open flame, with no access to electric devices whatsoever, They get to keep their knives, though. This is way too gimmicky for the semifinal challenge, in my view. Just let them cook.

* The challenge will take place in Playa del Carmen, about halfway between Cancun and Tulum on the Yucatan coast. I don’t know if Mexico’s Tourism board paid for all this airtime, but holy crow, I want to go there immediately.

* The three chefs get a tour (from Muniz Zurita and Tower) of some traditional Mayan instruments and ingredients, like a metate, a molcajete (which they called a tamul) mortar and pestle, and the giant herb hoja santa (also called yerba santa, so “holy leaf” or “holy herb,” although if you listen to a lot of hip-hop you might think “holy herb” means a totally different plant).

* When they get to the site of the challenge and see the array of ingredients, there are no alliums and no citrus. The three of them seem like they’re collaborating to try to get their heads around the pantry, given the handicap of lacking any traditional aromatics. I also didn’t see any proteins other than fish; all three chefs end up cooking fish, at least.

* Sheldon is burying sweet potatoes in the coals of the pit, burning the outside, and then scooping out the centers to make a mash. It’s a brilliant method of cooking them without needing too much time.

* Brooke tests one fish fillet on the grill to see if the skin will stick to the grates because she doesn’t think the coals are hot enough. (There’s no open flame, actually, just glowing coals.) She says she’s just “trying to build layers of flavor with no actual dish in (her) head.” Meanwhile, the fish did stick, so she ends up wrapping the fish fillets in hoja santa leaves to grill them safely.

* Sheldon is grilling the fish whole, but never tests the grill like Brooke did … and it sticks. At this moment, I was sure Sheldon was going home. You can’t fuck up a protein, serve it to Tom Colicchio, and think you’re sticking around. But what a lousy way to go – it’s not like Sheldon screwed up the fish while cooking on a plancha or in a skillet. Making a mistake in an unfamiliar environment is just normal.

* I watched this episode with my wife and one of our friends from the bus stop (another mom), and they both commented on Padma’s cleavage before I said a word. So, Padma’s cleavage. How about that.

* Brooke serves first. She did steamed yellow snapper with bean and corn ragout, jicama and papaya relish, and fresh avocado. The sweet salsa (relish) consisted of “lots of stuff.” She used tomatillo juice to try to add some acidity to the two sides, since there was no citrus available. The snapper is perfectly cooked; the judges disagree on the salsas, although Tom says they complemented each other, and we know his vote is the one that counts. The one criticism seems to be that the dish doesn’t have huge flavors, but it’s fish. If you overpower it with big flavors, they’ll ding you for overshadowing the main ingredient.

* Sheldon serves what is basically shredded snapper with annatto crab sauce, Yucatan vegetables, and a habanero salsa on the side. One of the diners thought the hot salsa was too hot, and the sauce in the middle tastes completely of crab, although another diner – they’re all star Mexican chefs – thought that the technique of using masa to thicken the sauce was smart.

* Shirley made steamed grouper, crustacean and roasted habanero-tomato sauce, and dragonfruit and corn salad, along with shrimp salt sprinkled over the top. She chose grouper because she wanted a fatty fish that could stay moist over the direct heat. Tower says “that girl can cook,” and that it says “I know what I was doing at the beginning and then I did it.” Tom praises her for editing.

* Shirley wins, with Graham saying it was “the most composed of the three.” (It certainly looked the prettiest.) Hers was the only dish that didn’t get any criticism from the eight people at the table.

* What happened next seemed a little contrived to me. Sheldon totally blew the fish, unfortunately, and the hot salsa and the crab sauce blew out the diners’ palettes. Brooke’s dish was a little mild or “timid,” and Tom said it was overly complicated with too much going on. How the judges could present this as a very close decision is beyond me; the criticisms of Brooke’s dish may have been entirely valid but they’re hardly equivalent to the criticisms of Sheldon’s. If you botch your protein, you go home.

* And Sheldon is indeed eliminated. I’m sad to see him go, because he’s talented and funny and has definitely become a different person since the last time we saw him (in a good way), but this was the only decision that would have made sense given what else we were told about everyone’s dishes. That leaves Brooke and Shirley in the finals, and I’ll say Brooke is the 3:2 favorite.

* Unrelated to this episode, but while looking into Jeremiah Tower, I saw he co-authored a short book called Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother, which came out in October. The title makes it seem dated and fussy, but the descriptions afterwards actually seem kind of modern and relevant. Have any of you read it? I’m hardly the lost son of Judith Martin when it comes to table etiquette, but I’m intrigued by this.

Top Chef, S14E12.

So the show opens with the three chefs who advanced last week at Estadio Chivas in Guadalajara, Mexico, a huge soccer arena and host of the team Chivas. I’m told soccer is kind of a big deal down there.

* The guest judge for the quickfire is Francisco Ruano at Alcalde, who has a glorious beard.

* Returning from LCK is … Brooke. Thank goodness. Tesar “Here she is. Good luck to all of us.” I’m sure the producers enjoy the irony of the chef who lost to the only LCK contestant to win the whole thing going to LCK herself and coming back to the main group from it.

* Quickfire: Make a dish featuring goat (chivas means goats in Spanish). There’s sort of a dictum to make it Guadalajaran, but I don’t think that was enforced here.

* Sheldon points out goat can have a gamey flavor, but says it’s about getting a good cut of meat – which I would interpret as meaning you’d better know your source or your butcher. He’s cooking the cheeks because they’re tender and should cook quickly, using the pressure cooker because they have just 45 minutes.

* Shirley says she usually does a two-day preparation when cooking goat. Is goat at all a traditional Chinese protein? I only associated it with Caribbean and African cuisines, but I guess it’s a lot more common than I knew. (I’m still not sure if I’ve ever had it; if so it’s been a very long time, at a Jamaican restaurant that no longer exists.) She’s hand-rolling noodles by using a tortilla press because she doesn’t have a rolling pin. This is another one of those “are they deliberately not giving the chefs certain basic tools?” deals.

* Tesar is making a torta ahogada (literally a “drowned sandwich”), which is very cliché. For a guy who talks a big game off camera, Tesar brings zero creativity this episode.

* Brooke making goat ribs, but is concerned they don’t have enough meat on them. I’m at a loss here. Are they like lamb ribs, where there’s part of the bone that has nothing but cartilage?

* The food: Shirley made braised goat breast with handmade noodles, huitlacoche (a fungus, known as “corn smut,” that is a Mexican delicacy), and radish … Brooke made her ribs with chamomile, guajillo, pasilla, and some tropical fruit … Tesar’s tortas ahogadas have crispy braised goat and are drowned in fire-roasted tomato sauce and arbol chile sauce … Sheldon made braised cheek with ancho chile, charred salsa, and avocado.

* Brooke’s is great, in a surprising way, according to chef Ruano, because of the combination of fruit and goat. He also liked Sheldon’s, good contrast of stew with fresh salsa. He liked the idea of Shirley’s dish, but says it needed more contrast. Tesar’s needed salt, and Tom says there was too much bread relative to meat. I’ve had tortas ahogadas a couple of times, and they’ve always been sort of pressed – not quite as much as a banh mi, but flattened slightly, and the bread is never as thick as the baguette Tesar used. It’s usually telera bread, I think, which is spongier and thus can be smushed more easily.

* Brooke wins! She gets $10K plus an advantage in the elimination round. As Ad-Rock once said, “Welcome back, Kotter.”

* Elimination: They’re in Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila, and the only place (mostly) where a distillery can call its product “tequila.” Patron is the ‘client’ for the next challenge, by which they mean Patron is getting about 40 minutes of free advertising, as the chefs will cater a party for 100 people who work at their distillery. The chefs must each make a dish and a “perfect” margarita. The dish must incorporate sour, sweet, salty, and bitter notes, like the drink, although I’m not sure I’d describe a margarita as “bitter.” They’ll get help from the last four chefs eliminated as soups chefs.

* Just a quick aside: Isn’t a “perfect” margarita the classic version? Tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau or triple sec (both orange liqueurs), period. Skip the mango or guava or pineapple or whatever. I didn’t order a fucking smoothie.

* Brooke picks first and chooses Casey, and then gets to assign the sous chefs to the other three. Sheldon gets Emily, Shirley gets Sylva, so Tesar gets Katsuji, of course.

* Brooke doesn’t like the quality of the tuna at the supermarket, so she’s subbing with … coconut, an interesting switch from a protein to a fatty fruit. I do wish we’d seen more of what she didn’t like about the tuna, though.

* Is it just me or are we getting more cooking coverage this episode than any other all season? If every episode was like this, I’d be much happier even with the lackluster collection of chefs that started this year.

* Shirley’s cucumber and honeydew version of the margarita is just what I dislike. Those ingredients just mask the flavor of the tequila.

* Brooke charring onions, then throwing them in avocado oil. It turns out this is for a vinaigrette in her dish, but either she didn’t say that or I missed it.

* Sylva grabbed vanilla instead of agave nectar at the market. This seems significant, although Shirley seems happy with the result of vanilla in her beef marinade. Based on past Top Chef history, this is a terrible idea. Vanilla in a savory dish is nearly always a negative.

* Katsuji asks Tesar to do a shot “to your last episode on Top Chef.” Hm.

* Sheldon’s concerned that his octopus is overcooked, but then says it’s tender. I’m confused because I thought overlooking octopus made it tougher (the proteins tighten up in the absence of fat to ‘protect’ them).

* Shirley says this challenge is “her redemption time.” Don’t they all feel that way, though?

* Brooke does an “ay ay ay ay” to the mariachi music and Katsuji deadpans “that’s racist,” which might be the funniest thing he’s ever said on this show.

* The guest judge is Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish. Blais is here too.

* The dishes … Sheldon made octopus kinilaw, and a guava-coconut margarita with lime salt. The garnish sank in his drink, but it shouldn’t even be in there – don’t you strain a drink with huge components like that? Also, never put coconut in a cocktail, dude. It’s like a linebacker that just obliterates all other flavors in its path. Blais and Garcia love how the octopus is cooked, but say the cocktail is “out of balance.” Tom thinks the kinilaw is on the sweet side but the cocktail’s tartness balances it out.

* Shirley made charred beef with salsa molcajete and a watermelon and jicama salad, plus the aforementioned cucumber and honeydew margarita. Padma loves the spicy salsa, but, shocker, Tom says vanilla in the beef is not working at all. Padma says it’s like the dish has “invisible whipped cream.” Tom isn’t crazy about the cocktail because it’s thick and unstrained. It sounds like … a smoothie.

* Tesar made caldo verde con pollo with some sort of gelee on top (sorry, I couldn’t hear what it was). His cocktail is a classic margarita with Patron silver, Citronge (Patron’s orange liqueur), and lime juice. His broth and herbs are overcooked. Tom says the cocktail’s high alcohol content washes out the soup. Padma doesn’t think there’s anything special about it beyond the salt on the rim. This actually sounds like the kind of cocktail I like, although he didn’t create anything here.

* Brooke made chilled avocado soup with watermelon and cucumber plus a vinaigrette of citrus and burnt onion avocado oil, plus chile arbol in the salt. Her drink is a spicy watermelon and hibiscus margarita, with a touch of lime liqueur in the cokctail but no added sugar. Padma and Tom love the soup, other than that Brooke didn’t cut the coconut into smaller chunks; the lack of protein isn’t a problem. The cocktail masks the tequila a little for Tom but he thinks it works great with the soup.

