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.

The Night Of.

I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.

Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)

The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.

Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.

And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.

(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)

In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.

Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.

Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.

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.

Top Chef, S14E01.

We’re in Charleston! Great food city, beautiful downtown. I wish I had more work reasons to go there and catch a Riverdogs game (they have great food there). I’m glad Top Chef chose Charleston now before climate change pushes the city underwater.

One bit of self-promotion first – I posted my annual list of cookbook recommendations on Monday, and it includes the work of a few Top Chef alumni, including two past winners.

* Half of the sixteen chef-testants are returnees. We get Brooke, who lost to Kristen Kish in the strange live-elimination format. John Tesar is back. There’s Sheldon, who got to open two restaurants post-TC. Casey, who’s been on the show at least twice before, is back for more. Were they having trouble finding enough new chefs to compete?

* Katsuji’s back, and asks “Am I getting subtitles on Top Chef this year or not?” I don’t think he needs subtitles so much as he needs a cap on his ingredient count.

* The chefs are split into two groups of eight, so first the new chefs compete. We meet a few of them, including Jamie, who is immediately Neck-Tat Guy; and Jim, the Executive Chef of the state of Alabama, a big Star Trek and Buffy fan whose voice is even higher than mine.

* First (rookie) quickfire: Testing everything from knife skills, time management, presentation. The chefs get one hour to creating as many dishes as you want featuring … a chicken. The loser of group one will face the loser of group two and the loser of that gets eliminated.

* Alabama wants to make three dishes, including something with the skin and the innards, because when he was a kid he would often share a box of fried chicken livers with his dad.

* Gerald is smoking a chicken breast and talking about a soup that might include a 63-degree egg. I do not want a 63-degree egg any more than I want a 40-degree day.

* Padma asks Neck-Tat: “Are you tattooed everywhere?” He says, “Almost everywhere. 75%.” This makes me uncomfortable. Then he tells the confessional that his former boss used to call him Rodman and claims the ink is his defense mechanism against the corporate world. Sure thing, buddy. I don’t think the corporate world is fazed.

* The Italian-born Silvia Barban is making pasta without a rest period for the dough. If she pulls this off I’d say she’s an immediate favorite to get to the finals, because the judges always love fresh pasta dishes. It got both Nina and Sarah G to the final two in their seasons.

* Charleston-chef, Emily, says she’s been fired from a couple of jobs because of her attitude. During their visit to her station, she tells Tom & Padma “anyway stop talking.”

* Tesar says “Top Chef is all about the clock.” The eight vets are watching the rookies on TV in the stew room are all yelling at them to plate. They’re sort of rooting for everyone, and remembering what it was like to be in the rookies’ place.

* Silvia gets the first dish out – fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragout and crispy chicken skin, mascarpone, and orange.

* Neck-Tat burned his vegetables. That’s a rookie error.

* Gerald says his dish “doesn’t represent me as a chef.” Alabama says it’s “totally worrisome” that he only made livers after these grandiose plans for two or three dishes.

* Here comes the food. BJ made a chasseur-style thigh with mushrooms, bacon, liver, and pressure-cooker stock. … Jim (Alabama) made fried innards with aioli, butter lettuces, strawberry vinaigrette; Tom says “I wish we saw some more” … Emily made buttermilk/black pepper biscuits with fried chicken, thick bread and butter pickle, and slaw; plus an Asian BBQ wing with tamarind and chili glaze … Gerald made a smoked, buttermilk-poached chicken, chicken jus, wild mushrooms, and a vegetable fricasee; he tells Tom & Padma “it looks easier on television” … Jamie (Neck-Tat) made a pan-roasted breast and a stripped-down chicken grand-mère with glazed spring vegetables and crushed potatoes. … Sylva, who’s Haitian, made a paprika and chili-marinated buttermilk chicken with grated corn pudding. I thought this had the best presentation … Silvia’s second dish was a corn, jalapeno, heirloom tomato salad with balsamic-marinted chicken. I love how she pronounces the “h” in heirloom, and Padma praises her for two dishes … Annie made a pan-seared breast, with a panzanella and a black garlic jus. Tom scoffs at her and says it’s not a panzanella. The vets all feel bad for her as they watch her face fall.

