Pull it Together, Sang!

Best of the Best

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Bryan Voltaggio: "I Thought I Won. I Know I Won."

Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

Lesley Suter's 'Ratatouille' Moment

What it Takes to Be Top Chef Master

The Finale Countdown

Doug and Sang: Bad Romance?

Sang is Back!

David Burke Has Titanium Balls

See Ya, Suckers!

Why Jennifer Jasinski Didn't Go Home

James Oseland's Teacher Tribute

Gail: "I Still Can't Believe Sang was Eliminated"

The Strangest Episode of 'Top Chef Masters' Yet?

Lesley Suter: On Tongue, Flautadillas, and Birthday Cake

What Has Curtis Stone "Spewing"?

A Series of Unfortunate Culinary Events Leaves Blood on the Mat

Gail: "We Couldn't Excuse Neal"

Lesley Suter: Hey, Chefs, Why So Raw?

Francis Lam: I liked Sang's Fish

Curtis Stone in Nacho Libre

Gail Simmons: "Neil Went for Our Bellies"

The Evolution of Sue Zemanick

Curtis Stone: Throwing Curveballs

Ruth Reichl: "I'd Rather Be Training a Nation of Food Warriors"

When Plex Met Toodee

'Top Chef Masters' ' Toughest Critics Yet

Gail Simmons: No "Chef" in Lynn's Dish

Restaurant Wars: 'Getting' Busy

Francis: A New Kind of Locavorism

What Being a Chef Really Means

Ruth Reichl's Perfect Los Angeles Restaurant

Restaurant Wars' Controlled Chaos

Franklin Just Did Too Much

Curtis and Lindsay: A Perfect Pairing

Curtis Stone: This Episode Sends Hearts Racing

Franklin, Can You Hear Me?

James Oseland Fights for Franklin

Pull it Together, Sang!

James Oseland describes the chef's unraveling.

I loved this week’s episode of Top Chef Masters—the cooking, the human drama. It encapsulated everything I love about the show, both as a participant and as a viewer. But the thing that sticks with me about this particular episode, the thing that most intensely zooms into focus when I think about what I watched, was Sang. Throughout it, you can see his sense of growing unease: his mishandling of the nacho Quickfire, his concern about being paired with Bryan for the Elimination Challenge, his frustration at the Whole Foods when he can’t get the wood chips he’s planning to use to flavor his dish. But when he’s up against us at the Critics’ Table, it’s like he’s coming apart at the seams. The anguish on his face, in his posture—it’s palpable, it’s uncomfortable, it’s intimate.

I’m rooting for Sang—not in a way that affects my judging, but in a deeper way. I love his food, and I love the way he approaches his place in the kitchen. He exudes a capacity for excellence that I find enormously compelling, but it’s tempered by what appears to be an almost crippling struggle with perfectionism and self-criticism, something that I relate to intensely, and find very moving.

You can tell, watching the last seven episodes of the show, that Sang allows himself to do only the best. But, of course, you can’t always be the best—particularly on a competition-based reality show—and it’s seemingly starting to take a toll on him. I find myself wanting to reach across the Critics’ Table and say to him, “Look, Sang, you’re doing amazing work, but you can’t give in to that desire to always be flawless. You literally cannot reach that goal, and you’re suffering for trying—more than that, your food is suffering.” The evidence tonight was on the plate: a limp, off-temperature piece of fish that wasn’t quite enough to send Sang home this week, but you could tell by his face at the Critics’ Table that he knew it came close.

Still, I don’t think you can put all the burden of that plate of food onto him alone. Bryan, who throughout the season has been something of a lone wolf, was a less than flexible partner to Sang: when the wood chips failed to materialize, Sang scrambled to find an alternative. (His elegant solution of kombu was, in my opinion, almost a more interesting way to go than the original.) But what didn’t happen—or at least, what we didn’t see happening on air—was any indication on Bryan’s part that he was willing to be flexible with their smoky, thematic flavor element and find a new way for their dishes to harmonize. Whatever the cause—Sang, Bryan, something else entirely—their two preparations simply didn’t gel.

Sang may be putting himself under too much pressure, but this week it was the opposite approach that led to an elimination. That dubious honor went to Neal’s tragic sea bass tartare, a not-nice dish that was done no favors by David’s overwrought couscous. Neal appeared not to have his heart in it this week, unable to stand up to his former boss David, and I think he knew he had the elimination coming: When Curtis told him it was time to go home, he took it more calmly than almost anyone else this season has. It’s unpleasant to see him go, but from his showing this week and last, it seems he may have reached his limit.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur.