Stick to baseball, 10/28/17.

No new Insider content this week, as I was writing up the top 50 free agents package. That and a look at the offseason trade market will run the week of November 6th. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

I spoke with Arizona’s KJZZ about my book Smart Baseball and the rise of Big Data in the sport. You can find links to buy the book here.

I also run a free email newsletter with personal essays and links to everything I’ve written since the previous newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, thank you, and yes, I’m overdue to send another one out.

And now, the links, with boardgame stuff at the end as usual…

Stick to baseball, 6/10/17.

I’ve been busy this week, with a top 100 draft prospects “Big Board” up for Insiders, and a free article profiling top draft prospect Hunter Greene, who gave me some really thoughtful answers on the topics of preparation, being a two-way player, and baseball’s declining African-American audience. I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

I’ll have a new mock draft up tomorrow (Sunday) and my editors and I will update that file until the draft begins Monday evening. I’m also planning to do a chat Monday afternoon as the draft gets closer.

In non-baseball content, BBC America asked me to to rank the main clones on the show Orphan Black, which returns for its fifth and final season tonight on the cable channel. The first four seasons are all available on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend it.

Over at Paste, I reviewed the cooperative puzzle game Unlock!, which is actually a series of modules that mimic the escape-room experience by asking players to solve riddles on cards and enter codes into a free app on their phones. The publisher sent me four of the modules; I played three before the review, and they’re all difficult but worth playing. The fourth, The Island of Dr. Goorse, was too abstruse, and that’s not just my opinion but the opinion of all five of us who played, including my father, the (retired) electrical engineer and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 4/30/17.

My book is out! You can find Smart Baseball absolutely everywhere – online, in bookstores, and even in some libraries. HarperCollins has links to various online vendors, but if you prefer to walk into a bookstore like it’s 1947 and buy the book directly, well, I like to do that too. I know thousands of you have already bought it, so my thanks to all of you.

I went to MLB Network on Friday and appeared on MLB Now, the show hosted by my friend and former ESPN colleague Brian Kenny. You can watch our discussion of the book. I talked to SI’s Richard Deitsch about baseball on TV and about not sticking to sports on social media. I also appeared on my good friend Will Leitch’s podcast to talk about the book and mock his hatred of Fletch.

I also discussed the book on over 50 radio shows this week; highlights included a long chat with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate, talking to Connell McShane on the Don Imus show, appearing on the Felske Files podcast, appearing on the Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast (with Karabell! But no bias cat), talking to WBAL’s Brett Hollander, and talking to WABC’s Sid Rosenberg.

I do have some upcoming appearances as well: May 8th at Pitch Talks Philadelphia, May 16th at The Georgia Center for the Book (in Decatur), and May 18th at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. There are further readings/events scheduled in Toronto, Miami, and Brooklyn for June and July.

My other writing from the past week included ranking the top 50 prospects for this year’s draft for ESPN Insiders, a list I’ll eventually expand to 100. It wasn’t easy getting to 50, though. For Paste I ran through the best new boardgames of 2017, including a few titles from the tail end of last year.

OK, finally, let’s get to some links:

Top Chef, S14E14.

This episode was called “Comida Final.” It’s Brooke versus Shirley, no mas.

* I could be reading way too much into facial expressions and body language, but I don’t think these two like each other. Either they’re really just sick of being so close to each other all the time, or they are just not mutual fans. It happens.

* They’re facing the classic Top Chef finale challenge: Prepare a progressive four-course meal. They pick their sous-chefs from the season’s contestants to date, with Shirley choosing Casey (because she thinks Brooke will take her), Brooke taking Sheldon (who would have been my first pick), Shirley taking Katsuji (who deadpans “because I’m Mexican?”), and Brooke taking Sam. I think Brooke won that draft.

* The third sous-chefs turn out to be the two contestants’ chefs de cuisine, which is kind of cool for those guys – they tend to be a little anonymous below their famous bosses.

* Shirley is clearly crafting a story across her four dishes, basing it on food memories with her family. Brooke’s seems less focused on a narrative, but says her theme is “definitely local ingredients.” I don’t think the story matters unless the judges can’t decide who won. Has anyone in a Top Chef finale lost after clearly outcooking his or her opponent?

* They’re shopping at some sort of open-air market – more like a grocery store than last week’s farmers’ market – with 10,000 pesos, about US$500.