* Favorites: Silvia’s pasta, where they loved hint of orange and the texture of the crisped skin; Emily’s chicken wings, which were simple with a lot of flavor; and Jim, whose livers had a lot of flavor, crunch, and acidity.

* Jim wins, and gets immunity. Already we have weirdness in the judging – Silvia made two dishes that the judges liked, one they loved, and managed to execute a fresh pasta dish in a very short period of time, while Jim made just one dish and wasted almost the entire bird and won.

* Least favorites: Annie’s chicken was nicely cooked, but her “panzanella” was sloppy and just “a bunch of croutons” according to Tom; Gerald, whose sauce was greasy because his quick stock appears to have emulsified; Neck-Tat, who killed his vegetables by overcooked. Tom says Gerald’s was the worst, so he’s up for elimination. Gerald says in confessional it’s the least favorite dish of his he’s ever cooked.

* Silvia says in confessional that she “always had a little crush on Sam” Talbot, from season 2, who’s also back.

* Graham Elliott is the new fourth judge for this season. The veterans’ challenge is to get creative with shrimp and grits, with thirty minutes to make their versions of this classic dish. Casey says grits can barely be done in that time. The only way I know to make polenta, which is essenitally yellow-corn grits, takes a minimum of 35.

* Brooke is using ground shrimp rather than sausage to wrap and cook a Scotch egg, which seems risky just because the traditional method means there’s plenty of fat in the ‘wrapper,’ while shrimp is so lean that a ground shrimp mixture could dry right out unless she’s adding fat to it.

* We got a lot of foreshadowing stuff here that ended up going nowhere. Katsuji’s scorching tomatoes and peppers on the burner but appears not to be paying attention. Sheldon’s hand blender doesn’t work. Amanda hasn’t been cooking in almost two years due to a back problem. Here’s a spoiler: None of them lost.

* And the food: Brooke did make that shrimp Scotch egg with grits, lemon fennel salad, and espelette … Sam made shrimp with coconut milk grits, blackened tomatoes, vinegar, chili, and maple syrup … Shirley made her “bowl of hug,” shrimp and grits with steamed egg custard made with shrimp stock, fresh corn, and bacon; Graham said it had “explosive” flavor and noticed touch of sesame at the end … Katsuji made adobo-style shrimp and grits, with fish stock, charred tomatoes and peppers; Padma said – who saw this coming – that Katsuji “could use a little editing” … Casey made coconut shrimp and grits with corn, smoked tomato sauce, peach and fennel salad; she cooked the shrimp and corn in coconut oil, and corn ended up the dominant flavor … Tesar made Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi … Amanda made head-on shrimp with tasso ham, pickled raisins, peaches, and kale chiffonade (why?) … Sheldon made dashi-poached shrimp and miso grits, yuzu miso broth, and pickled cabbage; the judges felt this was a little flat.

* Favorites: Amanda, Brooke, and Shirley. The judges praise Brooke’s technique, especially the perfect cooking of the egg at the heart of the dish. Tom said Shirley’s “gave you a hug after it slapped you.” The winner is Brooke, unsurprisingly, given the risk she took.

* She mentions in the confessional that there’s an “old wives’ tale” that whoever wins the first TC challenge has a better chance of winning the whole thing. I could look it up but I’m too lazy.

* Least favorites: Casey’s fell flat; it was tasty, but not at the level of others. Tesar’s dish didn’t seem to make much sense to the judges, and Tom couldn’t figure out what the kimchi was doing there. Katsuji didn’t include enough of his pickled vegetables to get them in every bite. Tesar is the bottom and has to face Gerald in an elimination quickfire.

* Tesar is 58. I don’t think he looks that old, and he doesn’t act that old. Katsuji advises him to mess with Gerald’s head, but to Tesar’s credit he doesn’t seem interested in that kind of gamesmanship.

* Gerald says – I think I got this right – that he used to live in his car when he and his wife were going through a separation because he couldn’t afford two residences, one for his wife and five kids and one for himself. I rewound this twice and still am not 100% sure if that was past tense.

* The elimination challenge takes place at Boone Hall Plantation, a working plantation that is also a sort of museum of slavery, with tours available for people to see the slave quarters. The main house reminded me of Django Unchained, but that was filmed in Louisiana.

