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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Top Chef: New Orleans Episode 5: Halloween of Glee

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The very short Lea Michele and very tall Padma Lakshmi (all photos courtesy of Bravo).

The very short Lea Michele and very tall Padma Lakshmi (all photos courtesy of Bravo).

Glee star and apparent Top Chef superfan Lea Michele stopped by Wednesday night to be the guest judge of an episode titled “Lea Michele’s Halloween Bash,” which must have been just a touch awkward since it was shot sometime in early June.

And we’ll get to Lea and her semi-veganism. But first, we get a shot of Sara showing some genuine remorse for Janine being sent home due to the team’s overall failure in Episode 4 (we’re all sad, too, Sara). That’s followed by attempting to soften the blow of the Travis self-character assassination he performed the previous week with a phone call home to Mom, who is aware of Travis’ being gay. Dad, on the other hand, is somehow still naively unaware of Travis’ closeted preferences, though he MIGHT want to have had that sit-down prior to this show airing. Then again, if pops has always been that unperceptive, who’s to say he’ll even get it when it’s spelled out for him on a weekly basis on Bravo?

Then it’s on to a Quickfire, which shows the chefs walking into a kitchen that has all of its equipment covered in – shameless plug alert! – Reynolds Wrap. “You might remember in Seattle that we wrapped all of the pantry ingredients in Reynolds Wrap,” says Padma. “Well here in New Orleans, we decided to take wasteful to a whole new level!” I’ll let you guess which half of that quote is real, but we then find out that not only is the entire kitchen dressed in tin foil for Halloween, but Padma and Gail Simmons’ mothers are there to be part of the Quickfire. The moms have five minute to put as much food and cooking equipment as they can in a shopping cart, and the teams of seven will have to then use all of those mystery ingredients to make three dishes.

Confused yet? The winning team will also get $10,000 to split seven ways, but what Padma failed it mention is that they’ll have to search the kitchen for those wads of $100s, which are wrapped in extra amounts of Reynolds Wrap and may, in fact, look like bricks of cheese. Fun for everyone.

top chef moms

Breaking Bad’s Marie was upset she and her purple wardrobe couldn’t represent Team Simmons.

We’re introduced to Renee Simmons and Vijaya Lakshmi, and if this challenge taught me anything, it’s how to pronounce Padma’s last name. LUCK-shmi. The mothers begin to throw things in their shopping carts, which seems like an advantage for Team Simmons since Gail’s mother apparently won gold for Team Canada at the 1964 Grocery Olympics. Sadly, that’s actually a terrible disadvantage in this challenge, since they have to use everything she returns with. Carrie makes a sabayon without a whisk, Sara and Stephanie make a lamb dish with sharp cheddar and Sara – still a mess over losing the last challenge – flips out at the last minute and throws the lamb back on the grill, fearing it’s undercooked. That lamb could be the most perfect lamb ever cooked, but you throw a little sharp cheddar in the mix and it immediately becomes the worst lamb ever cooked.

Team Lakshmi’s Carlos and Travis make clams poached in fish sauce with coconut cream that’s well received, Nick and Patty make a snapper and branzino papillote that looks tasty and Bene, Brian and Nina made a soup with everything that was left over. “Were you guys worried at any point that she might have gotten you TOO many ingredients?” Gail asks after picking a basil leaf-wrapped gummi bear out of her mouth. Nina rolls her eyes to confirm, and Justin – of Team Simmons – is shown telling us that Team Lakshmi’s stuff is “like a train wreck” and that he feels his team has the $10K in the bag.

I think we all know where this is headed. Gail likes two of the three Team Simmons dishes, but somehow gives the win to Team Lakshmi, confusing the hell out of Justin and everyone else. Bizarre editing, weird challenge. Renee and Vijaya are taken away after being packaged in Reynolds Wrap.

Padma then brings Michele into the studio, and the moment’s best episode is the Glee-ful (sorry, I had to) shot of an ecstatic Travis reacting to her entrance. Travis immediately calls his father and tells him he has something important to discuss during the commercial breaks the next time they sit down together to watch an episode of Glee. Stephanie is also excited, calling Michele “adorable” and confessing to the camera that she wishes they could hang out, and that it wouldn’t be creepy. This is why we like Stephanie.

Padma tells us that Michele is hosting a Halloween costume party (it’s June in New Orleans, why not?) and Michael tells the camera that he dressed up as a pregnant nun once and got laid. It’s not a question of whether Michael is or isn’t a serial killer at this point, but rather how many victims the New Orleans police don’t know about.

Nina, left, might wind up having something cheers-worthy after all.

Nina, left, might wind up having something cheers-worthy after all.

Padma announces that the contestants will be working in pairs for this elimination challenge and that they’ll be grouped with the person to their right, which doesn’t really make any sense, but whatever. “And that means Nina, you’ll be paired with Michael,” is the only grouping the editors let Padma announce out loud, which means the remaining 30 minutes of the episode aside from Nina/Michael are essentially white noise. Michael confesses that he’s happy to be working with the talented Nina since he’s been on the bottom, while Nina tells us that she hates Michael. We all do, Nina.

The chefs get five minutes to discuss what Michele wants to be on the menu at the party, but four of that is spent with her flirting with a googly-eyed Carlos. In the remaining time, we learn that she “really loves a vegan lifestyle,” followed by Nina again rolling her eyes and telling us that “god put animals on this earth to eat.” This is why we like Nina.

“When I want to give myself a little bit of a break, I go to vegetarian, which I allow cheese,” Michele says, lingering on the word cheeeeee-eeeese. It’s her favorite food in the entire world. So she’s definitely not vegan and isn’t a hard-and-fast vegetarian, but boy is she difficult! She doesn’t like sweets, but wants everything to be spooky, fun, and of course “cheesy.” Holy mother of god.

“I really love all vegetables,” she adds, but as soon as Nicholas asks if she likes beets, she says she hates beets. Great. And since the editors let us see that, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that there’s a pret-tay, pret-tay good chance that Nick is gonna use beets.

(Side note: Who wants to be invited to a party thrown by Lea Michele? “Yeah, it’s gonna be great fun except there won’t be any sort of beef, fish or poultry! But be sure to be there by 10 p.m. to see me blow out the candles on my tofu cake.” Sign me up!)

The chefs head off to Whole Foods, where we find out that everyone is making arancini since Michele likes Italian food and fried things. One of those will belong to Michael, who explains that arancini are round and eyeballs are also round, so he’ll put an olive on his to make it look like a pupil. Michael may not win Top Chef, but he has a bright future as a pitch man for Lunchables. Nina calls it an amateur dish, something a 5-year-old could make, and says that Michael is just going to weigh her down.