* Tesar is sweating more bullets than Dave Mustaine.

* Judges’ Table: Blais asks Brooke if a cold soup is playing it safe. Tom gives him side-eye. (I thought the opposite when she served it, because I figured they’d hold her to a higher standard with a cold dish.) Padma thought it was beautiful, that it hit all the right notes, and she loved the margarita. Ray says Tesar did a good job with the cocktail, but the dish didn’t push the envelope enough. Blais thinks the cherimoya saved the day. Tom says the cocktail wasn’t creative at all, and the booze washed out the soup. Tom says Sheldon’s was beautiful, but ate “sweet.” The cocktail was sloppy with good flavors – like a “guava salad with tequila.” Blais says Shirley’s salsa was lights-out fantastic. Padma asks why she used vanilla in beef marinade. She explains the mistake Sylva made and said she liked the result. Tom “had a real hard time” with the vanilla, and a harder time with the cocktail, saying she needed to infuse the tequila. I can’t get past the vanilla part. It’s like lavender – it’s so dominant in any preparation that it kills savory dishes and really only works in high-fat desserts that mute its floral notes.

* The winner is … Brooke! She wins a limited edition crystal bottle of Patron, worth $7500, a rare blend of some of the oldest tequilas. She promptly takes a “$1500” slug. Anything that old is worth trying, and I’m not even a huge tequila guy (rum is my spirit of choice, as many of you know).

* Tesar is eliminated. The pairing seems to have been the killer. I’m so ready for him to be gone, and I think we at least have three of the top four chefs (Sylva being the fourth) from the start remaining. (I’ll take an argument for Silvia, but she just wasn’t around enough for us to know.) Next stop is a Secrets resort on the Yucatan, which has its own regional cuisine.

Top Chef, S14E11.

If you’re looking for this week’s Klawchat transcript, click that link.

Down to the final four, with no rookies remaining, and the final episode in Charleston before the series heads to Mexico for the final rounds.

* Quickfire: Guest judge Michael Solomonov of Zahav here in Philly. I’ve still not been to Zahav, although I’ve been to their hummus bar Dizengoff a couple of times (it’s incredible). With a name like Solomonov, does he just split all his dishes down the middle?

* It’s that stupid partition challenge where they have to give instructions to someone they can’t see. It was on Top Chef Masters once and was painful to watch then. The winner gets $10K and a Joule sous-vide machine, which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt reviewed favorably on Serious Eats last year.

* It’s John’s wife, Sheldon’s wife, Brooke’s sister, and Shirley’s husband. This is ridiculous – there’s no way three of them didn’t recognize their spouses’ voices.

* OK, Sheldon figured it out. The face he made when he realized it was priceless. “Knowing the skillset of my wife, I’m going to keep this one super simple.” If I said that to my wife, I would not have a wife any more.

* Brooke’s got her sister poaching eggs, which is not easy at all – they can stick to the bottom, they get very stringy and wispy if you don’t strain the extra liquid from the white, etc.

* Sheldon’s a former WDW cast member! I’ve asked him on Twitter what his job was.

* Tesar doesn’t have a guess who he was working with. He’s surprised when he sees who it is, saying his wife is shy and didn’t want to be on TV. Their dishes are pretty similar.

* Shirley seems legitimately surprised too. “I’m glad I didn’t recognize your voice, otherwise I would be flustered.” Her husband Jimmy’s dish is slightly better seasoned.

* Brooke sees it’s her sister and asks, “how did I not recognize her voice?” Theirs look pretty similar and taste very similar. Padma seems to pick on Jessica’s poached egg, but I think it looks good for a novice; I’ve probably poached eggs a dozen times or so and I’ve read a bunch of tips (Ruhlman’s in Egg is probably the best recipe) and mine still don’t come out perfect.

* Sheldon and his wife also got their dishes to look very similar, right down to the knifework. He wins the challenge and is closing the gap between him and Brooke to be the favorite to win.

* Elimination challenge: Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Top Chef Masters is there. The chefs must prepare dishes that represent their journeys in Charleston, and the winner will get to serve it at the James Beard House there. Padma is cooking dinner at the house for the four chefs and their family members.

* Sheldon’s going to make noodles from rice flour by grinding his own Carolina gold rice rather than buying rice flour – but the rice noodles aren’t forming. He ends up adding more rice flour and some tapioca starch, which is a strong thickening agent and often found in gluten-free recipes and wheat-flour alternatives.

* Brooke is braising her pork shoulder in cola in a pressure cooker. Braising liquid tends to reduce a lot over the course of cooking, so anything in the cola, like the sugar or the various acids, will end up concentrated in the resulting dish.

* Tesar’s making a fairly simple seafood dish with clam broth, coating his fish in what he’s calling a “soo-frito,” but which looks to me like a made-up mirepoix of onions, garlic, and bell peppers. He says he’s leaving the peppers unpeeled because he doesn’t want the peppers to turn too soft in the pan. Really, this is a saute of aromatics, which is fine, just not what he’s calling it.

* The diners are Ken Oringer, Renee Erickson, Sean Brock, Milliken, and Solomonov. That’s some serious heavy hitters at one table. I’ve been to a couple of Oringer’s places, both of Brock’s Husk spots, Milliken’s Border Grill, and Solomonov’s Dizengoff. They’re all pretty fantastic.

* The food: Tesar serves “soffrito”-topped scallops with braised leek “sea broth.” He says he kept it simple, with very few ingredients, and wanted to get the sense of the ocean into the dish. The broth has clam broth, butter, lemon juice, and green Tabasco. Brock says it captured the ocean. Tom doesn’t like that John didn’t peel the peppers, which produced a real bitter note in the dish. (I’m not sure what the process is here, though – do you scorch the peppers to get the skin off?)

* Shirley made oil-poached grouper with meat-and-bone herbal tea consomme, collards, and cracklings. She says she combined her heritage with Charleston cooking. Tom says it “should be a signature dish.” Brock says “I’d really like for you to open a Chinese soul food restaurant in Charleston.” Chinese soul food sounds like something I would greatly enjoy.

* Brooke isn’t in love with her dish; she wanted to make it beautiful and it’s not, saying she wished she’d had more time to “fine-tune.” She serves braised pork shoulder and tenderloin on smoked island sweets, with braised radishes and egg yolk. MSM loves the radishes and greens. Gail loves the texture. The egg yolk nods back to a challenge earlier in the season. But Brock doesn’t like the texture of the sous-vide tenderloin and everyone seems to agree the cola’s sugars became too concentrated and overpowered other notes in the dish. I really don’t like cooking with sodas for this main reason – to me, it’s like cooking with full-sodium boxed chicken or vegetable broth. You’ve taken away my ability to control a central taste (salt) in a way that I can’t dial down unless I dilute everything.

* Sheldon made Carolina rice chow fun with pork belly, okra, annatto seed, and turkey neck broth. Brock says it’s “insanely good. … you should be proud that Tom ate the okra.” Later says “I’m going to steal that technique” of making noodles from the Carolina gold rice.

* It’s clear that nobody failed this time around; Brock says he was “pretty blown away” by the whole meal.

* The top two were Shirley and Sheldon, so they’re through to the finals. Sheldon wins – of course he does, he made fresh pasta!

* It sounds like Tesar’s was really good except for the pepper skins. Padma asks if he “worried it would be too simple.” Brooke’s dish was comforting, with “homey” flavors, but the sous-vide may not have been necessary given how small pork tenderloin is, and the dish was a little too sweet. I find pork tenderloin kind of boring; it is very easy to cook, as long as you don’t overcook it, but it’s really lean, doesn’t have the flavor of shoulder or belly, and the texture is kind of bleh. For me, that cut is entirely about what’s around it on the plate.

* Brooke is eliminated. The season-long favorite goes down.

* Tom reminds her that “I will see you in LCK,” to which Brooke says “yeah, shut up.”

* Of the remaining chefs, I’d rank them Sheldon, Shirley, Tesar. One of Brooke or Casey will rejoin the group in Mexico; I’d probably still slot Brooke in at 1 if she wins Last Chance Kitchen, and Casey behind Shirley if she wins.

Top Chef, S14E10.

I skipped last week’s recap and didn’t even see the episode until Wednesday night in my hotel room in Bristol. I don’t think there’s anything I have to say about it; the worst remaining chef went home, one of the top two remaining chefs won the quickfire and the other won the elimination challenge. And we didn’t see enough cooking. This week’s gives us a little more to discuss, at least.

By the way, the entire prospect rankings package finished up yesterday with the sleeper prospects for each team, from which you can link to all of the other content.

* Brooke is terrified of vomit. She’s also a parent. Those two things do not go together, as I was reminded again about a week ago.

* They’re all going shrimping. No word if they’ll be pimpin’ or B-boy limpin’.

* The shrimp they catch are just enormous. The chefs are eating them raw, which I think is gross (I’ve had raw shrimp, just once). This is after the episode was filmed, but the Carolina coast has had an unusually long shrimp season this year thanks to the warm waters (perhaps due to climate change).

* Quickfire: make a dish with shrimp. Oh, and it’s a sudden-death QF. My favorite kind.

* Sylva has to open a can with his $400 knife. Do they really have no can openers available?

* Shirley thinks she’s stoned from the motion sickness pills. I feel like we missed some good comedy from this.

* Sheldon wants shrimp with roe still in it, as if I weren’t already sufficiently weirded out.

* Several of the chefs used “sea beans,” which is the plant I knew as glasswort. They’re delicious – salty and crunchy and bright green.

* The dishes … Casey made red curry shrimp with coconut broth, tomato, grilled pineapple, and sea beans … Sylva made togarashi- and orange-marinated shrimp in light coconut broth with dill, orange juice, and mango … Shirley made garlic shrimp with charred sea bean and jalapeño .. Brooke served shrimp and clarified butter with pickled sea beans in a tomato seed vinaigrette … Sheldon made poached shrimp in tomato water with yuzu, radish, and sea beans; he also grilled the shrimp quickly with pine on the hibachi … Tesar made ceviche with lightly poached shrimp, with fennel, peppers, jalapeño, lime juice, and olive oil. Apparently it’s very spicy.

* The winning dish was Sheldon’s. The three worst were from Casey, Shirley, and Sylva, meaning they compete in the sudden death round. (So Tesar and Brooke are safe.) Casey’s was a tiny bit salty. Shirley’s could have used more finesse; the plate was messy and her shrimp was rubbery. Sylva’s was really salty.

* Sudden death QF: make a dish using the bycatch from the shrimp trip. There’s shark, squid, skate, and ling (similar to cod); Tom later clarified on Twitter that the shark was actually dogfish, which is sometimes called mudshark.

* Casey was definitely having the most trouble during the cooking process, if that meant anything. Shirley served grilled baby squid with roasted fennel, mirin, ginger, garlic, and chili broth. It was very “flavor-forward,” so now I guess we’re talking like Project Runway. Casey made charred squid with mushroom-soy broth, fennel, and radish. Tom called it an “umami-bomb.” Sylva made seared and butter-poached redfish with tarragon butter, tomato, red cabbage, fish sauce, and champagne vinegar. Tom says it was the most subtle of the three dishes. Casey’s eliminated; Shirley and Brooke are in tears. I kind of get it, because it’s a crappy way to get eliminated, but at this point in the series anyone can get bounced. Five chefs remain.