* Padma explains that “since the 1950s it’s been open to visitors … to honor those who worked and toiled here.” Those were slaves. Just say the word. In fact, shout it. Don’t gloss over it as “work.” And maybe this wasn’t a great place for an episode.

* Elimination quickfire: Apparently this plantation is home to one of the world’s largest oyster festivals. Tesar and Gerald each have 20 minutes to make an oyster dish, and there’s a fire going for an oyster roast.

* Tesar brought truffles and busts them out for his dish. Apparently Top Chef allows contestants to bring a few ingredients with them. Other chefs are all “whoa,” but 1) truffles are the most cliché ingredient imaginable and I hate when judges give chefs credit for using them and 2) I doubt every contestant has the cash to buy a truffle or the access to ‘borrow’ one.

* Gerald only puts a couple of oysters on the fire, which looks like a rookie mistake, and when the first batch turn out to have little crabs in them (ew) he has to go cook a second batch. I had to look this up, but apparently these are called oyster pea crabs, and they’re both edible and considered a delicacy. Wikipedia linked to this 1913 NY Times article (PDF) about the little bugs, and a quick google search turned up this Delmarva Now story about them. I guess Gerald should have kept the crabs and used them?

* Tesar made an oyster “stew,” with cream-poached oysters, truffle butter, hot sauce, shaved truffle. He put the raw oyster in the bowl and poured the hot soup liquid over it to “poach” it, although that’s a stretch on the definition of poaching. Tom says “the oyster is totally raw.” … Gerald served roasted oysters with thai-style mignonette and tomato compote. He jokes that he “can’t do too much. I didn’t bring truffles.” I think the judges are underwhelmed by the concept – it’s a very basic preparation.

* They send Gerald home, saying his Thai flavors weren’t hot enough – that if you’re selling something as Thai, it should have some heat. I’d have preferred to lose Tesar and see someone new stick around longer; Tesar’s act wore thin last time around, and it’s not as if he made it to the finals like Brooke did.

O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.

TV (The Book).

I’ve never met Alan Sepinwall but I certainly feel like I know him, having read his TV recaps and reviews for years now and watched many of his “Ask Alan” videos, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be in his TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, which he wrote with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz. I was right in that I had a sense of what shows would come in for particular praise in their ranking of the medium’s 100 greatest shows, but I think I underestimated the depth this book provides on so many titles, with tremendous essays on shows’ merits, flaws, influence, and cultural legacy. It’s so good that I could even get caught up in summaries of shows I’d never heard of before – a Novel 100 for scripted, fictional TV programs.

SepinSeitz set some ground rules down before delving into their list, and I’ll repeat them here because, as you know, no one ever reads the intro (or, in this case, The Explanation). The list is limited to U.S. shows only – so no Fawlty Towers or Upstairs, Downstairs – and to narrative fiction, eliminating anything like sketch comedy. They eliminated most shows that are still airing, with a few exceptions for shows with large bodies of work already in the can, and included shows that only aired for one season but penalized them in their scoring system. That system weighs a lot of critical considerations like influence, innovation, and consistency along with what you might consider the show’s contemporary entertainment value. It works in the end, however, as the list they’ve produced is going to start a lot of arguments but at least puts all of these shows in the right buckets to get those debates going.

Since I watch very little TV now, I’m totally unqualified to question anything these guys wrote about shows from the last 15 years or so; I’ve got a few disagreements with shows from earlier in TV history, but by and large I read this book as someone just generally interested in what I missed that was worth seeing. My favorite U.S. show of all time, The Wire, makes their top 5, and several other favorites of mine, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Homicide: Life on the Street, all appear in their top 50. They break the list down into chunks – the top ten are “The Inner Circle,” the next forty are “No-Doubt-About-It Classics,” followed by twenty-five “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” and twenty-five “Outlier Classics” – that provide some structure to the list, although I didn’t think the labels were necessary given the depth of the essays on each program. Sure, Police Squad! was a groundbreaker, and Law & Order was a workhorse, but the review for each makes that clear. (SepinSeitz’ ranking of all seventeen L&O cast combinations is a highlight of the book, although I think I disagree with them on “Invaders,” the episode where Borgia is killed, one of the most harrowing of the series.)