After finding out that Nina and Michael are also doing gnocchi and arancini, Nick decides to change up his dish and go from gnocchi to a butternut squash cannoli. He must have gotten wind that Nina was the one doing gnocchi and Michael the arancini, because he lets teammates Patty stick with the arancini, knowing that by merely putting anything on a plate she’ll have a leg up on Michael’s. You could call it a bit of a copout, but Nick admits that he thinks Nina is the chef to beat, so maybe it’s just a smart move on his part. Plus, a butternut squash cannoli sounds kind of awesome.

Brian and Bene have decided to go with a concept called “spooky spa cuisine,” which basically means they’re making two salads, something Michele told them she didn’t want at all. Really smart move, fellas. “Party in your mouth. Take that, Lea Michele!” says Brian. Um, OK.

The chefs head back home for the night and check out the (abandoned?) nursing home nearby, which they’ve been told is haunted. No word if they found any of Michael’s food – or victims – down there.

Shirley and Louis don’t get much airtime in this episode, but Shirley admits as they’re prepping their dishes for the Halloween party that when Louis smiles, she twinkle and doesn’t feel nervous. And honestly, she’s not alone here. The dude has a nice set of pearly whites. Still not totally sure he can cook that well, but I would definitely let him be me Crest spokesperson.

Top Chef - Season 11

Is that … the Great Gatsby?

Michael keeps calling Nina “boo-boo, sweetie and babycakes,” which is all incredibly weird and demeaning, and he might as well just head for the elimination end of Judges’ Table right now. Speaking of the judges, they arrive and begin tasting the dishes, and to Michele’s credit, she actually sort of seems to know what she’s talking about when critiquing or complimenting the food. Throw a hamburger her way, though, and then let’s see where she’s at.

Oh good, professional attention whore Andy Cohen, Bravo’s exec vice president of talent and production, showed up in costume and was somehow included on screen!

Tom and Lea don’t like Bene and Brian’s dishes, one a quinoa salad that lacks acid and the other a roasted tomato salad that, in Tom’s words, “wasn’t seasoned or marinated.” Those two can go join Michael at the loser’s table.

The two winning teams are Patty and Nick, who knocked it out of the park with the cannoli/arancini combo, and Carlos and Travis, who delivered with a fried zucchini and ceviche. Patty winds up getting the win, the second straight time she’s been in the top tier after finishing on the bottom in episodes 1 and 2. Michele also asks Carlos and Travis if they’ll come back to Los Angeles with her, an invitation both quickly accept for very different reasons.

Here’s where the episode gets a little goofy. The contestants are very unclear if this is a single or team elimination, causing Nina much consternation as she thinks she’ll head home if her fate is tied to Michael. If that is the case, that would be ridiculous, since at least their team had one solid dish while Bene and Brian a) didn’t listen to their instructions, and b) did a poor job executing anyway.

Turns out just one chef is heading home, though the judges ridiculously critique Nina for not tasting Michael’s dish and offering help to her teammate – as if he would have listened or cared. He thinks his food is good, which it is not. And ultimately that gets him sent home, followed by a hug of relief from Nina and complete and utter indifference from the chefs in the stew room – though not before he dramatically pretends to shoot himself in the head. Great move, guy.

“I do think I represented New Orleans and I represented it well,” Michael says on his way out. Nope. You did come across as a creepy know-it-all who doesn’t seem to understand how to interact with other people and has limited cooking skills, though, so congratulations for that! Time to go get smoked by Janine in Last Chance Kitchen, pal.

Despite Nina’s unfair presence on the bottom here, the top three remains pretty clear for now: Justin, Nina and Carrie, with Carlos, Nick and Shirley right behind and Patty trending upward.

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2013-14 NBA Preview Part II: Breaking Bad

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spencer_hawes

Maybe I was being too optimistic in Part I of our NBA over/under preview yesterday. Eight of the 15 teams we looked at just had the look and feel of being better than what Vegas expects.

That’s certainly not the case in Part II, which feature 10 unders. Without further ado, the remaining 15 teams – including a few title contenders and a whole lot of awful.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

Over/under: 29.5

Well, four of the Bucks’ five leading scorers from last season are gone, but when the first two of those are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, are we sure that’s a bad thing? Milwaukee won 38 games with those two, Mike Dunleavy, and, for the last 28 games of 2013, J.J. Redick playing prominent roles, yet they’re now a collection of spare – though hardly useless – parts. Think Denver lite. It’s Larry Drew’s job to figure out what combinations work, and that might take a while. I don’t see anything resembling a leader on this team, and I don’t like much about the two starting guards, Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo. They have a pair of big guys in John Henson and Larry Sanders who can serve as rim protectors, but no one on this roster is consistently capable of scoring in the post. People are excited about 18-year-old Green rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, but at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds he probably has a better chance of entertaining the Bradley Center crowd by being part of a halftime spanakopita-eating contest than getting significant run this season. This team might be fun to watch, but I have a hard time believing it’ll be very good.

The pick: Under

14. Atlanta Hawks

Over/under: 39.5

Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington and Toronto are all within four wins of each other according to Vegas, and the Hawks are the last of that fivesome that we’re getting to. There’s a good reason why. Atlanta could be REALLY bad. And you know what? They should be. This team has won between 40-47 games in four of the last five seasons and it’s made the playoffs in each of the last six, getting bounced in the first round three times and winning a total of two games in its three second-round appearances. GM Danny Ferry finally saw that path was leading the Hawks absolutely nowhere, and the days of Josh Smith jacking up 20-footer after 20-footer are gone. Ferry brought in trusted Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who was so excited about getting to coach the likes of Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon that he was pulled over for a DUI after three months on the job. What’s left to work with? Not a whole lot besides Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the latter of whom doesn’t excite me and struggled greatly in Atlanta’s 2013 playoff loss to Indiana. The Hawks gave the versatile Paul Millsap a two-year, $19 million deal, but Millsap might be a more valuable trade chip than asset to a team that should be outside of the East playoff picture. Rookie German point guard Dennis Schroder has some upside and John Jenkins could eventually be a 3-point threat off the bench, but that’s not happening overnight. The Hawks should trade Millsap by February, and maybe even listen to offers for Horford. No one has talked about Atlanta being part of the Great Tank Race of 2014, but they should. It’s in the Hawks’ best interests to suck.