* Brooke says “There’s a lot of Shirley yelling … and there has been for months now.” Yeah, I don’t think they like each other. Oh well.

* So it sounds like Brooke forgot to order pork belly. Then it gets really weird: She asks to use Shirley’s, which is awkward enough, but then it turns out Shirley ordered it for a ‘backup’ dish in case she doesn’t like the suckling pigs (piglets) she bought. Doesn’t Shirley have every right to say no? Granted, Brooke has short ribs as her backup plan, but ultimately ordering the correct items is the chef’s responsibility.

* They’re having a pre-finale dinner at Dreams Resort in Tulum. I really want to take a very long vacation down there. They’re surprised by their families at the dinner table – Shirley’s husband, Brooke’s husband and son Hudson (who, by the way, has gotten so much bigger since her last season on the show). I can’t imagine being away from my daughter for the amount of time this show requires – and she’s done this twice!

* I’m always surprised when I see how much ink Brooke has. Not that I think anything of it, but for whatever reason it doesn’t line up for me.

* When they walked in the kitchen, I was reminded again how much stronger I think Team Brooke is.

* Shirley, to her great credit, ends up giving the pork belly to Brooke. Meanwhile, Katsuji is butchering the piglets – and he’s a kosher chef, so he probably never cooks with pork at his restaurant.

* You don’t see whole red snapper very often as a consumer, but those fish Shirley has look amazing – and particularly fresh.

* Shirley’s making broth for her ramen, and I think she’s trying to make a pork broth, which is a long process, probably not something you can simulate in a couple of hours.

* Brooke asks Sheldon how he cooked his octopus “the other day,” in case you were wondering how compressed the filming schedule was. She’s got Sam making three garlic items to go with it – a garlic oil in which they’ll sear the octopus, garlic chips, and a garlic puree.

* Shirley’s also making noodles by hand for the ramen, and is using an old-fashioned hand-crank that won’t stay clamped to the countertop. This is the main reason I own the overpriced KitchenAid pasta-roller attachment. It works.

* Brooke is making chamomile flan, which turns out to be a problem because of some oven issue, but I just want to say that chamomile is gross. It’s related to ragweed (to which I’m very allergic) and tastes like some sort of grass. I like tea-flavored desserts, but, you know, how about Earl Grey?

* Anyway, the flan takes a lot longer to cook than anticipated (she says “it’s like the oven just took a shit”), so there’s a good chance it’s going to end up eggy and a little dense, rather than the silky texture of good flan.

* Shirlye’s mom and sister are there along with her husband. Her sister is adorable. Brooke’s folks are there; her dad has some strong mustache game going.

* First course: Shirley does snapper crudo with chili soy vinegar and crispy shallot. She calls it “Let me take you to Lijiang.” Brooke does a raw, warm oyster with grilled swiss chard and bacon. Daniel Boulud praises the presence of bacon flavor without fat, while Jonathan Waxman loves the amount of liquid in the shell.

* Jonathan Sawyer, who has the most metal hair we’ve ever seen on Top Chef, thinks Shirley’s dish was beautiful, but the elements weren’t balanced – Tom points out that you can’t get all three elements in one bite. Tesar is there too, and says Shirley’s dish was nice but calls Brooke’s “soigné.” I know that’s a compliment, but that word was tired the moment it moved out of the fashion world.

* Second course: Shirley serves top ramen with egg, kimchi, purslane, rendered pork fat. I’m not bothering with her goofy dish names. Brooke serves charred octopus with orange annatto broth, radishes, garlic puree, garlic chips. The octopus is an enormous hit; Padma calls it “finale food,” and Sawyer says he’d put it on any menu, anywhere, and would recommend it to anyone. Boulud praises the two presentations of garlic, and how it still doesn’t dominate the dish. I’m having a hard time imagining that much garlic in a dish without that becoming the predominant note.

* Joachaim Splichal says Shirley’s broth was very flat, and Tom thinks the rise of ramen in the last decade makes it look worse in comparison. Sawyer also doesn’t care for the noodles.

* Third course: Shirley made braised piglet shanks with wild rice, lentils, blanched spinach, and habanero onions. Brooke made braised pork belly and beans with charred onion and purslane, with a reduction of the bean braising liquid over the top. It’s all rich, comfort food. Tom loves the wild rice; Joachim says, “being German, I haven’t had pork like this since I left Germany.” Graham Elliott likes the choice of cut too.