* Elimination challenge: Guest judge Dominique Ansel, the super-imaginative French chef who created the cronut. I don’t own his cookbook but I’ve seen it, and yes, the cronut recipe is in there. The chefs must make a brunch dish that mashes up breakfast and lunch. Tom mentions one of his restaurants serving a “foie-grasffle,” foie gras served in a waffle. I would probably just prefer the waffle by itself, thanks.

* Brooke won previously with a brunch dish, but of course she can’t make it again.

* There’s no prep time – two hours from start to service. That got a bit underplayed during the episode, because nearly every elimination challenge involves some prep on day one and then final cooking on day two.

* Shirley says she’s been making potstickers since she was four or five. She’s making her wrappers from scratch, which is no small task. But if she’s doing cheeseburger filling in a dumpling, where’s the breakfast element?

* Sheldon is shown unpacking premade frozen waffles, which is what got Kwame sent home last season, although it turns out that he’s got another idea for them.

* What the hell is Padma wearing on her head? Most of these women look ridiculous in those stupid hats but hers was particularly bizarre. (My daughter liked Gail’s, though.)

* The dishes … Shirley made beef and cheddar dumplings with bacon-tomato jam. The meat inside is a little dry, but Dominique likes the cheese inside the dumpling. (I can only assume that, when he said cheese in a dumpling was unusual, he was referring to Chinese or Japanese dumplings.) Gail likes the crispy bits from the bottom of the pan. She’s like the voice of the regular person here, who just wants the stuff to taste good.

* Sylva has to call an audible in the kitchen because … well, I’m not quite sure how he ended up where he did. He was going to make a frittata, which is cooked on the stove and finished in the oven, but I think he just ran out of time. His dish ends up as arctic char with a “fritatta” with morels, beet sabayon, and pancetta. It’s really a scrambled egg now. Dominique loves the fish preparation, but wishes it was more creative. Tom says it screams that he was struggling.

* Brooke’s plating isn’t working; she was going to make cups of yogurt that would hold her hibiscus-strawberry broth (like a soup), but cups she’s piping aren’t tight enough and she has to just pour the broth around the plate.

* She says her dish is a “play on a parfait.” She serves matcha and chia yogurt with hibiscus and strawberry broth and peanut butter crumble. Dominique can’t taste the matcha and says it’s not creative enough. Tom says liquid nitrogen “could have been your friend with this one.” Even if it was perfectly executed, though, I don’t think this would have hit the creativity or flavor marks they wanted.

* Tesar made an octopus hash with kimchi scramble, chorizo, and hollandaise. Tom misses the crispiness he expects in a hash, as does Dominique. It also doesn’t look very clean on the plate.

* Sheldon made Korean fried chicken with a compound butter of seaweed & oyster sauce and waffle crumble. He fried the chicken twice and then pressed it in the waffle iron. Dominique seems to love it, but wishes there was “a little bit more of the waffle.”

* Judges’ table: Sheldon and Shirley had the only dishes that worked. Gail said that Sheldon’s had the most flavor. But Shirley won. No one mentioned that her dish had nothing I’d call “breakfast,” other than that dim sum itself is a breakfast (or brunch?) style in Chinese cuisine.

* Tesar’s octopus and egg were cooked well, but the hash didn’t really work; he says he didn’t have time to conceptualize it. Brooke says she’s “embarrassed” that she wasn’t whimsical enough; the hibiscus ended up overpowering the matcha, and the presentation looked sloppy. Sylva says he couldn’t execute the frittata, although I still don’t understand why. The scrambled eggs he did serve were completely overcooked – you could see that on TV, where they looked like the separate piles of egg curds you get out of a hotel pan at a buffet.

* Padma didn’t get Brooke’s dish as a mashup. Tom thinks Sylva overcooking two elements is the bigger sin. Gail agrees with Padma. Tesar cooked everything well enough to be safe.

* Sylva is eliminated. I get it, given the dish, but man, would I have preferred to see him stay and Tesar go at this point.

* So we’re left with four veterans after all. Brooke may have just lost her biggest competitor; she’s still the favorite, followed by Sheldon and Shirley, then Tesar fourth. I haven’t kept up with LCK this year, but I saw Sylva didn’t make it out of the most recent round, so he’s officially done.

* This ep continued the season-long trend of not showing us enough of the actual cooking, although this time around, we did get more explanations of the finished dishes and there was legitimate drama in the kitchen to cover (as opposed to, say, Tesar and Katsuji bickering like schoolchildren). And unfortunately it looks like the next episode starts with that quickfire where the chefs give instructions to someone (a family member or friend) they can’t see, which is all gimmick and little cooking.

Top Chef, S14E08.

Just another quick reminder that my farm system rankings are now up for Insiders; you can see the top ten here and from there see the other two-thirds of the list. The top 100 starts tomorrow with prospects 100-81.

What does it say that when I see an episode of Top Chef is an hour and 15 minutes, I’m disappointed?

* Was last week’s elimination all really that dramatic? Jamie’s dish sucked. And it wasn’t good the week before. He’d never won an elimination challenge. There wasn’t much evidence at all that he belonged in the upper half of chefs on the show. Yes, he did a noble thing, but it’s not like a front-runner walked away.

* It’s Restaurant Wars. The guest judges are the guys who run front and back of the house at Eleven Madison Park in NYC’s Flatiron District. They charge $295/person for their tasting menu, which is more than I have ever spent on any meal. They have a cookbook out, but I haven’t seen it.

* “Immunity is off the table. Just as well with people throwing it away.” Padma getting a little snarky with the intro here.

* They’re splitting the two teams into different days, working in the same space, which I suppose evens out the playing field a little bit on the stuff I care about least (décor, ambience, etc.).

* Katsuji and Shirley pull the ‘leader’ knives and get to draft their two teams. Katsuji picks Sheldon, and Shirley picks Brooke. Katsuji takes Casey, and Shirley takes Sylva. I think Katsuji absolutely botched this – Shirley ended up with maybe the two best chefs remaining, certainly the odds-on favorite in Brooke. Katsuji takes Tesar, which leaves Shirley with Emily. Katsuji says he doesn’t care for Tesar’s personality, but “he’s 100 times better than Emily (as a cook), that’s for sure.” I agree … but ouch. Shirley’s team will cook on the first night, and Katsuji’s on the second. Given the end result, there’s a lot of irony in this entire sequence.

* Tesar tells the team, “I like a woman in the front of the house, I’m not being sexist.” Yes, you are being sexist. That’s definitely sexist. Casey takes the role, though, because she’s comfortable with it (and probably has the best personality on the team, too). Tesar somehow talks his way into being exec chef, and then talks the team into doing a “low country” menu even though I don’t think that is any of their strengths. They’re calling it Southern Belle, which Katsuji says is the most famous strip club in South Carolina. (I guess he’s right – it is at least a famous strip club, according to my Internet.)

* Shirley’s team is going seafood-driven, which seems like something they can execute better than the other team can execute low country.

* Sylva’s would-be restaurant Maison 208 was burned down by an arsonist in September 2015. If I’m reading the court stuff correctly, the suspect, Stephen Pettiway, goes to trial on Monday.

* Now my least favorite part of Restaurant Wars – the décor stuff. I’m here for the food. I rarely if ever remember what a restaurant looked or ‘felt’ like. I remember the food.

* Emily wants to do chorizo in a squid-ink pasta dish, but Shirley and Sylva more or less command her not to do it. She’s also doing miso butterscotch and a buttermilk cake.

* I wonder if Top Chef talks to Whole Foods before each season starts and has them order huge quantities of things like fish, shellfish, pork, etc.

* Brooke says Shirley is “a little bossy but in a good way” and has the “loudest voice in the room.” You do need to be a little bossy here, though. You don’t have a lot of time and you have too much to do – much of which involves coordinating on shared dishes, or in the case of the front-of-house person, trusting the completion of your dish to someone else.

* Tesar seemed to want jumbo lump crab at the stores, but strikes out at two places, and now is using pasteurized crab meat even though he says it has an inferior texture. That feels like foreshadowing.

* Casey is making a strawberry dish – she says they’re really good this season, so what time of year is this? Their season here is June, and further south it’d be the spring. Also, she’s slicing the tops straight off; I usually use a paring knife to hull them so I don’t lose any of the red ‘meat’ of the berry near the top. I don’t think my way is really slower.

* Katsuji says at his first job he was illegal so his boss paid him less than minimum wage. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’m going to let it pass me by.

* I hate when people call it panna coat-a. It’s cotta. Like cot, the thing you sleep on. Think about having a lotta cotta. Also, it’s not that good. Italian cuisine has so many better desserts.

* Ah yes, Kristen was eliminated in Brooke’s season of Restaurant Wars, one of the absolute worst things i’ve ever seen on this show because it felt so utterly orchestrated.

* Just once I want the front of house person to greet Padma with, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a reservation under that name.”

* Latitude (Shirley’s team) goes first. The 11MP front of house guy doesn’t love the benches. Who. Cares.

* Brooke made cured king salmon with pickled kohlrabi, marcona almonds, and “tiger” milk (come on, no one asked if she milked a tiger?). Emily’s first dish was squid ink tagliatelle with bread crumbs and shrimp butter. They love Brooke’s. Emily’s pasta isn’t great; the texture is off, her butter sauce is heavy, and there’s not a lot of shrimp flavor in it.

* Shirley made a snapper with bone broth, chile de arbol, and wild mushrooms. Sylva’s dish is pan-roasted halibut with fennel dust, tomato chutney, and mushroom rice. Tom says it would have been better if Shirley had seared and then braised the snapper. Sylva’s gets raves.

* It can’t be a coincidence that the two most attractive women on this show – maybe the two most attractive contestants in Top Chef’s history? – are in the front of house. I get that actual restaurants do this, probably because it’s effective (and sexist, but I doubt most businesses care about that), but was that actually both teams’ intent here?

* Emily’s dessert was a poppy seed buttermilk cake with miso butterscotch, pistachios, and blackberries. Shirley made a plum wine panna cotta with cherries, cashews, tarragon, and freeze-dried lychees. Emily’s was pretty good all across. Shirley’s panna cotta is terrible. It sounds like she used too much gelatin, which would make it overly firm. Customers are making terrible faces as they eat it.

* Meanwhile, the other team’s kitchen is turning into a disaster across the board, with chefs dropping food on the floor. Tesar’s already bickering with Katsuji, the start of a long run here of Tesar causing problems on his team and blaming everyone else for them.

* The judges love all the crap I don’t care about, like décor, menus, etc. Shut up and eat.

* Tesar boasts that he conceived an “amazing organizational system of tickets and expediting,” but “there are servers who just can’t get anything right.” Then he should have trained them. He seems to not know what’s happening on the tickets, really. It’s all the servers’ fault in his mind, and he’s talking down to them too. Meanwhile, judges have to wait a while before first course.

* Tesar’s first dish is this weird pimento crab dip with a sesame seed cracker, while Katsuji’s first (of three!) is a sweet potato tamale with charred chili onion relish. They only sent 3 of each dish to the table, and the plates are small. The judges hate Tesar’s and dislike Katsuji’s.