The pick: Way under

13. Brooklyn Nets

Over/under: 52.5

Nothing to see here, just a team that added Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry to a group that went 49-33 last season in addition to bringing in former No. 4 overall pick and rejuvenated injury cast-off Shaun Livingston to help spell Deron Williams. Brook Lopez is still lumbering around the paint effectively and Joe Johnson is still a surprisingly effective closer – 13 for 23 from the field while getting to the line 20 times in 48 minutes’ worth of “late and close” situations a year ago. Really, what’s not to like? The only thing I can figure is that this may really be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Pierce, Johnson, Williams, Lopez and even occasionally Terry have been their team’s go-to guy in late-game situations quite recently, and now Jason Kidd – the same Jason Kidd who you recently saw playing his final 189 minutes of playoff basketball without scoring – is left to manage those minutes and rotations. That will come somewhat quickly in the regular season, when Pierce, Garnett and Kirilenko may be taking some time off to rest, but would you want to be in charge of divvying up playing time among that crew and also dealing with Andray Blatche come playoff time? I sure wouldn’t. The Nets are, without a doubt, no worse than the fourth-best team in the East, but they might not NEED to win 53 games if the team in third is significantly ahead of them and the fifth-place team is far behind. Still, even with plenty of nights off for the stars and the requisite learning curve from their first-time coach, it’s hard to see this team not going over. Even if they might not care.

The pick: Over

dwight_howard

12. Houston Rockets

Over/under: 54.5

Houston won 45 games last season while coming just two attempts shy of hoisting the most 3-pointers in NBA history, a mark the shamelessly-gunning (and yet-to-be discussed) New York Knicks knocked down. The lone meaningful addition in the offseason was a big one, noted narcissist and pain-in-the-ass Dwight Howard, but is Howard’s chiseled presence in the paint worth an additional 10 wins? It’s possible. Houston was 17th in the league in offensive rebound percentage last season despite taking the most combined shots at the rim and behind the arc – the two areas where a team is more likely to get a chance at a second possession. Howard should lead the league in dunks off putbacks alone, and he seems to have rededicated himself and is in the best shape of his life, and blah blah blah. But this team, as is, doesn’t seem like a finished product. The Rockets may try to trade Omer Asik at some point, as he’s somewhat unnecessary with Howard in the fold, and they’d be wise to get back another point guard with Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin as their primary distributors. They don’t need a John Wall or Kyrie Irving considering James Harden will be handling the ball as often as possible, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add a guard who can give them something between 3-point marksman and paint penetrator. Though I love the way this team values layups and 3s as basketball’s most efficient shots, I don’t like the team itself.

The pick: Under

11. Indiana Pacers

Over/under: 54.5

Same win total as the team above, much more complete group. The Pacers took the Heat to the wire in the Eastern Conference finals with a bench of Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Ian Mahinmi. Four of those five guys are gone, with only Mahinmi remaining. In their place are Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, a potentially-at-some-point healthy Danny Granger(!) and the underrated Orlando Johnson, who played for the Cal Santa-Barbara Gauchos in college and spent time with the NBDL’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants as a rookie last season. Playing for a team as lame-sounding as the Pacers must be a major letdown, but Johnson and the Pacers’ bench give this team a much better chance of not only getting back to the East finals, but possibly getting past whomever they might find there. More importantly for the sake of this column, they’ll take some of the heat off a starting five that’s as complete as any in the league. Granger’s hypothetical return – or a trade should he prove himself healthy – will take some pressure off Paul George, who played the eighth-most minutes in the league last season. One last thing: Indiana should be in a tight race for the Central Division race with Chicago all season, which means it won’t be taking nights off. The Pacers and Bulls certainly value home-court advantage more than the Heat and Nets, which means both should go all out to win the Central and avoid finishing fourth – thus having to beat two of the East’s other Big Three and facing a pair of potential road Game 7s.

The pick: Over

10. Los Angeles Clippers

Over/under: 57

Like Indiana, the Clippers already have a game under their belts, but unlike the Pacers, LA’s biggest attraction looked dreadfully apathetic in losing to the team that has been LA’s biggest attraction for the previous half-century. What concerns me with the Clippers isn’t that they were caught sleepwalking through the Opening Night debut of Doc Rivers. It’s that while their starting lineup added a pair of nice pieces in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley – despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling – the bench is an absolute disaster. Sure, Jamal Crawford is one of the NBA’s best-scoring reserves and has no issues creating his own shots (and even less of an issue taking so, so many of those). But beyond him? Woof. Matt Barnes is a 3-point specialist who specializes in missing 3-pointers, Darren Collison is a complete debacle of a backup point guard who defends like he’s in charge of the Fast Pass line at Disneyland, Antawn Jamison drew a DNP-coach’s decision in his Clippers debut, and Ryan Hollins – RYAN HOLLINS! – is their third big man. Who is scoring points with his back to the basket for this team? It’s not Blake Griffin, who still is overly reliant on Chris Paul and his own athleticism to get to the hoop. It’s certainly not DeAndre Jordan, who took 464 of his 488 field-goal attempts last season from inside 8 feet. The Clippers have the highest over/under in the West, and when they’re playing overmatched teams like Phoenix, Utah and most of the Eastern Conference, they’ll be just fine. But Memphis? San Antonio? Portland? Oklahoma City? Teams with an actual interior? Rivers will make sure this team makes a necessary move to put itself in the best position to get through a very winnable West, but that move needs to be made soon. Anyone above 6-foot-8 with a semblance of a post skill is welcome to apply.

The pick: Under

gregg_popovich

9. San Antonio Spurs

Over/under: 55.5

Let’s review the Spurs’ win totals in the Tim Duncan era, starting with 2012-13 and working backwards: 58, 50 (in 66 games), 61, 50, 54, 56, 58, 63, 59, 57, 60, 58, 58, 53, 37 (in 50 games), 56. That’s exactly three seasons out of 16 in which they wouldn’t have gone over this number in an 82-game schedule. Yes, Duncan/Parker/Ginobili are another year older. Yes, Gregg Popovich has zero concern with leaving those three, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, the team’s uniforms and his best bottle of Merlot home on certain nights. But if my choices are betting on or against this team losing 26 games, I know which way I’m headed.

The pick: Over

8. Utah Jazz

Over/under: 25.5

I like some parts of this young core, and boy is it young. Of their five primary assets – the currently injured Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward – Hayward is the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 23. But the bottom line is that someone in the West is going to have to lose. A LOT. Every team except for Phoenix, Utah and probably Sacramento has some sort of legitimate playoff aspirations. The tankers, by and large, lie in the East. But Burke is out for at least a month with a finger injury. His backups are the 157-year-old Jamaal Tinsley and John Lucas III, who is on team number III in as many seasons and may, in fact, not retire until appearing in the media guide of all 30 NBA teams. I don’t think this is a terrible team. They’ll be competitive for three quarters on many nights, and they’ll steal some games against the West’s lower echelon and much of the East in Salt Lake City. But this is probably a 6-35 road team that might not be terribly interested in winning come March and April.

