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Pull it Together, Sang!

James Oseland describes the chef's unraveling.

By James Oseland

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.

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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.

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