* If you hear the host(ess) say “sorry about the wait” you pretty much know which team is losing.

* Anyone else catch Padma say “Easy on the tongue” to whoever was serving her that dish?

* Katsuji’s fried green tomato and almond gravy over beef tongue was apparently very good. Sheldon’s acorn squash stew with sorghum cod and eggplant had no acidity, no texture, and weird flowers sprinkled on top.

* Casey is trying to put out the virtual fires backstage and thus not seating people. In most seasons, I think that would put her on the chopping block, right?

* Katsuji’s blackberry cobbler with Patron whipped cream is a mess – the dough isn’t cooked, and why is there tequila in the whipped cream? Casey’s one dish is a strawberry-lemon sorbet, buttermilk curd, crumbled meringue, and roasted strawberries. Padma really loves it, Tom likes it, so maybe Casey’s safe. Tom says the whole meal read not-southern to him.

* Judges’ Table: Red team (Shirley) wins, obviously. The judges are praising pretty much all of the dishes, even the ones they didn’t really like, although they seem to skip over Emily’s pasta and Padma gets in one dig at the panna cotta. The individual winner is Brooke, who had the best dish of anyone on either team, and ran the front of house well.

* And then we get the disaster team, which devolves as quickly as any losing team situation I can remember. Tom says they couldn’t recover when the system broke down, but the food was a problem too. Tom mocks the crab dip, saying he saw the recipe “back in 1970” and that it tasted like tinned fish. When asked why he only did one dish, Sheldon blames the “tension and anarchy” in the kitchen. Tesar lawyers up with a narrow admission, saying “I take responsibility for those missteps in the expediting.” They ask Katsuji why he chose not to lead. Those two knuckleheads are flat-out arguing with each other in front of the judges and Padma has to tell them “all right!” to make it stop. I think Tesar is more full of it than Katsuji here – and Katsuji actually delivered one good dish, while Tesar brought the worst dish on other team.

* In the stew room, Tesar just unloads on Katsuji for all sorts of unrelated stuff. That’s bush league.

* Padma argues to exempt Casey and everyone agrees. She says the crab dish was the worst item on either team. Katsuji did one great dish and one poor one. He ends up eliminated, essentially penalized for choosing not to take the lead role. He’s actually quite gracious to Tesar after he’s eliminated. I really think Tesar deserved it – he led poorly, and he made the worst dish of anybody.

* On the whole, though, this was a pretty good episode – more focus on the food than usual, no gimmicks, and the usual one great team and one fiasco. We saw too much of the losing team’s kitchen conflict, and I would have liked to have seen more about how the winning team’s fish dishes were made.

* Rankings: Brooke, Sylva, Sheldon, Shirley, Casey, Tesar, Emily.

Top Chef, S14E07.

Just when you thought Top Chef Some-Stars couldn’t go any farther off the rails, we get this week’s episode, which ranged from the ridiculous to the inane. But it was the top trending topic on Twitter when I went to bed last night, so there’s that!

* The stew room scene from after last week’s elimination shows Katsuji being uncharacteristically gracious, saying of Amanda, “I don’t think she realized how good she was.” Whether he’s always been like this and we’re seeing more of it, or he’s just mellowing out, I don’t know, but we’ll see it again later this episode.

* Quickfire: The guest judge is Michael Cimarusti, chef/owner of Providence restaurant in LA, who is actually hiding a whole family of squirrels in his beard. This is a horoscope challengem and a few chefs admit to reading their horoscopes. They’re morons. Astrology is absolute bullshit. Throw it in the same dumpster as homeopathy, vaccine denial, and creationism. It’s just utter fucking nonsense. Why the fuck is anyone on this show talking about astrology like it’s real? What’s next, a phrenology challenge? The chefs can only use water they find with divining rods?

* The chefs are asked to take “inspiration” from their zodiac signs and use ingredients and tools grouped beneath that element (earth, fire, water, air) on the table. This idea of working to your personality’s strengths and weaknesses is fine, but the date of your birth has nothing to do with that. Oh, and it’s a sudden-death quickfire, based on complete twaddle.

* Whatever Emily’s element is, her section has a pressure cooker and an iSi canister, and she says she doesn’t know how to use them. How do you get to this point without knowing how to use either? An iSi canister isn’t even complicated, and it’s the fastest way to whip cream or create certain foams. And we’ve already been over the pressure cooker thing. This isn’t like asking someone to use an immersion circulator for the first time.

* Ugh. Let’s just get to the food: Neck-Tat made a lamb chop with fire roasted pepper salad and lemon yogurt … Sylva made fire-roasted poblano couscous, lamb, cherry smoke, and sage butter … Tesar made a snapper and branzino tartare with coconut milk and chili; it looks delicious but the only thing more cliched on Top Chef than raw fish is truffles … Brooke made an oyster with cucumber pepper broth, roasted poblanos, and ancho chili salsa … Emily made a pan-roasted chicken with spaetzle and herb salad … Katsuji made a charred onion with cauliflower puree plus roasted habanero and shishito peppers … Shirley made a crispy fried cauliflower with brown butter and soy … Sheldon made a kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) with shrimp, coconut milk, orange and lime juice, and radish … Jim made a charred bison with watermelon dashi and charred chiles … Casey made a deboned chicken wing stuffed with ‘nduja sausage (a spicy cured sausage from Calabri) and “pickled egg cream” sauce with the flavors of a deviled egg.

* The most original dish was Katsuji’s. Sheldon’s was “very thoughtful,” and keeping the coconut on ice made the seafood taste so much fresher. Neck-Tat’s had a good balance of heat from the spice and cool from the yogurt. The winner is Neck-Tat again, his second straight Quickfire win and second elimination challenge with immunity.

* Bottom three: Jim’s dish didn’t represent his element, fire. Sylva’s was underseasoned and the chiles didn’t come through. Emily’s risk in making spaetzle worked out, but the wing’s skin was neither crispy nor well-seasoned.

* Sudden-death QF: They’re making a dish based on the “earth” ingredients (which none of them had) and they all have to agree on the same dish to make. Sylva and Emily insist on a steak tartare over Jim’s suggestion of steak and potatoes. Jim says he’s incredibly familiar with the dish but rarely serves it at the Governor’s Mansion.

* Emily using is the mandolin with no glove or guard. Having sent myself to urgent care once by doing the same … you know, investing in some $10 cut-resistant gloves is a great idea.

* Sylva is making beet juice to brighten the color in the beef. He’s cooking it “tataki-style,” so the exterior is seared for ten seconds, but the interior should still be raw.

* Jim paired his tartare with arugula with egg yolk purees, EVOO, lemon, and chive, thickening the egg yolks with agar agar … Sylva’s tataki had beet juice, raw mushrooms, and brussels sprouts, and didn’t look like any kind of beef dish … Emily’s had fish sauce, egg yolk, rice wine vinegar, radish and beet salad, and potato and beet chips; Padma thinks the chips are seasoned “forcefully.”

* Jim is eliminated, with the judges saying it was too “simplistic” and perhaps not inventive enough. That’s brutal; he’d outperformed Emily by leaps and bounds so far during the season, and I thought he (like Silvia) had a real shot to get to the final group.

* So there’s some blah blah Blackbeard story going on, around the elimination challenge, but Casey then retells it in a much more interesting way in the confessional. If nothing else she’s a pretty entertaining personality.

* They’re split into three teams of three. One is Tesar, Emily, and Neck-Tat who has immunity, so you can probably guess right now they’ll be the team on the bottom.

* Neck Tat is a recovering heroin addict. This might have been an interesting little side story, but instead we need to watch the chefs run around downtown Charleston in a tropical storm. (Really? They couldn’t have postponed the challenge by a day?)

* They’re getting directions from some doofus in a bad pirate costume. Brooke says, “I feel like I’m at my eight-year-old’s birthday party.” OK, now imagine being in an audience watching someone else’s eight-year-old’s birthday party. Also, Brooke feels as I do about raisins (they’re just dead grapes, so throw them in the trash).

* Katsuji may complain a bit, but when he says the place is “heuricane (sic) infested” I’m with him 100%. I would want no part of running around a deserted town in those conditions.

* How about Tesar throwing Philip from last season under the bus – out of nowhere – for “just making stuff up” while he was on the show? I was no Philip fan, in any way, but that was totally out of left field.

* Sylva is prepping his eggs sous vide, at 145 F. I need to try this; Serious Eats has a guide to sous-vide egg cookery.

* I’m skipping the boring part, where the chefs were on a scavenger hunt for ingredients, because I kind of tuned out until they were back in the kitchen. Or, to be more accurate, I completely tuned out and made myself some popcorn.

* Neck-Tat is grilling chicken satay and says “someone turned the grill off” … how does this happen? Are people just running around turning appliances off at random? Now he’s cooking it in a toaster oven, which will go horribly.

* If this is a pirate-themed party, someone should have worn a puffy shirt.

* The food: Sylva made an asparagus soup with a 63 C degree egg and a tarragon and macadamia nut pesto .. Sheldon made a filet mignon with a charred pinapple nuoc cham and candied macadamias … Shirley made mussels with roasted red peppers, farro, and bacon. Tom likes Sylva’s but seems lukewarm on it. Padma likes Sheldon’s dish, while Tom says it was a little too sweet. Shirley’s they love.

* Casey made a salt-brined scallop with preserved lemon puree, toasted Brazil nuts, and radishes … Brooke serves fried cauliflower with lemon aioli and a mustard seed/raisin/Brazil nut relish … Katsuji made a very thick caluflower soup with spicy sausage and some other stuff. Katsuji’s dish is too thick to be called soup, but the judges all agree it’s delicious. Brooke’s is way too acidic. Casey’s scallop had a weird texture; Tom says they clearly weren’t fresh and she should have cooked them.

* Emily made a lobster and fennel chowder with crisp chicken skin, makrut lime leaves, and orange zest. (She uses the common name for the fruit, kaffir lime, but kaffir is a racial slur and I really wish Top Chef would just stop using it, even if it means asking chefs to restate something.) … Tesar made lobster with truffle butter and gnocchi made from canned peas … Neck-Tat made chicken satay with pickled fennel and orange salad. Emily’s flavors were so muddy and the dish so rich and heavy that Padma calls it “mud chowder.” Tesar’s is fine. Neck-Tat’s satay is terrible; I think Tom called it “new-age cafeteria” food. Graham says it’s the combination of predictable and bad that really sinks it – but Neck-Tat had immunity.

* Judges’ table: Yellow team on top. Shirley’s didn’t look like much, but it overdelivered. Sheldon’s was boosted by the charred pineapple introducing a smoky element. Sylva’s soup may have been a little too hearty? Shirley wins.

* They bring the other two teams up to air them out, although the team with Emily, Tesar, and Neck-Tat is actually the losing team. Brooke concedes she overdid the acidity because she wanted to mute the raisins. Casey’s dish looked better than it tasted and the judges all agree the scallops were fishy. Casey insists they were fine to cook – I assume it’s rather insulting to be accused of serving fish that wasn’t fresh. Michael says scallops aren’t considered fresh “unless you can still see them moving.” That’s a little more freshness than I can stand.