The pick: Under

7. Charlotte Bobcats

Over/under: 26.5

Al Jefferson has the worst contract in the NBA. There are worse players, for sure. Al can’t do much but score, and he does that one thing well. But three years and $41 million committed to a guy entering his 10th season in the league for a team that has won 28 games COMBINED over the last two seasons? It just doesn’t make any sense. Charlotte has drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller after finishing with the worst record in the league for the past two seasons, so maybe the organization is just bitter after bottoming out so completely and ending up with two guys who – in a best-case scenario – are the third- and fourth-best players on a legitimate contender. But why the hurry? Maybe this is the year the Bobcats finish with the sixth-worst record and land the No. 1 pick. Either way, they’re not good, even if they’re trying to be a little bit better. This is a roster full of one-trick ponys. Jefferson can provide points in the paint. Kidd-Gilchrist is a defensive pest on the wing. Kemba Walker can beat his man off the dribble. Ben Gordon can take lots of wildly unnecessary shots. Bismack Biyombo can miss free throws. I don’t know one thing this team does well, though new coach Steve Clifford will claim it’s “playing defense.” Sadly for Steve, an 86-84 loss is still the same as a 132-96 loss.

The pick: Under

6. Orlando Magic

Over/under: 24

We continue our look at the teams more interested in ping-pong balls than living, breathing bodies in the seats with the Magic, but Orlando is the one supposed tanker I don’t think will live up to that billing. If nothing else, this is a fun bad team. There are eight guys on this roster with two years or less of NBA experience, and I see five of them as being potential rotation guys for a really good team someday – Mo Harkless, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic. Maybe not all of them make it, but that five is light years ahead of anything else the league’s tankers have to offer. The problem this team has, aside from employing too much dead weight elsewhere, is that it’s terrible defensively. Jameer Nelson is still around and couldn’t guard his own coach, Jacque Vaughn, in Vaughn’s current sideline state of a sharp suit and a clipboard. It’s hard to definitively say this team will win five more games than it did last season, but it won’t be for lack of trying. And that’s a lot more than some certain teams in the East can say.

The pick: Over

brad_stevens

5. Boston Celtics

Over/under: 27.5

This number seems to have built in some wiggle room for when Rajon Rondo returns – though no one seems to know when that will be – but this roster is bad. Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are likely starters, so … yeah. The better question might be an over/under of how many games Rondo plays in a Celtics uniform this season, with the injury, a possible delayed return in case Boston wants to lose as much as it can and a potential trade all looming as factors. Brad Stevens is an excellent basketball coach who will one day be an excellent NBA coach, but he’s knows this isn’t an overnight process. He’s smart enough to realize that this team is going to take a lot of lumps for two or three years before it has a chance to build a winner. Maybe Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are around when this group is an actual contender, but that’s likely it. This team will play hard but the talent just isn’t there.

Over/under: Under

4. Chicago Bulls

Over/under: 56.5

The Bulls are playing the wrong sport. If they were a soccer team in … let’s say England, they would have already won two titles and would be searching for a third. Tom Thibodeau values regular seasons wins. A LOT. This team feels like it has something to prove, Derrick Rose is back and allegedly better, Thibodeau won’t allow it to take nights off and treats every possession like it’s Game 7 of the NBA finals that’s being played at the peak of an active volcano with martian gila monsters circling the court. Did they look good on Opening Night in Miami? Nope. Does it matter? Not one bit. Assuming Rose stays healthy, this team is winning at least 57 games. No one wants to win more regular-season games than Thibodeau, and perhaps no East team values having home-court advantage as much as the Bulls. They can win in Indiana, they can win in Brooklyn, but they’re probably not winning in Miami.

The pick: Over

carmelo_anthony

3. New York Knicks

Over/under: 48.5

This total was at 49.5 as recently as two days ago, so apparently bettors are pounding the under. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be no safer bet in the NBA this season than “the Knicks will be the East’s No. 5 seed,” which in a vacuum makes sense. They’re clearly not better than Miami, Chicago, Indiana or Brooklyn, yet they seem a step above Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, et al. But are they? The mix on this team, which set the aforementioned NBA record for 3-point attempts last season, didn’t quite fit then, and New York’s biggest offseason move was to add a big man who is allergic to rebounding and stepping near the paint. If there’s a moment when Andrea Bargnani, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are on the court at the same time, Madison Square Garden may collapse in horror. Sure, there’s Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint and, at least at the outset, Metta World Peace standing in the corner shooting 3s and preparing for the release of his book detailing the Malice at the Palace. Oh, and J.R. Smith is involved, or at least will be in Game No. 6 after serving a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Oh, and Mike Woodson is probably going to be on the hot seat if this team starts out around .500 after 18-20 games. Oh, and Anthony is already talking about testing the free agent market next summer. Did I mention that Kenyon Martin, the artist formerly known as Artest and Smith are ON THE SAME TEAM? And will probably party together on the road? No city is safe when this team comes to town, no lead or deficit will be too big for it to overcome or cough up, and the 2013-14 New York Knicks will be America’s best reality TV show. Does that sound like a 50-win team to you?

The pick: Under

2. Philadelphia 76ers

Over/under: 16.5

There have been 16 teams in the NBA’s lottery era that have failed to win at least 17 times in an 82-game season. Many of those teams were in such dire straits largely at their own choosing, and the 76ers are about to be the next in that not-so-proud group. This team is AWFUL. A-W-F-U-L. Evan Turner is by far its best player. Jason Richardson will play a prominent role. Philadelphia traded away its All-Star point guard for a guy (Nerlens Noel) who likely won’t see the court this season. It will only be interested in winning the two times it faces New Orleans, whose pick Philly owns (top-5 protected!) in the 2014 draft as part of the Noel-Jrue Holiday deal. The bench? Tony Wroten, Lavoy Allen, Hollis Thompson, Darius Morris and Daniel Orton. New coach Brett Brown is going from the Spurs’ bench and coming within a whisker of winning the NBA title to coaching this train wreck. In the town that booed Santa Claus, this team is gonna need Jolly Old Saint Nick to drop more than a few gifts down the chimney if it plans to even sniff 17 victories…

The pick: Under

1. Phoenix Suns

Over/under: 19.5

… And yet. And. Yet. There’s absolutely no guarantee that the 76ers’ efforts to finish with the league’s worst record will even come to fruition. Because this Phoenix team may well be worse. Concerned that the Suns might be too far ahead of Philadelphia in the race to the bottom, GM Ryan McDonough dealt center Marcin Gortat – one of the team’s few legitimate NBA players – to Washington just days before the season for what could wind up being their FOURTH first-round pick in 2014. McDonough is only 33 and hasn’t even held his job for six months, but it’s like he’s been practicing to tank the 2013-14 season his whole life. The Morris twins will play heavy minutes for this team. Eric Bledsoe, a good guy to have in your rotation’s top 7 if you’re a contender, is by far their best player. Between him, Dionte Christmas, the Morris boys, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Ish Smith, the roster reads like something you’d see playing in the third-place game at an AAU tournament in 2005. Goran Dragic is easily Phoenix’s second-best player, but with the lone contract on the team that extends beyond next season, he’ll likely be gone by February. The talent here is just about equal with that on the 76ers’ roster, but Phoenix plays in what’s, top to bottom, the more competitive conference. You could have made this number 9.5 and I still would have taken the under.