Some other scattered observations on the essays and rankings:

• The essay on The Cosby Show is one of the book’s absolute highlights; the authors co-wrote it (many are credited to AS or MZS specifically), and cover everything, including the sheer impossibility of watching the show today given what we know now about the star. It was, however, a cultural milestone in its era, a highly-rated, critically-acclaimed show that anchored NBC’s Thursday night programming for years, and put an African-American family into TV territory that previously had been reserved for white characters. We’d seen upper-middle-class white families on TV that encountered modern problems, but if there were characters of color, they were the neighbors, or one of the kids’ best friends, never at the center of the show. For adults of a certain age today, The Cosby Show contributed to our understanding that there shouldn’t be any differences between families just because of skin color. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby the rapist has destroyed his legacy as a comedian and a silently progressive TV star, and the authors don’t shy away from that problem.

• My one disagreement with the authors here – and with Michael Schur, who knows a thing or two about sitcoms – is the placement of Cheers in their top five. I did watch Cheers pretty regularly for the first half of its run, and somewhere post-Diane, the show turned into a shell of itself, replete with repetitive one-liners, overreliant on lowbrow humor, populated with characters who became parodies of their former selves. (Friends did the same thing after the ‘big’ Ross and Rachel breakup, turning Ross from slightly nerdy but socially functional to awkwardly, annoyingly nerdy and “how is he even friends with these other people?”) I found the show’s last few years cringeworthy enough that I gradually stopped watching, and only returned for the finale and the cast’s drunken appearance on The Tonight Show. They never recaptured what made them a hit – few comedies can sustain anything that long anyway, but I couldn’t put Cheers in the Inner Circle given what it became.

• I was thrilled to see the one Miami Vice episode I remember clearly from when it first aired, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” earn a mention in that show’s writeup. It was stylish, ’80s noir, and I have often felt like I’ve seen its influence pop up in other, lesser cop shows since. (Including, weirdly enough, a Diagnosis Murder episode with Perry King.)

• Shows I was thrilled to see ranked and to earn writeups: Police Squad!, WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Moonlighting, Firefly.

• Shows I either didn’t know, or knew but hadn’t considered watching, but will add to my list of shows I would like to watch but might never get to: In Treatment, Terriers, K Street. I’d add Frank’s Place, but it seems unlikely to ever appear due to music licensing issues.

SepinSeitz don’t stop after ranking 100 shows, however, with multiple sections after that to keep you reading and well-informed on the state of TV. There’s a long section of shows currently airing that they recommend and cite as possible entrants to a future re-ranking of the top 100 (or they could do what Daniel Burt did when he updated The Novel 100, extending the ranking to 125 titles). There’s “A Certain Regard,” citing shows that had one great season (Homeland) or did something particularly notable (Little House on the Prairie). They also rank mini-series, which ends up an amusing mixture of big-budget network event programming from the late 1970s (Roots, of course, is #1) and 1980s with HBO mini-series from the current era, and TV movies and even TV airings of plays, the latter two lists by Zoller Seitz.

I could absolutely see someone using TV (The Book) as a viewing guide – maybe not starting at 1 and working your way down, but certainly picking and choosing shows to binge-watch from their rankings and breakdowns. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of time, but as someone who likes great television and loathes the rest, I just loved the ebullient writing, the joyful praise of shows that entertained and sometimes astounded these two guys who can’t seem to get enough TV.

Next up: I’m slogging through The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970.

Top Chef, S13E15.

So, Jeremy won more challenges than anyone else this season? I wouldn’t have guessed that, other than that as the only contestant left who appeared in every episode he’s had more opportunities. I feel like I remember his failures (restaurant wars, hot chicks taco stand) more than I remember his successes.

* Tom is going to cook a meal for Jeremy and Amar, which he says the first meal he’s cooking on Top Chef … except didn’t he cook a meal in eight minutes once, determining the length of a quickfire?

* Still, he’s making a multi-course meal including fresh handmade pasta, so I don’t think the guys have any complaints here. He makes crab and sea urchin with finger limes (not actually limes or even citrus, but the source of “lime caviar”) for the first course. Squab, honey-glazed onions, turnips, smoked peaches for the second. Potato agnolotti with leeks and caviar for the third. Wagyu beef, chanterelle and lobster mushrooms, aged soy bordelaise, shishito peppers for the fourth. I’m full just watching this.