* As the judges tear up the red team’s dishes, Emily ambushes Tesar, saying Tesar wanted to throw crappy ingredients at Neck-Tat because of the latter’s immunity, and then blaming Tesar for having her waste so much time breaking down lobster. Although I have no particular love for Tesar or how he treats people, this is a bit much – Emily’s dish was bad and she can’t just blame the team for that.

* Jamie – I’ll call him that, since things are getting serious now – offers up his immunity to be judged with his team. I don’t think that’s ever happened before, and I think Tom was taken aback by it. It’s a boss move and Katsuji offers his respect.

* Tom and Michael think Jamie’s satay was the worst dish; Padma and Graham think Emily’s chowder was. If the immunity stands, Emily’s clearly going home, and who could argue given her season to date?

* Padma asks Jamie once again if he’s willing to cede his immunity, and he is, so he’s eliminated. He lost because he showed some integrity, saying, “Gotta live with yourself at the end of the day.” Emily’s in tears, and makes a halfhearted statement about not wanting him to be eliminated, but that’s how it ends.

* Two more rookies were eliminated this week, so only two remain, Sylva and Emily, and she should have been gone weeks ago. With Restaurant Wars next week, she could easily sneak through again if someone goes home for being team lead or front of house.

* Rankings: Brooke, Sheldon, Sylva, Shirley, Katsuji, Tesar, Casey, Emily. There’s a lot of mediocrity in four through seven – not that they’re bad chefs, but none of those four is doing anything so exciting that I feel strongly about wanting them to get to the finals or semis. The first three have at least shown flashes of upside.

Top Chef, S14E06.

Welcome back to this season of Top Chef Some-Stars! Let’s see if any of the rookies can survive another challenge.

* Quickfire: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is there, talking about getting people to eat more healthful foods. The challenge is to make a more healthful version of fatty, carb-heavy comfort foods – chicken pot pie, meatloaf, beef stroganoff, and more. All dishes must be made vegetarian, which is good, and chefs can only grab tools and ingredients one at a time, which is stupid, and yet another way the show consistently discriminates against chefs who are older or heavier or just less athletic.

* Sheldon has no clue what tuna casserole is, which is to his credit, I think. (I’ve never eaten it, and couldn’t tell you how to make it.) Also, he’s coming off an injury in the previous episode, so running back and forth seems like a great idea!

* Neck-Tat is making his dish “almost vegan,” with crumbled tofu as the protein. He says his son has been vegetarian since age 3, but I’d love to know why – did his son ask where meat comes from and then ask to stop eating it?

* Jim is using eggplant for its meatiness in his vegetarian version of chicken-fried steak, and that’s why I don’t love eggplant – it does have a meaty texture, but not the good kind. Unless it’s really handled well, like salting it ahead of time to draw out moisture, eggplant slices develop a texture like wet meat.

* Tesar says he’s never seen seitan before. Is that possible? He’s correct that vegetarian protein substitutes often aren’t very flavorful; you have to infuse them with flavor through marinades, seasoning, cooking methods, and so on. He calls them all “tofu derivatives,” but seitan is actually wheat gluten.

* The food: Amanda made a vegetable stroganoff with charred eggplant, tomato, and yogurt … Katsuji made spaghetti (zucchini noodles) and zucchini meatballs, cut with a melon baller, so he really made a big plate of zucchini … Brooke made vegetarian lasagna with grilled zucchini, bechamel, and tomato sauce, using tofu in the base to add creaminess … Tesar made a veggie burger with mushrooms, curry powder, and cranberries … Sylva made seitan and masa dumplings (a riff on chicken and dumplings) … Casey made a vegetable pot pie with silken tofu and crumbled farro crust … Neck-Tat made a crumbled tofu sloppy joe with bell peppers, onion, and tomato paste, along with a side salad … Jim made his baked eggplant steak with a pistachio, mint, lemon zest, and parsley topping plus a mushroom gravy … Emily made a vegetarian “meatloaf” with almonds and charred tomato.

* Dr. Murthy is kind of a big nerd, right? That’s not an insult, not when I say it at least. He didn’t like Sylva’s (hard to chew), Casey’s (topping was grainy), or Katsuji (noodles were soggy and oversauced – look at the doctor dropping some cooking knowledge). Favorites: Emily’s was tasty and looked right; Neck-Tat’s; and Brooke’s lasagna, which looked great and had a creamy texture. Winner is … Neck-Tat. Thought Brooke should have had this one, based on comments and Dr. Murthy’s emphasis on visual appeal.

* Elimination challenge: Honoring southern chef Edna Lewis, the first African-American celebrity chef and a pioneer in spreading the gospel of southern cooking as a cuisine. Toni Tipton Martin and Alexander Smalls are there, with Smalls, a restaurateur and a Grammy and Tony-Award winning opera singer, serving as guest judge. Padma compares Lewis’ influence to Julia Child’s influence on French cooking in the US. The challenge is to create a dish that pays homage to her legacy, and the chefs will be cooking at the same restaurant kitchen Lewis used to cook in. Her cookbooks made her a celebrity, especially The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976 (when Lewis was 60 years old) and still in print.

* This is the kind of challenge I would love if this entire season hadn’t been only southern cuisine challenges. Now it’s just more of the same kind of food.

* Katsuji is doing fried chicken and watermelon. Sylva implies that’ll be an insult to the table of southern chefs. Lewis’ frying medium for her fried chicken was oil flavored with bacon or ham and then butter. I get that that sounds awful, but it probably made for very crispy skin, and I assume some of this was the old ethic of saving and reusing everything you could. If you cook and eat bacon, save that fat. It’s good for a lot of things, including greasing the pancake griddle and making flour tortillas.

* Sylva’s father blocked him from going to the Culinary Institute of America because he said “no son of mine is going to be a domestic.” Oof. Also now I have that awful Genesis song in my head.

* Jim is making a dish with a consomme and discusses the need to thoroughly clarify it. Michael Ruhlman wrote in The Making of a Chef about how at the CIA the instructor wanted to be able to see the lettering on a dime sitting at the bottom of the pot. That’s a fantastic read, by the way, even if you don’t cook.

* The food: Jim made seared shrimp with a smoked turkey wing and smoked pork consomme, plus spring peas and squash; Hugh (Hugh!) says it was very clean & seasonal, says it’s really working, but Tom says the peas were undercooked … Katsuji made fried chicken with pickled rind watermelon salad, and it turns out everyone likes the use of the watermelon, especially that he pickled the rind to pair with the fried chicken; he seems to have been aware of the stereotype and wanted to make it “go away” … Brooke made a warm salad with braised chicken and bread crumbs, grilled Swiss chard, sunchokes, blackberry vinaigrette, and lemon curd; Hugh says it’s either a dessert that wants to be savory or savory course that wants to be sweet. I’ll say this is a big pet peeve of mine at fine restaurants – I don’t like much if any sugar in savory courses. It’s such an overpowering flavor that it can ruin the complexity and texture of a lot of dishes. And there is a special level of hell for people who put sugar in their tomato sauce.

* OK, back to the food … Emily made deep-fried semolina-crusted chicken livers (she wanted to pan-fry but ran out of time) with corn puree, dandelion green salad, blackberry sauce; Gail says the livers were totally underseasoned and no one seems to approve of the deep-frying … Shirley made chicken and rice, confit chicken wings with collard greens and rice, and a watercress salad; Smalls loves the collard greens and rice, but come on, watercress salad is so 1996 … Tesar made “pan-broiled” chicken thigh (which is what Lewis called frying it in butter until the skin crisped) with roasted sunchokes and watercress; Art Smith says he “channeled” Lewis in that dish … Sylva made a flour- and cornmeal-crusted skillet-fried snapper that looked absolutely gorgeous with garden vegetables and vegetable broth; clearly hit the mark, Art loves how crispy the fish is, so does Biggie Smalls, and did I mention it looked amazing? … Sheldon made pork belly and cabbage with cabbage jus and potato; Tom loves the idea, but I’m not sure he liked the dish … Amanda did a roast duck breast with sweet potatoes, spiced pecans, balsamic onions, dandelion greens; Padma dislikes the chunky nature of the dish, Hugh says duck is chewy, and the dish isn’t southern enough … Casey made chicken and dumplings stuffed with chicken, and ham (maybe tasso?) … Neck-Tat fails to plate one of his dishes, which of course goes to Padma; he made roasted strip steak with sunchokes, spring onions, corn soubise; the meat is a little rare – I saw one of the steaks moo and head for a Chik-Fil-A billboard – while the corn soubise is the best part for Tom.

* Brooke’s dish was “a mess,” per Hugh. Emily’s chicken livers lacked complexity and were overwhelmed by the sweetness. Hugh says Amanda’s “pulled at no heartstrings.” And the components weren’t done so well either. Really, I was happy to get Hugh’s opinions on everything since he wasn’t at Judges’ Table.

* Favorites: Jim, Sylva, and Sheldon. Gail loved Jim’s flavors and the simplicity of the dish. Biggie Smalls praises Sylva’s, says “it’s an Edna Lewis piece,” that Sylva handled the fish brilliantly and paid respect to the vegetables; Gail can’t get over how the breading was thick and still crunchy. Biggie says Sheldon “brought the ancestors with you today.” Smalls is like Morgan Freeman here with that heavy, slow delivery; I would pay to hear him narrate an audiobook. The winner is Sylva. That fish looked stunning – I love fried fish, but it’s so often disappointing, and his looked as good as any fried fish I’ve ever eaten myself. He says afterwards it’s his favorite dish that he’s ever cooked. I can see why.

* Least favorites: Amanda, Emily, and Brooke. Amanda’s dish had no “soul,” the duck was dry and a little boring. Emily’s bad mix of sweet and savory didn’t work; she’s teary in front of the judges, but she’s had a bad run on the show and there’s no sign of progress here. Smalls says to Brooke that with her clash of tastes, he “didn’t get the blackberry, didn’t get the lemon;” Tom thinks she tried to get too modern. Brooke says she got inspired by too many things in the book, and regrets introducing the sauce to the dish. Without that, she’s probably not on the bottom, since no one is questioning her execution of any element.
* Amanda is eliminated, and she knew it as soon as Tom said “we didn’t get that feeling” from the losing dish. That leaves us with six veterans, four rookies. Did Emily survive so we didn’t end up at seven to three?

* Quick rankings: Brooke, Jim, Sylva, Sheldon, Shirley, Tesar, Casey, Katsuji, Neck-Tat, Emily. I truly can’t see any of the last four winning, and even Tesar seems to lack the kind of ingenuity that usually wins (but not last season). This is still Brooke’s to lose, even with the slight stumble this week.

Top Chef, S14E05.

Welp. This season had two chefs I was truly interested in watching, and one went home tonight, in what is rapidly turning into a bad season of Top Chef: All Stars, where every challenge involves cooking something “southern.” If I wasn’t doing these recaps, I’d bail on this season and just come back if Brooke makes the finale (which I can only assume she will).

* Silvia is shown talking to her mother on her birthday, and apparently there’s a “birthday curse” on Top Chef, with at least three chefs going home on their birthdays in prior seasons. Since curses aren’t real, this is just bad TV nonsense.

* Sheldon says he herniated his disc ten years ago while carrying a pan of noodles, leading to surgery, painkillers, and an eventual return to the kitchen – but his back is bothering him again. He never mentions what he took, and the way he’s dancing around it, I wonder if the painkillers became a problem; it’s hard not to think of that after Prince died from painkiller use just a few months ago.