The pick: Dreadfully awful

2013-14 NBA Preview Part I: Overly Underwhelmed

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stephen-curry

I could sit here and tell you that the Miami Heat are a budding dynasty. I could tell you that Derrick Rose’s return will help the Chicago Bulls return to being a bona fide title contender. I could tell you that there are at least five teams more interested in landing Andrew Wiggins eight months from now than fielding a competitive basketball team for the next six, that Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook’s recoveries from devastating injuries will impact the Western Conference playoff picture, that Dwight Howard is tall, Nate Robinson is short and that the Milwaukee Bucks could build a starting five of guys named Giannis, Miroslav, Zaza, Ekpe and Khris.

I could. But I won’t.

Every NBA preview you’ve read or seen over the past few weeks is something cut from the same cloth. There’s a lot of talk about how far Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets will go in the playoffs and certain people screaming into a microphone (or megaphone) about how THIS SEASON WILL DETERMINE THE LEGACY OF LA-BRAWN JAMES!!(!).

The reason that’s happening? Because most NBA regular seasons are borderline meaningless. Sure, occasionally we’ll get the mild surprise like the Lakers nearly missing the playoffs last season because they were coached by a guy who was more afraid of defense than a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper. But for the most part, it’s a six-month slog of predictability.

What’s at least a little bit less predictable? Turning it over to the fine folks of Las Vegas to estimate how many regular-season wins each team will finish with and going over or under that number. I’ll take a reason to care about that Tuesday night Pelicans-Kings game in mid-February over the 381,945th person on the Internet proclaiming that Steph Curry is the NBA’s best pure shooter or that Kevin Durant is approaching his prime.

In order of least to most confident, it’s time to tip this puppy off in the first of two parts. Part II will run tomorrow, and yes, I know there are three games tonight featuring four teams that are in the latter half of the list. You’ll just have to trust me that the list was completed early Tuesday.

To have the most up-to-the-minute lines, we’re using online sports book Bovada.

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30. Washington Wizards

Over/under: 40.5 wins

I have no idea what to think of this Wizards team. They just took advantage of Phoenix trying to be as terrible as humanly possible by trading for Marcin Gortat, so they can trot out a starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Nene and Gortat. That’s a good group, but their bench is dicey at best, they’re coached by Randy Wittman, Al Harrington will get major minutes and they won 29 games last season. Is a projected Beal breakout season and a seemingly healthy Wall enough to get them 12 more wins? I’ll say yes, but I don’t feel good about it.

The pick: Over

29. Miami Heat

Over/under: 61.5

[Hubie Brown enters] [Hubie Brown is asked his opinion on the 2013-14 Heat] “Brett, I’m glad you asked. You’re the Miami Heat. You have just won the last two NBA championships. You have the best player in the world. You also feature two All-Stars on the tail end of their primes. You’ve added former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden to boost your defense in the painted area. But you also have no idea how motivated you’re going to be. You know that the impending free agency of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be a distraction. You also know that Oden’s knees are made of sponges, Elmer’s glue and pretzel rods. You also for some reason added Michael Beasley, who is a terrible teammate and is as allergic to passing the ball as I am to using the third person. You don’t know what to expect.

The pick: Under

28. Detroit Pistons

Over/under: 40.5

Any time Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith are involved in something, I’m skeptical. When they’re suddenly involved together, as the two best offensive playmakers on a team that’s been sorely lacking offensive playmakers in recent years, I’m even more skeptical. When they feel like they have something to prove to their former teams – meaning they’ll want to shoot more – I’m even more skeptical. When they’re asking 37-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups, who shot 37.8 percent over the last two seasons, to be they’re starting shooting guard, I’m even MORE skeptical. But then again, they have Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond inside, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should provide some help from the perimeter and there’s a man named Luigi involved, it’s hard not to be somewhat optimistic.

The pick: Under

27. Sacramento Kings

Over/under: 31.5

I like the point guard combination of Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas, which should be a welcome change after Tyreke Evans and Aaron Brooks were handling too much of the ball last season. But although those two knuckleheads are gone, there’s still a little too much knuckleheadness around for my liking. DeMarcus Cousins is uber-talented and also has a Rasheed Wallace streak that can appear at any time. Their small forwards are Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Salmons and Travis Outlaw, rookie Ben McLemore is talented but also 20 years old and they’re dealing with first-time head coach Mike Malone. Unless that schedule includes Utah and Phoenix approximately 24 times, I have a hard time picking the Kings to win 32 games. But they could.

The pick: Under

26. Denver Nuggets

Over/under: 45.5

George Karl is gone, Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri is off to Toronto, Danilo Gallinari is out for at least the first month, Andre Iguodala is in Golden State and starting center Kosta Koufos is gone to Memphis. The Nuggets were underestimated for being a collection of spare parts last season, winning 57 games, so maybe they’re being a bit underestimated again. Randy Foye can shoot and Wilson Chandler is a solid offensive sixth man, but the biggest factor to me in thinking the Nuggets can win at least 46 games is all about the geography. Denver went 38-3 at home last season, and while that’s not going to happen again, it’s hard to see them winning anything less than 30 games in the Pepsi Center’s altitude. Go 16-25 on the road – completely doable with as many bad teams are out there – and the over could be there.

The pick: Over

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25. Portland Trail Blazers

Over/under: 38.5

The Trail Blazers had a historically terrible bench last season, with their reserves’ average of 18.5 points the fourth-lowest by any team since 1985-86. The bench is worlds better this season, with Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and after six weeks, rookie C.J. McCollum capable of providing a more-than-capable second unit. At the same time, Damian Lillard played a ton of minutes as a rookie last season and it’s hard to see him repeating that effectiveness level and staying healthy for 82 more games. A slow start also feels like it could mean the rumors of a LaMarcus Aldridge trade will grow increasingly loud. This team feels like a darkhorse to make the playoffs, but there’s much to be proven.

The pick: Over

24. Memphis Grizzlies

Over/under: 50.5

Coach Lionel Hollins is gone thanks to an odd standoff with management despite him guiding the team to the Western Conference finals, leaving assistant Dave Joerger – whose profile on his Wikipedia page is actually this – to take over. Joerger is more of an analytics guy, which sounds great on the surface for a team that was a shooter or two away from a possible finals appearance but may not play nearly as well in practice. What was Memphis’ offseason reaction to not having enough help from the perimeter? Well, they traded for Mike Miller, of course! Miller’s glory days, if those were actually a thing, came with Memphis in the middle part of the last decade, but his legs are currently being held together with state-of-the-art fishing rods and Big League Chew and he tends to have trouble keeping his shoes on his well-worn feet in big moments. Let’s just say a drop-off seems in order.

