James Oseland

James Oseland describes the chef's unraveling.

on Sep 4, 20130

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.

10 comments
mdelvecchio
mdelvecchio

the challenge: hot fish, cold fish, edible. Sang's dish was neither cold nor edible. thus it failed the challenge outright. Neal's dish was cold and edible. you can't even stick by your own rules. no wonder TC is losing audience...

bevgal
bevgal

I think Sang is a terribly rude person and a sore loser.  I hope I never have to see him cook again  If anything, he should have been reprimanded for putting other chef's food down..  He just puts a sour taste in my mouth.  It would be so nice to see judges judge according to the food and not the favorites you seem to have.

hayes14270
hayes14270

Sang should have gone home.  Curtis spit out his food and it was basically inedible.  You guys played favorites instead of basing your decision on the food.  

fanflyers
fanflyers

James:  Given that you know how this whole thing ends and whether Sang is the ultimate winner, strange that you would say you are rooting for Sang.  It is clear that originally it was supposed to be one of the two chefs from the worst team but in editing that part of the conversation between Curtis and the chefs was cut to match up with how the final decision was made.   However, the producers left in Jennifer's comments (accidentally?) so we all know what was supposed to happen before you all decided there was no way you wanted to send Sang home.  Sang is a jerk- using the whole "he is a perfectionist" excuse is ridiculous and the way people try to find justification for inexcusable arrogance and rude behavior.  Nothing we can do about it, obviously, as the show completed months ago, but I believe most viewers would have been much happier if the judging had been honest and sent home Sang.  Also, like another commenter, not clear why you edited out positive comments about Brian's dish and now try to make it look like some how it was Brian's fault that Sang screwed up?  James, you are the worst judge by far and we can only hope that this year is the last we see of you.

GrannyG90
GrannyG90

wrong decision even tho I couldn't taste the food............Sang's fish was no properly prepared,you all said so ....what you liked were the accompaning nori sauce et all.............from the panel's reactions, the choice should have been between David ((put everything in there) and Sang.............#justonegrannie"sopinion

quiltaholic
quiltaholic

I am really sick of Bryan. I don't know why he thinks he's better just because he was on Top Chef - but he certainly doesn't know how to work with anyone very well. He's too arrogant! I wish he would get sent home.

BobbiNJ
BobbiNJ

I think Sang should have gone home too, from what we were shown on the show. Additionally, I wish you had told Bryan the reaction you had at the table while eating his dish. All you did was criticize it to his face, but when you were eating it you were nothing but laudatory. He deserved that boost from you and didn't get it.

pplamondon
pplamondon

I agree with Cheripipay- your comment about rooting for Sang is quite revealing. I think you should honestly ask yourself whether or not it does affect your judging. The comment about Neal's performance "this week and last" is also very instructive- this episode has almost conclusively proved to me that chefs aren't being judged only by this week's dish (as we are all lead to believe) but by the judges' feelings about their entire performance. I can count on one hand the times I have seen a judge on top chef actually spit out the main component of a dish, and those chefs have always been sent home for it. You can't say that the only thing that didn't work was the fish on a fish dish- the two requirements of the challenge related to fish preparation and temperature, and he Sang failed on both aspects. He may have made a wonderful sauce to go with it, but he screwed the pooch on everything that mattered in that dish. Neal's fish may have been chewy (or at least half of it, I didn't hear a single criticism of the tartar), but it was edible and everyone seemed to like the flavors at the table.

 

The panel's bias was clear to me the moment that you had four chefs eligible for elimination instead of two. Everyone understood the explanation of the challenge to mean that one of the two chefs with the worst dish would go home, not one of the four who didn't win. Why else would Jenn be concerned about automatic elimination if their dish was on the bottom? Because it was clear that Brian and Sang had the worst dish, and it was clear that Sang would have to go home if you had to choose between the two, the understanding suddenly changed to widen your options at the chopping block.

 

Ask yourself- which dish would you have sent back at a restaurant, a nice tartar that had one chewy piece of carpaccio, or a "a limp, off-temperature piece" of sablefish that made you question its food safety but happened to have a nice sauce? The obvious answer to that question makes us, as viewers, seriously question your impartiality and the overall fairness of the judging process. Sang made a terrible dish (and had a poor quickfire showing); he should've gone home for it.

CheripipayKaturay
CheripipayKaturay

It seems to me that you all saved Sang because he's a favorite. How could you send Neal home when Curtis could not even eat Sang's fish and you call Neal's fish tragic? Hello!!!! Curtis spit it out and we all saw iit, duh! Everybody even agreed how it was warm not cold plus their team is the least cohesive even though I like Bryan.

momacat
momacat

 @pplamondon

 You hit this particular nail right on top of its head! I couldn't agree more.  The only good thing about it is that the judging bias is right out there in the open for us all to see.