* Quickfire: The chefs walk in to a dark kitchen with no one there, 40 minutes on the clock, and no ingredients or instructions. (I’m not sure if they see the cameras but don’t realize they’re on, or if they can’t see the cameras at all.) The garage door opens to show the ingredients, and the clock starts, but they still have no instructions. Sylva guesses it’s a biscuit challenge. Brooke is the one loud dissenter, saying, “we can’t just decide our own challenge.” Well, it turns out that you can.

* At least three of the twelve chefs have never made biscuits before, which I find a little surprising for two of them. Neck-Tat has a restaurant in Charleston; how do you cook in the American south and not know how to make a biscuit, at least by ratio? Sheldon and Silvia at least come from entirely different cooking cultures, although I think Hawai’i is Americanized enough that biscuits would be familiar to him. For Silvia, though, biscuits are probably pretty foreign, pun slightly intended; the word “biscuit” and its equivalents in Europe refer to cookies, often those cooked twice (biscotti), but never to the sort of rolled, shaped quickbread we call a biscuit. The closest Italian quickbread I could think of was brazadela, a sweet quick bread of the Emilia-Romagna region, but that’s not a biscuit. An American, Southern biscuit is usually just a vehicle for dairy, both what’s baked into it and what’s slathered on or poured over it once made. Biscuits here are closer in concept to pie crusts, with some boost from a chemical leavener and milk or buttermilk instead of water.

* I’m not sure if Shirley has never made them, or is just saying she doesn’t make them now, as she does say she tries to avoid baking whenever possible.

* The ovens are at 450 degrees. I’ve never cooked biscuits – which Silvia calls “bis-queets” – at a temp that high. I think they’d burn before they cooked through.

* Katsuji rambles on about corn and biscuits, and then it’s like a switch flipped, and he turns into Katsuji Nye the Kitchen Science Guy, explaining why the butter in your biscuits (or pie dough, for that matter) needs to be cold.

* Sheldon’s didn’t rise – he was just copying Brooke, so if he didn’t see her add baking powder/soda or didn’t add enough, that would explain flat biscuits – so he cuts them in half, puts something on the bottoms, and then forgets to put the tops on.

* The guest judge is John Currence, chef-owner of Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Missisippi, and now Birmingham; he has a new book out, called Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day, which includes his acclaimed biscuit recipe on page 183.

* The dishes: Sylva made a grated corn biscuit with pan seared scallops, served vol-au-vent style, which Tesar slagged in the confessional but Currence loved … John made a drop biscuit with cheddar and jalapeño with country gravy … Katsuji made biscuits with sweet corn relish and jalapeño honey butter … Silvia made a strange, savory salmon biscuit with avocado and crème fraiche, but Currence likes it, and says “I hope you do everything this well on your first try” … Neck-Tat made a traditional breakfast biscuit with truffle honey and a sunny egg … Shirley made a biscuit with black pepper mascarpone and blackberry compote … Jim did a cream cheese lard and biscuit with a creamed corn sauce and a seared scallop that he cooked on both sides … Brooke made black pepper and poppy seed biscuits with smoked salmon salad … Sheldon did biscuit bottoms with ham, soft-boiled egg, and parsley.

* Worst dishes: Shirley’s biscuits were dense and her mascarpone extremely salty. Sheldon’s were undercooked, and he only served half. Jim’s were overworked and dense, and Padma said his scallop was “hammered,” one would hope on some good rum.

* Best: Brooke’s was “immaculate” and showed off her technical precision. Katsuji’s was fantastic, Currence liked the dish, and said the biscuit couldn’t have been better. Neck-Tat seems to have also executed well on the classic presentation. But Brooke wins, again, and gets immunity. She’s the 2016 Cubs right now.

* Elimination challenge: Rodney Scott of Scott’s whole pit BBQ – not the same as Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott, though. The twelve chefs split up into three teams and each must cook a whole hog plus three sides for 150 guests, including Darius Rucker.

* Sheldon’s going for an MRI, which may or may not be TV drama going on. I think based on the previews that this may be an issue in the next episode, but not this one.

* The chefs go to two Q joints first, before cooking. First is Sweatman’s BBQ northwest of Charleston, a place that’s only open Friday and Saturday, as many good Q places are. (When they’re out of meat, you’re out of luck.) Sweatman’s sauces its hog just once, and they try to finish the hog between 175 and 200 – although I may have misheard that, because at 175 the shoulder is not going to be done. Their mustard sauce uses yellow rather than brown mustard and contains a lot of sugar.

* Scott’s sauce starts with a vinegar-pepper base, both cayenne and black peppers, and “maybe” has some sugar. Sure thing, Rodney.

* Here’s what gets a little underplayed here, other than Jim pointing out that grilling is not BBQ. Real Q takes time, and it is not something you’d expect any experienced chef to have done. This is truly low and slow cooking, eight to twelve to sixteen hours depending on what cut of which animal, from pork shoulder to beef brisket to any ribs to this kind of whole hog cooking. You are working with real wood and real fire, so you’re in maintenance mode the whole time, keeping the temperature relatively constant, ensuring the food is cooking via indirect heat and is absorbing flavor from the smoke, but not getting so hot that it’ll cook too fast and fail to have any connective tissue break down. I’ve never smoked anything bigger than a pork shoulder, and while I love doing it, it ain’t easy and I wouldn’t tell you I’m good at it.

* Silvia wants to make a non-traditional potato salad, without mayo, and I can’t decide if this is a good idea or a terrible one. Was the mandate to make traditional southern Q sides, or just to make sides that would go well with smoked pork? Should her teammates have pushed her on this? Hold that thought.

* Sheldon returns, says he has a herniated disc but got “a shot in his spine” and apparently is feeling little or no pain.

* The chefs are up all night, although Brooke seems more annoyed that Tesar won’t shut up (editing?) than about getting no sleep. Silvia also gets to eat her first s’more, which … eh, they’re overrated. Melting cheap marshmallows and milk chocolate together doesn’t make them any less cheap-tasting. She’s only been in US for four years, now co-owns two places and has now opened a third since the show ended. We’re also seeing a lot of Silvia this episode, in case you missed that foreshadowing.

* Did they ever say what kind of wood they used? I didn’t catch it. I always use hickory if I can, because I like that very pronounced flavor.

* This might be the best cooking tip of the season: Tesar wants to make a roux for mac & cheese, but somehow they didn’t get AP flour, or lost it along the way. No one else bought it, but Katsuji offers to swap him some xanthan gum for Tesar’s peeled garlic – mostly because Katsuji was being kind, I think, not really because he needed it. Xanthan gum is big for gluten-free baking, because it can provide the structure that would otherwise come from gluten. Tesar says it’s emulsifying his sauce, but that’s not right – xanthan gum, which is produced by a bacterium that ferments certain simple sugars, is a thickener and a stabilizer, but not an emulsifier. It is a powerful thickener, however; a little goes a very long way, and it’s resilient at a wide range of temperatures, unlike corn starch.

* Shirley cooks baby piglet at her restaurant. Yeah, I know that’s traditional, and there’s nothing inherently worse about eating piglet (“suckling pig” is the preferred euphemism) than pig, but … ugh.

* The green team (Katsuji, Amanda, Silvia, Sylva) is cooking its pig at 350. No way you BBQ at that temp. That’s roasting, and it’s going to end up toughening the exterior if not blowing the whole animal out.

* Sylva adds hoisin and ketchup to make his BBQ sauce; Amanda says it’s delicious, just not a SC sauce, neither mustard nor vinegar-based.

* Silvia says in Italy, potato salad uses a salsa verde, which is like an Italian chimichurri with parsley, garlic, vinegar and lemon. Tom seems OK with this in concept.

* Something’s off with Katsuji’s beans, with a sour, funky smell Tom and Rodney dislike. This is revealed later, but Tom thinks Katsuji took a gland from the pig head when going for the jowl meat, perhaps a scent gland, which would wreck the dish’s aroma and flavor. (Jowl meat itself is fine – if you’ve ever had “head cheese,” you’ve had it.)

* Emily’s beans aren’t quite cooked. She claims that adding salt and vinegar makes them “seize up” and take longer to cook. This is bullshit. Salt your cooking water and the beans should cook a little faster if anything, because (see that link) the sodium in the salt will replace calcium and magnesium in the beans’ skins and allow greater penetration of the hot water into the beans.

* Let’s go already. The yellow team made smoked mac & Cheese (John), braised pinto beans with pork (Emily), sauerkraut-style pineapple slaw (Brooke), and whole hog topped with chile citrus vinegar sauce (Sheldon). The beans aren’t as done as they should be. The pork is delicious and seems to hit all the marks for temperature, texture, and spice. The judges also seem to like the mac & cheese. Tom wipes out his plate.

* Red team: Head and trotter hash, braised cabbage and apples, fresh pickle, and whole hog with pepper citrus vinegar based sauce. Rucker loves the hash, which seemed to be Jim’s main dish; this team also had Neck-Tat, Shirley, and Casey. Their sauce seems less “interesting.” The cabbage and the hash were Rodney’s favorites. Tom seems satisfied with the pork, however, and we all know this is Tom’s show.

* Green team: Whole hog with a hoisin-vinegar sauce and apricot glaze; kale and pickled apricot slaw; potato salad with salsa verde and red onion agrodolce; and Katsuji’s beans. There’s something off in Katsuji’s beans; Gail notices it too. Tom mutters that Silvia’s potato salad is “terrible.” Padma says don’t call it potato salad, since that means people will expect mayo, but if it was delicious they wouldn’t care what she called it. Amanda’s slaw has no flavor. The pork is mushy. Rodney says potato salad in the south has to have mayo; Gail says it was slimy. It really sounds like this team went 0-for-4 while the other two teams combined went 7-for-8 on their dishes, with Emily’s beans the lone exception.

* Yellow team wins, so Brooke comes out on top again, although she doesn’t get the individual win, which goes to Tesar for the xanthan gum mac & cheese. It’s his first elimination solo win ever on the show; he does say to the judges it was a team effort when thanking them, but I think it’s completely fair for him to take credit for this one (except maybe for thanking Katsuji for the assist), since he had to make up a new recipe on the fly.

* Green team is on bottom, of course. Rodney thinks the jowls hurt Katsuji’s beans, although I assume he means the glands; the beans’ sauce was “murky” and had – wait for it – too many ingredients. Everyone went for “sweet acidity.” Tom says the hoisin didn’t work at all, making the sauce as thick as something from a bottle at the supermarket. Silvia deviated from the tradition, but again, it seems like a failure of execution more than concept, as Gail said the texture of sauce between the potatoes and vegetables was off, the vegetables were undercooked, and the dish didn’t look appetizing (it had a greyish cast on TV). Amanda somehow escapes special criticism here despite making a slaw that the judges agreed had no taste.

* Silvia is eliminated. This is hugely disappointing given some of what she did earlier, even in the quickfire here, and we lose yet another rookie from the show. What’s particularly disappointing about this season even beyond the rookie/veteran format is that the challenges so far have almost all involved regional cooking from just one region, and you can be a great chef without being versed in the cuisine of the American South. The new chefs are all at a disadvantage, while Shirley and Sheldon at the least appear to be at a disadvantage because they learned cooking traditions outside of the continental U.S. – and Sylva seems to have done the same, with a Haitian background and culinary training in Paris. Are we looking for the best chef, or the best Southern chef?