The pick: Under

23. Los Angeles Lakers

Over/under: 36.5

The Lakers, frankly, shouldn’t come within 20 wins of this total. They should have amnestied Bryant, saved themselves $30 million rather than pay the franchise icon for recovering from his Achilles injury, traded Pau Gasol and turned into the West’s answer to the 76ers. But, of course, that didn’t happen. Kobe will work his way back sooner than he should, look better than it should be humanly possible for a 35-year-old with 54,000 minutes on his NBA odometer to look, and keep this group of absolute garbage from completely collapsing. Which, again, is what they should do. Sports Illustrated picked the Lakers to finish sixth in the West, which raises the question of whether SI is aware that Howard signed with Houston. This team is terrible, but Bryant’s maniacal craving to compete may hinder it from bottoming out.

The pick: Under

22. Toronto Raptors

Over/under: 36.5

Toronto went 18-18 after the much-maligned Rudy Gay’s arrival north of the border, so it’s perfectly reasonable that the Raptors could be around .500 with Ujiri taking over the franchise, right? Not so fast. Considering our friends at Bovada have exactly one NBA coach prop bet currently being offered – will Dwane Casey be fired before the end of the 2013-14 season – and that the yes is currently -140, there’s still plenty of issues to solve in Toronto. The most significant? The bench resembles the Blazers’ from last season. A starting five of Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and the improving Jonas Valanciunas could get you to the brink of the lousy East playoff picture. A bench of Quincy Acy, D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Landry Fields, Austin Daye, Terrence Ross and Steve Novak makes it seem fairly likely that Canada’s only NBA franchise will have at least somewhat of a statistical shot to land Wiggins, Canada’s savior on the hardwood. To save themselves of the 40-percent shooting, .500-finishing purgatory that Gay brings with him, it’s exactly what they need.

The pick: Under

21. Golden State Warriors

Over/under: 51.5

I love this Golden State team, but considering this pick relies largely on the health of Andrew Bogut, I don’t love them too much. Bogut played an average of 75.3 games in his first three NBA seasons. In his last five, he’s played an average of 42.8. He also just signed a three-year, $36 million extension, which should result in me and every fan of the Warriors hitting refresh on the Twitter feeds of any Golden State beat writer until the words “Bogut just banged knees with David Lee under the hoop” appear. Malone got a lot of the credit for running things under Mark Jackson last year and is now in Sacramento, and third-guard extraordinaire Jarrett Jack is in Cleveland. But Iguodala should take a lot of the pressure off Klay Thompson and Curry, and Harrison Barnes could wind up winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. There’s a lot to like here, but there are also enough question marks to make this anything but a lock.

The pick: Over

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20. New Orleans Hornets Pelicans

Over/under: 39.5

Another caution due to health. By all accounts, Anthony Davis has looked like a monster in the preseason and is on his way to having an absolute breakout season. But Davis’ still filling-out frame is going to be an injury concern for a while longer, and Eric Gordon can never seem to stay healthy. They traded their Top 10 pick to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday, who was an All-Star in the watered-down East last season and should provide a calming influence to an offense that averaged fewer points than everyone in the West but Memphis last season. I’d keep Ryan Anderson in the starting lineup and bring Tyreke Evans off the bench, but it remains to be seen how Monty Williams will handle that. A 13-win jump seems like a lot, but this should be a much-improved team. But if Davis goes down for any length of time, they may have trouble cracking 30 victories, let alone 40.

The pick: Over

19. Oklahoma City Thunder

Over/under: 52.5

If Westbrook was going to be healthy all season, this total is somewhere around eight or nine wins higher. There’s no specific timetable for his return, but it seems as if he’ll be back by Christmas. The Thunder shouldn’t be lacking motivation early, and assuming Westbrook is close to 100 percent upon returning, he’ll have a lot to prove as well. A lot of the burden here will fall on Jeremy Lamb being able to develop into a consistent scorer with Kevin Martin gone and Westbrook M.I.A. for at least six weeks, and it’s hard to tell if that’ll happen. But OKC is another team, like Denver, where it’s hard to see them winning anything less than about 32 games on its home floor. Do that, go .500 on the road, and the over is as guaranteed as Durant’s silky-smooth mid-range jumper.

The pick: Over

18. Dallas Mavericks

Over/under: 43.5

There’s really no reason this team should be particularly good, and the Mavericks finished 41-41 last season. But that was with Dirk Nowitzki missing 29 games, Shawn Marion missing 15, and an offense that was left to rely heavily on O.J. Mayo, Vince Carter and Darren Collison. Dallas’ point guard play was horrific, but they brought in Jose Calderon, drafted Shane Larkin and brought back Devin Harris to make getting the ball to Nowitzki, Marion and Carter less of a chore. Of course, how much Harris, Calderon and Larkin get to handle the ball may vary depending on how often Monta Ellis is on the court – because if Monta has the ball, it’s headed toward the basket. This team has seemed to be biding its time and hording cap space in order to bring in a big free agent since winning the title, but after giving Ellis three years and Calderon four, it’s seemingly panicking into making a return to the playoffs. Bad move for the franchise, but maybe a good move for the over.

The pick: Over

17. Cleveland Cavaliers

Over/under: 40.5

I have no idea why the Cavs fired Byron Scott – they improved their win total in each of his three seasons on the sidelines! Who cares if that involved making a two-win jump from 19 to 21 in 2011-12 and a three-win leap to 24 in 2012-13? And who cares that last season’s win jump was actually a downgrade since it was a full 82-game season instead of 66? Cleveland is at a bit of a crossroads. It’s trying to show James that the franchise is headed in the right direction and has a playoff-caliber roster, hence the signing of Jarrett Jack and the gamble on bringing in the chronically injured Andrew Bynum. The Cavs have their star in Kyrie Irving, but the long-term effectiveness of the highly drafted pieces around him – Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters – remain unknowns. IF Bynum can give them 50 games and IF Bennett shows any flash of why he was the No. 1 overall pick last summer and IF Thompson develops into a 15-10 guy and IF Waiters shows that he can be more than just an out-of-control gunner on a bad team, this team could be as high as the fifth seed in the East. One thing’s for sure – it won’t be the defensive sieve it was under Mike Brown that it was under Scott’s cross-armed, stoic indifference. But if Bynum is a bust and Irving misses an extended stretch – he’s sat out 26 percent of Cleveland’s games his first two seasons – the playoffs are a long shot.