* He says the meal is about ingredients that get him really excited, and wants the chefs to think about the ingredients that do the same for them. This got me thinking about what ingredients I might choose; I’d pick some number from duck legs (skin included, of course), peaches, chocolate, wild mushrooms, short ribs, or eggs. I’d have said pie, but that doesn’t scale well if they’re asked to cook for 100 people.

* Padma does not age. Someone should look into this.

* All the chefs are in the house, so the two remaining contestants draft their sous chefs. Amar takes Kwame, Jeremy takes Carl, Amar takes Marjorie (thinking about the dessert course), Jeremy takes Angie (saying she’s the fastest prep cook). The challenge: Create a four-course meal highlighting four specific ingredients, one per course, of their choice. Serving at craftsteak in MGM, which is spectacular if you haven’t been – they serve the short rib dish that made me realize how much I love short ribs after years of thinking I didn’t like them.

* In walk their mentors, Charlie Palmer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. JGV says he sees himself in Jeremy, which is a little weird given Jeremy’s laid-back, dudebro personality. The mentors are here to help prep and cook as sous-chefs, but will sit with the judges for service.

* So we get to see Palmer and JGV walking through Whole Foods. No big deal, I’m sure they do this all the time.

* Jeremy declines JGV’s advice on the foie gras duo. This doesn’t seem like a good thing.

* Palmer, while doing line cook work, says, “No one’s too good to do anything.” He also says there’s a difference between being confident in what you do and being a complete asshole, and Amar had crossed the line back in their time together.

* Amar’s making risotto! This also doesn’t seem like a good thing.

* I would really watch a five-minute online clip of Charlie Palmer trimming (the word is “frenching,” unfortunately) that rack of lamb.

* Amar says his style is fewer elements, better flavors, less explanation, as compared to Jeremy’s more technical and more complex approach. I happen to like both when I’m eating out, but recognize that they’re going to come from very different places.

* Amar admits he’s making sashimi after giving Jeremy shit over multiple crudos because “they always win.”

* First course: Jeremy’s dish is foie gras two ways (one warm, one cold), with chili, passion fruit, and marshmallows. Amar’s is seared tuna tataki with habanero coconut dressing, compressed pineapple, toasted peanuts, and crispy rice.

* The chefs’ parents and siblings are there as a surprise. Sad to see how badly diabetes has debilitated Jeremy’s mom, and Amar’s only got his mother and brother there as his father passed away a few years ago.

* Jeremy’s two-day foie gras torchon worked, as did his duo overall. Go figure – maybe he’s good at this whole cheffing thing?

* It seems like some of the judges/diners think Amar’s dish is a little too spicy? I would think this plays right to Padma’s palate. You hear more complaints on this show about dishes that aren’t spicy enough.

* Jeremy’s fish fillets didn’t all cook through, leading to a brief panic in the kitchen. I want to know why he made the fish look like some cheap St. Patrick’s Day entree.

* Second course: Jeremy’s branzino, slow-cooked with an herbal lime vinaigrette, lime zest, squash, and cherry tomatoes. Amar made an uni risotto with butter poached lobster, jicama, finger limes, and shellfish froth.

* Dominique Crenn (the French-born executive chef of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn) loves the risotto, and Tom says everything in it is perfect, which, given the history of risotto on Top Chef, is some pretty high praise. Reading between the lines of the comments on Jeremy’s dish, though, it seems like his green sauce overshadowed the fish. It looks like someone threw up a shamrock shake on the plate.

* Jeremy waited too long to fire the duck for the third course. Says it’s “duck hell right now,” and has no time to let it rest. Meanwhile, we hear Marjorie say to Amar that she thinks the lamb needs “two more minutes,” but he says it’s perfect even though it’s bleating as he slices it.

* Third: Amar’s plate is harissa-rubbed lamb racks with braised lamb pastilla (a Moroccan-Andalusian kind of meat pie), date-ginger puree, and a yogurt harissa emulsion. Jeremy made duck with roasted maitake mushrooms, smoked chili, buttermilk, and lemon.