* So this elimination leaves us with seven veterans against four rookies, two of whom haven’t shown any reason why we would want to see more of them. Silvia may very well have had the worst dish – I wasn’t there, so I can’t really argue this – but I’d rather see more of her than more of Katsuji, whose beans were apparently borderline inedible, or Emily, who’s been repeatedly on the bottom and was saved this week by her teammates’ food.

* I think Brooke is the overwhelming favorite at this point: She executes, she’s imaginative, and her only dud of the season so far came in a team challenge with one of the worst contestants as her partner. After her, I’d go Jim, Sheldon (if healthy, as if he’s another pitching prospect), Shirley, Sylva, Casey, Tesar, Katsuji, Amanda, Neck-Tat, Emily.

* LCK: I skipped the last two episodes of LCK for the same basic apathy I’m feeling about the main show. But Tom is far more entertaining here than on the main show – he seems to have far more fun on LCK. It turns out Sam won the last two challenges here, so it’s him versus Silvia. The two chefs must cook with seven of the available “lucky” ingredients. Silvia ends up winning with a branzino dish against Sam’s chicken-fried pork chops; I thought the pork looked overdone, given the color and Tom appearing to have some trouble cutting it, but he only dinged Sam for the bitterness of the browned kale, while his only criticism of Silvia’s was that her onions weren’t cooked enough.

* One unrelated LCK observation: Silvia tried to make an aioli in her Vitamix, but said it wasn’t working. Does anyone on this show test the equipment? Or if something malfunctions, do they not just have a spare machine or alternative (like a stick blender) lying around? Sometimes I wonder if these mishaps are deliberate attempts to make the chefs think on their feet, but if that’s the case, I’m not sure I understand the point of the show any more.

Top Chef, S14E04.

I did not recap episode 3, since I didn’t even watch it until five days after it aired. I’m just jumping ahead to episode 4 and should be on schedule with every episode at least until spring travel begins.

So we start with some comments from Tesar on how Katsuji “gets a hall pass for being an asshole.” And that’s why 1) he’s back on the show and 2) I’m not happy to see him on the show. What Katsuji seems to think of as gamesmanship is borderline harassment. It’s not good TV and it has nothing to do with food.

* Quickfire: The new EIC of Food & Wine, Nilou Motamed, is here as the guest judge. Each chef has a box in front of him/her, and must use everything in the box – the gag is that it’s “not quite everything you wanted for Christmas.” The boxes contain cooking tools as well as ingredients: pressure cooker, tequila, pomegranate, wasabi, melon baller, chocolate pretzels, squab, and so on. We’re ripping off Chopped here, right?

* Jim says melon ballers are “from a pantry in the 1950s” but I use mine constantly to take out the seeds of apples. Cut the apple (or pear) in half, then use the baller to carve out the half-sphere with the seeds and tougher flesh from each half of the fruit. I don’t use them for melons, though.

* Shirley’s using white chocolate in place of butter. I’m not sure how that’ll work – white chocolate is fat plus a lot of sugar, while butter is fat, milk solids, and water.

* Emily has never used a pressure cooker, which I find hard to fathom. Tesar points out that they use them on this show all the time, so basically don’t come on this show without learning. Also, how do you not own a pressure cooker when you’re a chef? You don’t cook at home, ever? This isn’t some sort of novelty device. I just used mine two nights ago. They’re fantastic.

* Jim’s stand mixer bowl is smoking … it would have been nice to know why. I’m just sayin’.

* Shirley burns her squab in a tequila fire – although that can’t be what actually happened. Tequila is usually 80 proof, and that’ll burn if vaporized (like, say, heating it in a hot pan), and of course if it’s bringing any sort of lipids with it those will burn too. But 80-proof tequila shouldn’t just burn on its own, and even if it did the fire would be cool enough to slip your hand through it (not that I recommend doing so). I once created about a three-foot high flame by adding rum to a pan that was much hotter than I realized, and it didn’t ignite anything else – not even the wood cabinets the flame touched – or leave any scorch marks anywhere. So I guess I’m really wondering what was in that fire to char the exterior of the bird.

* We only see a few of the dishes here, I guess for time’s sake, not that we’d want to see more food on a show about food. Katsuji made braised squab in tequila and soy with pretzels, pomegranate, and wasabi in his salsa … Tesar made a pan-seared squab with mole and an avocado and pomegranate salad; he calls avocado “light and refreshing” which it’s not, with about 75% of the caloric content of an avocado coming from fat … Brooke made a pan-roasted squab with a clove, tequila, and pomegranate stock, and some melon-balled squash … Emily made a pan-roasted squab with a soubise, and Padma delivers the deadly compliment, “well, the squab is cooked nicely” … BJ made a pretzel-encrusted squab with wasabi cauliflower puree, tequila, and pomegranate; Nilou asks if that was the texture he wanted from the deep-fried squab, so we know what that means .. Jim made a roasted squab with beets, fennel broth, and a smoked pretzel and tequila whipped cream (that’s what was in the stand mixer, I suppose) … Casey made a smoked chili, tequila, and squab soup, then compressed pineapple with several of the other ingredients from the box … Shirley made a roasted squab with wasabi rapini and flambe tequila. She didn’t use the melon baller because she didn’t have hers – Sheldon appears to have taken it at some point. Then Padma makes a bizarre comment about hoping it’s not a sudden death quickfire. If Sheldon took her melon baller, shouldn’t he be eliminated (hypothetically) rather than Shirley? And the fuck is Padma talking about here anyway?

* Bottom three: Shirley, really because she charred her squab “to within an inch of its life” … Emily’s soubise was gummy, and now they’re saying she was not “kind to that protein” … BJ’s squab was very tough. Top three: Brooke, Casey, and Tesar. The winner is Casey, again, so she gets immunity.

* Anyone else see a little bit of Kristen Bell in Casey?

* The guest judge this week is Mike Lata of Fig, a very highly-rated restaurant in Charleston that made Eater’s list of the 38 most essential restaurants in the country for 2016. Also, he used to be Emily’s bossn and fired her once.

* The elimination challenge is based on the Italian feast of the seven fishes. I never had this growing up, even though I’m ¾ Italian, and I’ve never had it as an adult because my wife is allergic to shellfish. The twist on this episode is that the chefs are going to use “trash fish,” incidental catches that are often discarded because “consumers aren’t familiar with them,” which makes them good for chefs interested in sustainability. Jim seems comfortable with the concept, though, having won the Great Ameircan Seafood Cookoff in 2011.

* Casey gets first pick of the fish and chooses amberjack, which I’ve never thought of as a trash fish; if you’ve had the kind of sushi or sashimi called “kampachi” or “kanpachi,” you’ve had amberjack. The remaining chefs are combined randonly into teams of two. Tesar gets Katsuji, the only person Katsuji didn’t want to work with, although later they’re bickering like buddies in the confessional. Shirley’s paired with Sheldon, but they’re getting along fine in Whole Foods. BJ’s paired with Silvia, Silva with Neck-Tat, and Jim with Amanda.

* The other fish available are tunny, blackbelly rosefish, gray tilefish, triggerfish (which Lata was the first chef in Charleston to serve), mullet, and barrelfish.

* Tesar wants to use canned tomatoes; Katsuji wants to use fresh heirloom tomatoes. Each is acting like the other is insane. But doesn’t this depends on the time of year? If tomatoes are in season, you’ll never beat fresh. If they’re not, then they’re not going to have much taste, if any.

* Shirley wants to use mullet shank, the tail end of the fish, which has fewer bones (?).

* Emily is deferring to Brooke on everything, so Brooke ends up the de facto head chef on their team with Emily playing the role of a line cook. That could go either way – Brooke’s probably the best competitor on the show this year, one of the best they’ve ever had, and Emily appears increasingly to be a train wreck as a contestant.

* Silvia is making pane carasau, a traditional yeast-raised flatbread, similar to pane guttiau (which you might have seen at Trader Joes). Both are Sardinian, with the former using yeast and the latter not. To Americans, they’re more like crackers – I’d compare pane guttiau to what matzoh would be like if you made it with something like puff pastry dough, so it shatters rather than breaks.

* Tesar and Katsuji are now each making a sauce with the tomatoes, and then each ends up plating some of the dishes with his own sauce. This should have been a disaster.

* Sheldon & Shirley made a Sichuan peppercorn (a Chinese spice that isn’t a true pepper) braised mullet with tofu, celery, and buttered radish. Tom seems to have gotten a small bone, but says he loves the dish, especially the use of the Sichuan pepper. Blais likes the combination of tofu and fish together because their textures are similar. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had mullet, although it seems like the most familiar name among the trash fish after amberjack (I’d never heard of triggerfish or barrelfish before this show).

* Hugh is back! Judges’ table is always better with his dark Canadian humour.

* Silva and Neck-tat had Tunny. I’ve heard the term before, because it can refer to a couple of fish, but I’m assuming this one is little tunny, a fish in the tuna tribe (Thunnini) but in a separate genus from the fish we eat as tuna. That Wikipedia article mentions anecdotal reports of ciguatera poisoning from eating tunny, so I’ll pass on this one, thanks.

* Lata says he’d go calabrian with tunny, making a spicy preparation because the fish itself has such a pronounced fish flavor. The team made a ras el hanout-dusted tunny, seared so it’s nearly raw in the center, with melted leeks, parsnip puree, wild mushroom ragout, and xo jus. Graham Elliott says is “looks like a $30 tuna steak dish.” Hugh deadpans that “we were all guessing that you’d fail miserably.” One thing no judge mentioned was the taste of the center of the fish. If tunny is oily and has a strong fish flavor, and the chefs didn’t address that throughout the fish, what happened when the judges got to the middle of those “steaks?”

* Brooke and Emily made roasted blackbelly rosefish with fiddleheads, marble potatoes, leeks, corn, coconut, and tamarind sauce. Lata says it’s a tough fish to work with and needed more than just the sear? All the judges seem to agree that the dish was totally confused, with a bunch of different ideas all on one plate. Brooke won’t throw Emily under the bus, however, even though Emily contributed nothing to the concept of the plate. Tom says “leek sauce all day, all this other stuff get rid of it,” which I suppose would be great if this were a leek challenge.

* BJ and Silvia made a barrel fish brodo with leeks, kale, cauliflower, and pane carasau. They poached fish, but as it dried outside of the poaching liquid, it seized up and became tough; Tom suggests they could have flaed it back into the broth, although if the broth was still hot enough to be safe, wouldn’t it have continued to cook? The broth was apparently excellent, but there wasn’t enough of it, and Silvia’s pane carasau is probably the most-praised aspect of the dish.

* Tesar and Katsuji made trigger fish with chili sauce, fennel puree, bottarga, and breadcrumbs. Tom says the sauce is terrific and the fish was cooked beautifully. Hugh says they bridged a monumental gap to put aside their egos, which also says to me that it’s no accident that these two chefs were asked to return this season.

* Jim and Amanda made a gray tilefish with tomato and fennel broth, and some apparently very undercooked beans. Tom asks, “Who cooked the beans?” and Amanda responds, “I did. Why?” She looks like she just ran a marathon.

