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Why isn't anyone rooting for Top Chef's Sara?

Posted by: Marcus Michalik under Minnesota newsmakers, On the national scene, TV food shows Updated: November 27, 2013 - 11:37 AM
Photo provided by Bravo

Photo provided by Bravo

We’ve officially reached the halfway point of this season’s Top Chef, and while we’ve well established that hometown chef Sara Johannes hasn’t quite risen to the top level of competition yet, an equally pressing concern remains unanswered: Why don’t viewers like her?

That’s not to overblow the amount of ire Sara faces from the online trenches. She’s nowhere near as hated (she’s not even hated, per se) as Top Chef: Texas' resident bully, Heather, nor is she as divisive as John Tesar, the know-it-all jackass from last season who embodied the coke-bloat of the 80s dining scene with every fiber of his being. But Sara definitely isn’t loved, which might have more to do with a systematic problem of the long-running Bravo series’ current season than it does any of her actual actions.

I appreciate that Top Chef producers don’t feel the need to manufacture as much fake drama as any version of The Real Housewives franchise would, but I’d also bet you’d be hard pressed to find any dedicated Top Chef fan who would rank this season as one of their favorites. There are a number of problems: few chefs outside of Nina have broken away from the pack, challenges have been middling at best, and very little kitchen drama outside of a grill fire has been generated. With creepy Michael and pretty boy Jason eliminated after just a few episodes, this has turned into the Top Chef season without a true villain, which might just have made Sara one by default.

But what has Sara really done to deserve the rude online comments and tweets? Her personality troubles seem to have festered in the fourth episode, in which the chefs were asked to work in teams to create Vietnamese dishes. It was in this episode that show editors started threading together their very flimsy “Bossy Sara” narrative, a label that originated when Sara’s barking orders in a supermarket rush apparently ended with a key ingredient being left out of the cart. 

The fact that Sara had her worst showing in an Asian challenge (Shoyu, where Sara is an executive chef, is a modern Japanese restaurant) also lost her viewer support. Following the episode, Television Without Pity commenter Gagic wrote in the site's forums, “Sara was awful as well. So controlling and know-it-all because she works at an Asian restaurant. Then she screws up cooking rice.  Her stupid hair and fake crying can't cover up her lack of basic cooking skills.” Yikes – and that’s before the next commenter accuses her style of Asian food of being like a “fancy Panda Express.”

Since then, Sara has been shown voicing a few strong opinions about food and offering Louis some unwanted advice about how to butcher a pig. Could these moments be read as bossy and rude? Objectively so - but Sara’s sour notes thus far appear to come more from dissatisfaction in her own performance than they do spiteful jealousy or pot-stirring.  I don’t consider a cheftestant a true Top Chef villain until they start claiming winning dishes actually sucked or insisting that they’re more talented than anyone else in the competition, regardless of what the judges have to say. Sara hasn’t done anything of the sor yet, which is why the “Sara as antagonist” narrative just isn’t sticking to the ribs.

Still, without a top three showing since the first episode, a good chunk of the hostility and/or ambivalence around Sara could just be viewer impatience in anticipating her elimination. If Sara wants to gain some fans, the first and easiest step is to impress us with some high-caliber dishes.

Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on Bravo.

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