* Brooke’s dish is just as much of a hit. Boulud “cleaned ny plate.” Sawyer praises the proteins and the sauce; Martha Ortiz there thinks the beans were the star and reminded her of Mexican cuisine. That’s high praise.

* If you can read Spanish, Ortiz’s biography on her official site is something to behold. It makes her sound more like she founded a country than two restaurants.

* Fourth course: Brooke’s dessert is an chamomile and aged rum flan with candied cashews. Shirley’s dessert is rice pudding with tropical fruit (I see dragonfruit, mango, and passion fruit), lemon-lime snow, and some sort of brittle. Joachim says it’s one of the best desserts he’s ever had.

* Brooke’s mom won her neighborhood’s second annual flan cookoff, earning her an ovation from the diners. That was cute.

* You can tell right away that the texture of the flan is off from the diners’ reactions, and everyone says the chamomile and rum flavors aren’t there. (You’d have to infuse the chamomile leaves in the dairy for a while.) Meanwhile, they’re all inhaling the rice pudding.

* We see Shirley’s mom asking her daughter how to say “I’m proud of you in English,” shortly before Shirley and Brooke return to the room. Shirley goes to see her mom and asks “haochi ma?” meaning “how did it taste?” (literally, “delicious?” as a question), to which her mom says “very delicious,” and then says in English, “Beautiful Shirley, I am happy Shirley, I am proud.” It got a little dusty in my living room at that point.

* Judges’ table: Tom calls out Shirley for the lack of enough chili or mint to go with each bite of the fish in her snapper crudo. Gail thinks it was smart to “set the stage” with the light first course. Graham claims Brooke’s first dish was “too much right out of the gate,” but Tom doesn’t find it too acidic and likes the “smack in the face” to start off. Shirley says for her ramen she was trying to mimic the big flavors of the taste of the packet you’d get in instant ramen, but the judges all seem to agree the broth came up short. Brooke credits Sam for the garlic chips, and overall her octopus dish gets perfect marks (that we see). Tom is still raving about the wild rice in Shirley’s pork shank. Graham says that the diners were debating whether Brooke’s was a pork dish or a bean dish, but that I think is a sign of its success. Tom says “everyone here can attest that I like rum,” but neither that flavor nor that of chamomile weren’t in Brooke’s dish. Gail notes the inferior texture of the flan itself. Padma says Shirley’s dessert was her favorite dish of the night; Graham says it was creative and provocative, and Tom loved the textures and flavors.

* Tom says Brooke won the first course, and when Gail says the octopus was her favorite dish of the night, Tom seems to agree. There’s some fake drama here when they discuss the dessert, but I think this was a rout: two dishes for Brooke, one for Shirley, and one toss-up. Tom even acknowledges this when he says that if he looks head-to-head, he “can make a really clear argument for who I think should win.” Yes.

* And there’s little surprise here. Brooke is Top Chef. I had her ranked at the top after episode one, and she never budged. Shirley ending up second over Sheldon or Sylva was the big upset, but Brooke came pretty close to running the table. She’s also now the second chef to come back via Last Chance Kitchen to win, after Kristen, who beat Brooke in the latter’s first time around.

* I’ve criticized this season of Top Chef more than any other season I’ve covered here with recaps, and I think everything I said still holds, but this was a strong finale in every respect. I wanted to eat all of that food. I got ideas for dishes or twists on dishes from the last three courses. (I never prepare shellfish at home, and I’ll leave crudo to folks who source better fish than I can.) One chef cooked well, the other cooked like a champion. And the emotional moments in the finale felt genuine.

* That said, I sincerely hope we are done with the mixed veterans/rookies format, and that wherever the next season takes place, only a few challenges will focus on regional cuisine. I always want fewer gimmicks – you can fire your sudden-death quickfires into the sun, guys – and would like to never see any of these “you can only cook with one hand behind your back, and we’re pumping half the oxygen out of the kitchen” challenges again. I’m truly just here for the food, even if I never get to taste any of it. And, hey, if they want to do Top Chef: Philadelphia next season, I’m just saying the baseball offseasons give me a lot of room in my schedule.

* EDIT: Vulture interviewed the two finalists, where they at least contradict some of my speculations above.

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.

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.