* Casey’s amberjack dish is a catastrophe, but we never really saw anything about why? She barely cooked it at all, and her rice porridge is gummy and tasteless. So what was she doing during her allotted time in the kitchen? She thinks she’d be sent home if she didn’t have immunity, so what the hell happened?

* Tom: “There’s a reason why these fish don’t usually end up on a table – they’re very difficult to work with.” For some of these fish, that’s almost certainly true – tunny being oily and fishy is going to be a deterrent no matter what chefs or fishermen do, but gray tilefish is supposed to be lean and mild-tasting, and amberjack is lean and firm like mahi-mahi or swordfish. Some of the problem is just education: consumers only look for a few common types of fish, like salmon, because they’re familiar with those and know how to prepare them.

* The top three are Sheldon and Shirley, Jamie (Neck-Tat) and Silva, and John and Katsuji. Katsuji’s sauce was amazing. S&S’s dish ate like something they’d cooked before. The mullet had a lot of bones, but they made the best of it. Every component of Jamie and Silva’s dish was done very well and it showcased the fish. John and Katsuji win, and Katsuji wins the individual honor for the sauce. He even tears up, I don’t think he expected that. I’m sure he’ll handle the victory in a quiet, professional manner.

* Padma says Casey “really needed” that immunity. The other three teams are on the bottom, by default. Jim and Amanda’s dish died for a few reasons, but Mike says in his kitchen one of his commandments is never serve undercooked beans. The inclusion of mussels also took the dish away from the star ingredient. Brooke and Emily’s dish just had way too much going on, and it obscured the fish. Silvia and BJ’s fish tasted like overcooked chicken. BJ made the broth, Silvia did the bread, but the fish was both.

* While the chefs go back to the stew room to wait, Katsuji starts going after Emily for failing to tell everyone more about Mike Lata’s preferences. What a dick move.

* Mike says the barrel fish (Silvia/BJ) was overcooked, while Tom says BJ overreduced the sauce. Brooke and Emily put too much on the plate, but it seems like the judges are giving them a pass because the two were “too nice to each other.” Jim and Amanda’s fish got lost in “all that stuff.” Tom says that could be the worst dish because of the beans, which Amanda cooked. At this point I assumed she was gone, given the emphasis on the beans, and also, how do you serve undercooked beans on Top Chef and survive?

* Yet BJ is eliminated. He could have gone home last week, or the prior week with the pork that he cooked poorly, a move that tanked his team because it took so much of the team’s budget. That’s three rookies out and one veteran who was just barely eliminated in four episodes. I thought Amanda had ‘earned’ the elimination, given what we heard from the judges, but it’s hard to weep for BJ with him on the bottom so many times already. But we’re now at seven veterans to five rookies, and two more of the rookies (Neck-Tat and Emily) seem perpetually close to elimination.

* I guess it’s time to rank ’em … Brooke is the clear #1 in this group, and of the rookies I think only Silvia has shown the potential to catch her. I’d go Brooke, Silvia, Shirley, Sheldon at the top. Bottom three: Emily, Amanda, and Neck-Tat.

* I’ll catch up on LCK later this week. In the meantime, have a safe and Merry Christmas.

Top Chef, S14E02.

Oh, we’re still at the slave place. Cool.

* The guest judge is Frank Lee, a low-country cuisine specialist and someone with absolutely no vibe of the celebrity chef, which is kind of refreshing. There’s a low country boil ready for the chefs to eat, so they spread it on a table and dump some on the ground because who the hell cares about wasting food.

* The elimination challenge: The chefs will be split into two teams, rookies versus veterans, and will each eat a family-style meal at a local chef with Charleston roots, and then prepare a dinner the next day using that meal as inspiration. Rookies versus veterans is a bad idea right off the bat – it confers way too much of an advantage on the vets, who also have one more person.

* The rookies eat at the house of Carrie Morey of Carrie’s Hot Little Biscuit, whom I found really condescending to the chefs from the get-go (to say nothing of those bizarre shoes she was wearing that seemed to make it hard for her to walk straight). The veterans eat at the house of BJ Dennis, a personal chef and caterer with Gullah heritage.

* I haven’t read it, but Morey has a cookbook out called Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions that has great reviews on amazon, especially for the buttermilk biscuit recipe. Obligatory self-promotion: here’s my annual list of recommended cookbooks, from beginner level to home expert.

* Dennis serves a meal with a shrimp salad with mayo and mustard, collard greens with coconut milk and peanut butter (whoa), an eggplant stew, and a red rice gumbo that he says New Orleans people would hate “but this is OG gumbo.”

* Morey says biscuits were made with every meal, but her mother doubled the fat because when you’re going to eat a biscuit, eat a damn biscuit. The dough she’s using looks extremely wet compared to any biscuit dough I’ve ever made or seen. She serves pork chops breaded with parmesan, egg wash, and crackers, which I don’t get at all, not least because either she’s wasting some good, expensive cheese, or she’s using garbage. There’s also some sort of collards, hoppin’ john, squash casserole, a “permanent” slaw, and tomato pie, which is covered like a pot pie. She mentions a cobbler, which is kind of biscuits on hot fruit anyway, but I didn’t see what kind.

* Here’s a shocker: the rookie team is a hot mess. There’s no leader, no discussion of dishes, no coordination of shopping lists. Usually the trips to Whole Foods on this show are pretty boring, but it was cringeworthy watching the rookies get to the front of the store and realize they’d spent way more than their budget while buying far too much of some basics like eggs or butter. Have they never watched the show before?

* After the shopping trip, BJ suggests that they might “take one on the chin” for not doing it, which is great timing. They’re trying to pressure Jim, who has immunity, to do the biscuit as his dish, but he stands his ground. I wonder if they also thought the nerdy guy would be a pushover.

* Brooke is making biscuits for the veteran team, but there are no racks in the ovens in this kitchen. How is that possible? Did they remove them and hide them somewhere? She has to sit the pans on the oven bottom, and you can guess how well that’s going to work out.

* I adore Silvia’s accent, like when she says they are in “Char-less-ton.” It reminds me of my cousin in Genova telling me in 1999 while we were visiting them that the “Sant’Antonio Spurs” had won the NBA championship.

* The rookies are a disaster, as you might have expected. Annie is trying to make a tomato tart in two hours, but can’t find room to work or time to rest the dough sufficiently. BJ cooks his entire pork loin whole and it’s 30 degrees below where it needs to be, so he cuts it into chops and sears them off to finish. Neck-Tat burns some of his vegetables for the second week in a row. I know it’s the format and some artificial constraints, but boy have these two episodes made the rookies look like kitchen noobs.

* Rookie dishes: Padma notices right away that there are no biscuits. Carrie says, “I guess I didn’t inspire biscuits,” which I thought was a bit snotty, while Padma says “it is a glaring omission” from a southern dinner. Jim made grits with charred asparagus, ham hock, spring onions, and hen of the woods mushrooms … Silvia made hoppin john with farro, crispy skin, refried beans, carrot puree, but Tom said the farro was overseasoned and Chef Dennis just didn’t like the upscale version … Emily made pickled shrimp and dressed cucumbers, which the judges loved, but did she actually cook anything here? … BJ made cornmeal-crusted pork with peameal bacon and pickled peaches, but the pork is inconsistently cooked, with Gail’s portion way below rare … Annie’s tomato tart with smoked tomato vinaigrette is a disaster, as expected, with the crust basically raw … Sylva made a cornish hen with dark meat rice, adzuki beans, and a Haitian-style “permanent slaw” that’s more of a chow-chow … Jamie’s summer squash casserole with raw and roasted vegetable salad on top is also a mess, as the custard itself seems to have broken. Chef Morey spoke to the local paper in Charleston about why skipping biscuits was such a mistake.

* Veteran dishes: The plates look better right off the bat, like maybe these chefs have been here before. Shirley made a pork belly and oyster stew with sweet potato, potato, and pork crackling … Tesar made Carolina rice with caramelized okra, green onion, and jumbo lump crab gravy; Tom, who hates okra, sort of liked it, although I think this is hackneyed Tesar work, throwing a fancy or expensive ingredient on at the end to boost an ordinary dish … Brooke made sweet corn biscuits with salted benne butter and dulce de leche, and, shocker, they were inconsistently cooked, some overdone on bottom, some underdone in the center … Amanda made a whole fish ceviche with old Bay, cayenne, sorghum, and lemon pepper … Casey made collards with turnips, coconut, peanut, crispy chicken skin, bread crumb, trout roe … Sheldon made eggplant stew with tomatoes, fish sauce, okra, and bitter greens … Katsuji made a shrimp stew with hot (spicy) pineapple sauce … Sam made a vinegar and tea-brined fried chicken with pickled yellow beets and hot sauce, which gets good reviews all around. Dennis approves of this meal way more than Morey did of the rookies’.

* Judges’ table: Veterans had the better meal, obviously. Tom says it was the best family-style meal he’s ever had on the show, and given how it looked I’m not that surprised – it just looked professional in a way most meals on this show don’t. The top three dishes were Casey’s collards, John’s okra, and Sheldon’s eggplant. Every single person around the table loved the greens. Tom almost grudgingly admits he liked Tesar’s okra dish. Frank says his chefs tell him (did I hear that right?) that “Your job is to make the food taste like what it is,” which has that ring of folksy wisdom that ultimately falls apart when you’re thinking about, say, a basic broiler-fryer that is all about how you cook and flavor it. Anyway, the winner is Casey and the collards.

* Their least favorite dishes were BJ’s pork loin, Annie’s tomato pie, and Jamie’s squash casserole. Jamie’s looked good, but when you cut into it, the custard broke apart because the squash released too much liquid. It just seems like Neck-Tat struggles with some fundamental execution, at least in the time constraints of the show. BJ’s pork was a mess – badly cooked and cut to varying thicknesses, which I assume is because he was rushing. Annie says her dough took longer than planned, so the crust was undercooked, and I agree with Tom that the crust should be the star of any pie, sweet or savory.

* I thought Sam commiserating a little with the rookies could have been an interesting scene, but instead we got just one sentence of it.

* The judges’ decision seems to come down to poor technique by BJ and Neck-Tat versus poor decision-making by Annie, trying to do a tart in a timespan that couldn’t accommodate it. I really thought Jamie deserved to go home more based on their commentary and this idea of execution versus concept, but Annie gets the boot, which is doubly brutal given that she didn’t want to do that dish in the first place (although she could have chosen a different twist on the tomato-pie concept). That’s two rookies out in two weeks.

* Last Chance Kitchen: Gerald versus Annie, with their cooking time determined by the ingredients they choose in a two-minute “shopping” spreed in the pantry. The catch is they have use everything they pick up. Gerald gets 33 minutes, while Annie gets 25. I’m going to fast-forward here to the end, because Annie failed to use one ingredient and was automatically disqualified, giving Gerald the win. I’m going to go on a limb and say I don’t think he’s going to go very far either.

* Very early rankings: I think Brooke is clearly the best of the veterans and probably the best chef here overall. Shirley’s my sleeper pick among the vets. Among the rookies, I think Silvia’s going to go very far given her pasta-making skills, and Jim is two for two so far, but none of the others has done anything to separate him/herself from the pack, and a couple have looked overmatched. Those would be my top four right now, with Brooke the current favorite – unsurprising since she nearly won her original season.