The pick: Over

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

Over/under: 41.5

We continue the health-dependent portion of the league with Minnesota, who had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the floor together for THREE games last season. They are good to go for at least the opening tip in 2013-14, but this is a team that also had a lot of turnover in the offseason. Andre Kirilenko and Luke Ridnour are the biggest names to depart, but new additions Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf should offset those losses. Minnesota used one of two first-round picks on Shabazz Muhammad, who seems to be more worried with hooking up with random chicks than developing any aspect of his one-dimensional game, but shrewdly grabbed Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng with the other. You can pick apart the length and dollars of the deals they gave Martin, Brewer and Chase Budinger – in addition to re-signing Nikola Pekovic – but as far as putting a competitive product on the field this season, they’re most definitely an upgrade. If Rubio and Love aren’t involved in some sort of freak golf cart or T-shirt gun accident before Wednesday’s opener in Orlando.

The pick: Under

Checking In On Top Chef: New Orleans

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Emeril seems a bit excited for Top Chef to be in New Orleans. (All photos courtesy of Bravo TV)

Emeril seems a bit excited for Top Chef to be in New Orleans. (Photos courtesy of Bravo TV)

To begin, a programming note. It’s been two months since we’ve been Checking The Score, which is clearly far too long to recover from a Pirates season that was both exhilarating in the best ways and a reminder of what a time suck following a decent baseball team is. That hiatus is over – a preview for what should be a wildly unpredictable NBA season is on the way along with some NFL coverage, a plea to put baseball’s many unwritten rules and narratives out to pasture and a check-in on Showtime’s diverging dramas Homeland and Masters of Sex.

But first, now seems like a good time to check in on the best reality show on TV, Bravo’s Top Chef. Much in the way that mediocre pizza is still pretty damn good, a so-so season of Top Chef still laps any other reality competition and chews up any fellow TV food fare like Guy Fieri disgustingly getting down with a 15-inch tubed meat lasagna.

Padma confronts such tough decisions as "Do I flirt with Tom?"

Padma confronts such tough decisions as “Do I flirt with Tom?”

Is this season of Top Chef, the show’s 11th installment, more than mediocre? At four episodes in, it’s still a bit early to judge. There are still 14 contestants remaining – 15 if one counts the reigning champ of Last Chance Kitchen, which we’ll tackle later – so even putting a name with a face is no small feat at this point. Some of the cheftestants haven’t had much of a chance to let their personality shine through yet on camera, though that’s often a rather foreboding indicator that they’ll be permanently off camera sooner rather than later.

The early feel is that the top-end talent of other seasons – Chicago, Las Vegas, the All-Stars edition and even last year’s Seattle – isn’t quite there, but the location is doing them plenty of favors. There may be no more ideal setting for a season of Top Chef than New Orleans, where Emeril’s Cajun Belly has its own spot at Judges’ Table and there’s a different Creole classic and celebrated chef to lead the crew through the city’s culinary history each week.

I can’t promise a recap each and every week for the rest of the way – a Mediterranean cruise will interrupt that possibility – but CTS will be checking in regularly from now until a half-in-the-bag Padma announces the winner at the final Judges’ Table. To start, a far-too-premature power ranking of the remaining 15 cheftestants through four episodes featuring two Quickfires and five eliminations.

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15. Bene

Oh, poor Bene, whose full name is Benedetto Bartolotta. Since you clearly can’t tell what Bene’s heritage is from his name alone, he’s Italian, which led to him creating a ginger tomato sauce for Episode 4’s elimination challenge of creating a team menu inspired by the Vietnamese influence in the New Orleans shrimping industry. To be fair, the idea belonged to the wonderfully obnoxious Travis, whose boyfriend is Vietnamese – by proxy making Travis the world’s foremost expert on Southeast Asian cuisine – but the execution was all Bene’s. My family has some Irish roots, but you wouldn’t see me tossing colcannon into a bowl of ramen with my signature Guinness soy sauce if tasked with making a Japanese dish. Fortunately, when Bene’s eliminated he can fall back on his nomination as one of the 10 sexiest chefs in New York City. Sadly, that sounds less impressive when one discovers the other nine nominees each work 15 hours a week at the Times Square Sbarro.

Top Chef - Season 11

14. Michael

Bene honestly seems like a pretty nice guy who’s just a bit out of his element in Creole country, whereas New Orleans chef Michael is a New York native who seems like a douchier version of Sideshow Bob on a weekly basis. Michael overcame cancer at age 26, which is awesome, but he hasn’t been able to get out of his own way on Top Chef, consistently acting like he’s Emeril’s brother in local expertise without being able to measure up on the plate. He’s the lone chef remaining who has yet to be either on the top of bottom at Judges’ Table, but his personality seems to be getting on the nerves of some of the other contestants. That would be fine if he’d worry more about the quality of his food and less about acting like a tour guide.

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13. Patty

Patty very well could have gone home in either of the first two weeks, struggling to cook gator or produce a gumbo that measured up with some of the more creative dishes while also producing a tuna slider during Episode 2’s food truck challenge that seemed to make Tom Colicchio visibly angry. In Episode 4, she was given the gift of being grouped with the right team. The other four chefs in her group are arguably four of the best in the competition, and at Judges’ Table, each was singled out with good reason. To Patty’s credit, she managed to stand upright without falling for the duration of the segment.

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12. Sara

It’s pretty cool that the real, live Rosie the Riveter earned a spot on Top Chef disguised as a former theater major from the University of Minnesota. And man, does Sara ever treat this show like it’s an audition for the almost certainly upcoming Bravo brainchild Hipster Wives. Her food hadn’t been half-bad until she took the heat for the Green team’s dreadful rice in Episode 4, a mistake that would have sent her packing if not for the presence of Bene’s Vietnamese marinara, Travis’ overconfidence and Janine’s overcooked shrimp. Speaking of experts on Vietnamese cuisine…

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11. Travis

… Or, really, cuisine in general. Travis’ Bravo bio tells us that he’s traveled all over the world and cooked in places such as Alaska, Wales, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Czech Republic, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam. So watch out when we get to the inevitable Top Chef: New Orleans “Make your own maple syrup” Quickfire, at which point Travis will tell us that he used to date a maple tree and was really good at extracting sap, which will be followed by a bedeviling smile and a cleverly inserted sound bite of that really obnoxious voice that says “ONLY ON BRAVO!”

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10. Carlos

Carlos is the executive chef and owner of Mexique, which is a short El ride away from me and has received some rave reviews since opening in 2008. Clearly the man knows his way around a tomatillo. But he’s struggled in this environment, seeming extraordinarily out of his element while cooking anything but Mexican food. His overcooked and underseasoned trout nearly got him booted in Episode 3, while his fish head soup with pineapple in the Vietnamese challenge lacked acid, was too sweet, and according to guest judge Eddie Huang, “tasted like minestrone.” Maybe he was just trying to keep up with Bene’s Italian theme? The man can cook, but I’m not sure if his Mexican influences are a help or a hindrance at this point.