* Amar’s lamb is indeed a little undercooked. Padma loves the lamb jus, which Charlie says he had a hand in making, although I thought he was making a “you lika the juice” joke. Dominique says the lamb is “poorly undercooked,” which sounds even worse when said with a French accent. Jeremy’s duck is definitely undercooked. There’s just raw meat everywhere.

* Does Tom look stressed describing these two dishes? He seems almost pained at how close the contest is so far.

* Amar’s mocking all of Jeremy’s “spears” and “cones” … he says that’s all been done before, and he wants to make dishes that are amazing, not interesting. It seems to me like Jeremy’s style of cooking generates a ton of waste, especially plastic, which really should be a thing of the past.

* Fourth and final course: Amar made a coconut financier, mango sorbet, passion fruit curd, tropical fruit salard, brulée meringue, and lime zest. Jeremy made a cheese course, a ricotta and mozzarella cheese cylinder with spiced fig jam, pumpernickel toast, and honey “bubble.” There’s no question I’d want to eat Amar’s dish rather than Jeremy’s.

* Blais says Jeremy’s technique led the dish, not the ignredients. Emeril calls it “intellectual.” I wouldn’t think that was a compliment, although he seems to mean it that way.

* Amar’s financier is a little dense, but everyone loves the flavors. A financier is a small sponge cake, like a madeleine but made with brown butter, lifted with an egg white foam, and cooked till brown around the edges; it’s often made with almond flour but I think Amar may have used coconut flour here, which could explain the change in texture.

* Blais asks Amar if the tataki was “too safe” a dish for the finals. Tom praises Jeremy’s torchon. In the second courses, Jeremy’s dish needed more lemon, and the tomatoes were the star ingredient … which should be a point against him, right?

* Amar gets big praise for making a risotto. Gail says it’s the best risotto they’ve had on TC in “many, many seasons.” Has anyone else made a truly successful risotto on Top Chef? Or won a challenge with one?

* Jeremy says he was going for med-rare to medium with his duck, but then tries to dance around the criticism that it was short or rare. Just acknowledge the mistake up front, dude. Amar’s lamb was rare to undercooked, when he wanted rare to med-rare, but at least he owns it right away. Both dishes were badly cooked meat surrounded by other great elements.

* Amar’s dessert had great flavors, but the financier was dense; Blais says the name might have been the problem because everyone expected the light texture of a financier. Jeremy’s cheese log was great, but the honey bubble was a failure. I’m still trying to fathom what a mozzarella cheese “log” would taste like but keep imagining that awful string cheese they sell in individually-wrapped landfill fodder.

* Padma says they still haven’t decided on the winner, by which she probably means Tom hasn’t decided.

* They’re praising Jeremy’s technique and details, but seem to like Amar’s flavors more. Padma even says it specifically – one chef’s meal was technique-forward, the other’s was flavor-forward. Technique is great, but don’t you have to love the food too?

* Jeremy says off-camera, “Top Chef is not about the money to me.” Kind of the wrong/privileged thing to say, especially when your opponent came from a third world country and has made himself into a successful chef from meager beginnings.

* The winner of $125,000 and the title of Top Chef is … Jeremy. “No fucking way.” You tell ’em, dudebro.

* This is the first time since I started watching the show that I can say I’m disappointed in an outcome. We don’t taste the food, so I don’t know who actually deserved to win, but I can’t escape the feeling that we’ve seen Jeremy’s kind of food on this show before, many times in fact. I don’t think he had a dish, even a winning dish, all season that made me say “I’d want to make that,” or even “That gives me a great idea.” (Actually the best dish all season from that perspective was Karen’s Asian steak salad from Restaurant Wars, which I made for dinner yet again a few hours before this show aired.) The chefs who impressed early in the season were long gone by the finale, and while Amar makes the food you’d be more likely to want to eat, the judges appear to have gone with the fancier techniques. They’re not wrong – how could I say they’re wrong when I didn’t eat the food! – but it’s not the outcome I wanted, to say the least.

* Gail gives Amar a kiss on each cheek, and he says, “Finally! I’ve been waiting all season for this.” Well, it’s a decent consolation prize for losing $125 grand, I guess.