Watching this episode, I kept thinking about Sue and her evolution on Top Chef Masters. She’s not a newcomer to the series; she appeared in Season 3, where she lasted only until the third episode. But after a season’s rest, she's come back with a vengeance: we've seen her grow emotionally, evolve technically, and generally become more comfortable in her skin, with her food, and on the Top Chef Masters set. It was profoundly sad, for me, to see her come up for elimination on this week's kid-food-themed challenge.
Sue’s growth is a perfect example to me of what a show like Top Chef Masters asks of its contestants. Certainly you need to be an excellent cook, a creative thinker, and a quick study in how to navigate the aisles of a Whole Foods Market in 30 minutes or less. But there’s another element to success on this show, one that you don’t really know you possess until you’re actually up there on camera and under the lights—and that’s the ability to just tune it all out.
The one thing the chefs who come on Masters all have in common at the beginning of a season is that they’re hyper-aware of the cameras; they’re mindful of the hundreds of thousands of people who—months in the future and thousands of miles away—are going to watch their every slice and dice. This is true whether chefs have appeared on TV dozens of times and are media-trained within an inch of their lives—in which case they’re constantly aware of where each camera is placed, making sure they're giving a good angle and the sparkling smile—or it’s a chef’s first time on a major show, in which case he’s just trying to get his bearings. But as the season moves on, the set becomes hotter, the challenges get weirder, the pressure gets greater—the important thing is for them to FORGET that they’re on a TV show and figure out some strategy, any strategy, for turning off the rest of the world and just focus on the cooking.
For Sue, the evolution from a nervous, unsure-of-herself Season 3 contestant to a confident, comfortable, formidable chef in Season 5 seems to me a direct result of her comfort with herself, her willingness to let go of her surroundings and simply make great food. Two years ago, I remember feeling very distinctly that we weren’t getting the full Sue, but from what we’ve seen of her so far this season, she’s bringing a totally different energy to the (literal) table. And from a very selfish place, I’m incredibly grateful for that: everything I’ve tasted of hers this season has been very, very well executed, frequently remarkably creative, often quite delicious. Her food on Season 3 was very good as well, but there’s some other seasoning in the dishes she’s producing now: a confidence, a comfort. She’s found a place where she’s happy to show off what she can do, and all of us—Sue, the critics, everyone who gets to go eat her remarkable food at Gautreau’s in New Orleans—is the better for having access to that.