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9. Louis

We got a moment with Louis on the phone talking to his wife in Episode 3, which is either a good indication that a chef will be sticking around for a while or one that means he might be a goner in that very episode. The latter was the case that day, when his trout was undersmoked and underseasoned in the Quickfire and his spice mixture in the elimination challenge – the basis for his entire team’s Commander’s Palace recreations – was so bad that it nearly got him sent home. At the same time, he comes off as reasonable and confident, so perhaps he’s getting his weak moments out of the way early? If only that was the case for…

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8. Janine

The Aussie bombshell who was both, um, camera friendly and seemed to have the culinary chops to at least come close to matching her looks took the fall for the Green team’s dreadful performance in Episode 4. Has there been a crueler twist of fate on Top Chef than an Aussie Barbie failing to cook shrimp? But here’s where we delve into conspiracy theory territory. As you may recall from Top Chef: Seattle, Kristen Kish won four of the first 10 elimination challenges before being unceremoniously bounced and having to earn her way back in via Bravo’s ploy at drawing viewers to its website, Last Chance Kitchen. Guess what? It worked. I hadn’t been going there after each episode prior to that, content to at some point catch up later with whichever second-tier chef worked his or her way back into the competition through Top Chef’s show within the show. But the second Kristen got unfairly bounced for a mistake made by professional annoyance Josie, I was in for the duration. And she, of course, worked her way back into the competition before winning the whole damn thing.

So here we are, four episodes into this somewhat slow-starting season, with LCK coming off an Emmy win for Multiplatform Storytelling (yep, that’s a thing). What’s the best way to get viewers to check it out? Kick the eye candy to the sideshow, where she’ll no doubt have a lengthy run – she already dispatched Philadelphia bad boy Jason and the other three eliminated contestants – before getting a chance at redemption. Is it shady? Yes . Is it unsavory? Certainly? Will I be watching LCK as long as that Sheila is still around? Absolutely.

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7. Brian

Brian has probably received the least amount of screen time of anyone thus far. If there was no photo associated with this name, would you have ANY idea who he is? But he seems to have a versatile touch, making a well-received shrimp and pork belly spring roll in Episode 4 after an excellent beef and pork curry empanada from Episode 2, and might just be able to fly under the radar for a while. Also, Bravo’s website lists his favorite fall dessert as a Nutella brioche bread pudding and drunken banana ice cream, which sounds like something I would eat until I got sick.

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6. Shirley

Shirley can come across as a bit of a control freak, but that served her well in the Vietnamese challenge, where she took the reins and steered her admittedly talented team to a group and individual victory. She’s worked for Jose Andres, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali and Guy Savoy (read: not Fieri), so clearly a number of world-renowned chefs have seen a lot of potential in her. She won the Episode 3 Quickfire with a rice congee with shirred egg, soy sauce and sesame oil, but she’s more than just Chinese cuisine, having been trained in classic French and Italian styles. If you want a darkhorse pick to win – can we have a darkhorse after 4 weeks? – Shirley is it.

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5. Stephanie

Stephanie is back for revenge after Emeril denied her a spot in Top Chef: Seattle last season because her cauliflower wasn’t “cauliflowery,” and she had to watch as her bud Kristen went on to win the title of Top Chef, a feature in Food & Wine Magazine, a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and $125,000 furnished by Healthy Choice. (Amazing how after watching seven seasons of this show, I could do Padma’s job.) Anyway, there’s something likeable about Stephanie aside from just her food, though that may also cost her in the end. Her self-confidence often turns into self-deprecation, something that I hope is just a personality quirk and doesn’t turn into a costly psychological misstep later in the season.

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4. Nicholas

One of just two guys I can see having a shot at winning the competition, Nicholas comes across as more cocky than confident. It seemed evident from Episode 1 that he and Philly pal Jason were the Alpha males of this competition, but then something funny happened. Jason got booted in Episode 2 and for some reason decided to incorporate white chocolate into his dish in LCK, leading to Janine Down Undering his Abercrombie & Fitch ass back to South Street. Nicholas, meanwhile, has been more bossy than successful thus far, getting on the eliminated Bret and the nervy Carlos while seemingly forgetting to put out a quality product himself. There’s a chance this ranking is four of five spots too high, but if Nicholas’ food can ever match his ‘tude, he’s a threat to go far.

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3. Nina

I’d draw a pretty big line in the sand between No. 4 and the top three, as I think the remaining chefs have established themselves as the pretty clear front-runners a quarter of the way through the competition. Aside from the fact that I’ve eaten at the restaurant where Nina serves as the chef de cuisine, Scott Conant’s Scarpetta in the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami, she’s building a steady list of accolades this season. Nina won the first elimination challenge with her curried turtle meatball, finished in the winning group in each of the past two episodes and also owned a top-3 Quickfire finish in Episode 3. With a versatile palate and a wide array of Caribbean dishes at her disposal, Nina has looked comfortable in every setting thus far. Bonus points for grinding the turtle meat into a meatball in Episode 1 and for her father being the former Prime Minister of St. Lucia, which has to be a Top Chef first.

Top Chef - Season 11

2. Justin

The far less obnoxious of the two New Orleans chefs, Justin hasn’t tried to act like the competition is his to lose just because it’s practically taking place in his backyard. A finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef South in 2012, Justin seems comfortable cooking whatever’s available to him, undoubtedly a product of the commitment to local ingredients at his restaurant, La Petite Grocery. It was his dessert, a strawberry trio, that won the elimination challenge in Episode 3, but his most impressive dish so far may have been his beef pho in the Vietnamese challenge. He seems like the only chef in the competition who is capable of developing such a vast amount of flavors in a dish like that in a short period of time, and he’s definitely not afraid to push himself. It’s hard to see him being eliminated before the final three.

carrie

1. Carrie

This may be a bit of a personal favorite, but it’s hard to argue with Carrie’s results so far. Her poached frog legs with an oyster emulsion put her in the top three in Episode 1, she had one of the top gumbos in the Episode 2 Quickfire and she made the dough for Carlos’ empanadas later in that episode to earn a victory. Are we noticing a theme with the chefs at the top? They’re not limiting themselves to one type of cuisine as a crutch or consistently working with one overarching flavor profile. She’s from Iowa, so middle American, hearty, meat and potatoes is no issue. She’s the chef de cuisine at Aragona, a Spanish restaurant in Seattle. Her Bravo bio says she mostly enjoys cooking Mexican, Vietnamese and Caribbean cuisines at home. Carrie also attended pastry school, so dessert is no problem – as evidenced by her strawberry shortcake biscuit in Episode 3 and her lemon custard in Episode 4. She’s also kind of adorable, not in a Janine way, but more in a “oh yeah, she’s got strong Midwestern values and seems like a sweet gal!” kind of way. She wasn’t around to participate in Top Chef in her established hometown of Seattle, but so far she might just be the favorite to win in New Orleans.