This September brought the premier of the newest addition to the Emmy-award winning Top Chef franchise: Top Chef Just Desserts. The show follows the same format as Top Chef with 12 contestants competing against one another in a series of quick fire and elimination challenges designed to test their skill, creativity, and talent for a group of judges. And that is where the similarities end.
As someone who believes that dessert is the main course, not the last course, I was excited to see Top Chef take a new direction and give pastry its time in the spotlight. Because Pastry Chefs and Savory Chefs are two distinct tracks of the food service industry, it makes sense that dessert courses and pastry challenges are not emphasized or, at times, even included in a Top Chef season. For Top Chef participants, dessert earns its reputation as a last course for a reason: it might be the last course you serve, usually poorly, before going home. Top Chef Just Desserts is a shot at redemption for pastry’s dubious reputation. Unfortunately, the same might not be true for this bunch of cheftestants.
Only into its second episode, the show features a double dollop of drama atop its inspired confections. The first episode established a host of strong, gregarious (read: borderline obnoxious) personalities different from the arrogance or cockiness of past Savory Chef competitors like Angelo or Spike. These chefs hoot, chirp, chatter, and literally whirl around the kitchen in a state of blissed out cooking ecstasy. When they are not immersed in the “moment” of rousing their delectable inventions to fruition, they are laying on the pseudo-believable smack talk (Alpha male Morgan Wilson seems only too eager to establish himself as a toughened, serious chef and Seth Caro brought a similar amount of aggressive edge to the first set of challenges). Or they are crying. Yes, folks, there might not be any crying in baseball, but there is a lot of crying in desserts.
Chef Zac Young broke down immediately when he made it to the top three in the first elimination challenge, causing him to gush out a poor analogy that likened his win and passion for the pastry with delivering a baby. (On a side note: It’s astounding to me how many men cheerfully make the comparison between just about anything from changing a tire to making a sandwich with having a baby, yet so few women fail to see the similarities). This week’s episode featured an epic melt down from Seth Caro. Distraught over his mother’s fragile health issues and her mounting medical bills, Caro made the quick fire personal when he attempted to incorporate his mother’s favorite candy, Red Hots, into the candy challenge. His inability to do so reduced him to a sobbing mess; guest judge Chef Elizabeth Falkner did her best to diffuse the situation by comforting the unwound chef. Later on in the same episode, Caro became overwrought and irate when he could not find the right ingredients needed to make his elimination challenge dish. Previews of the third episode and teasers for the season hint at no end to break downs, melt downs, sabotage, and a cattiness not seen since the days of Dynasty.
What many might dismiss as nothing more than formulaic drama required by nearly every reality show these days, is beneath a franchise such as Top Chef and creates a poor representation of the confection arm of the cooking industry. In the first episode, several of the chefs remarked on the disparity that exists in food service that elevates Savory Chefs while diminishing the contributions of Pastry Chefs. The subtext in these comments: the movers and shakers of the restaurant world, the business that makes for big bucks and celebrity chefs, do not take desserts seriously ergo they do not take Pastry Chefs seriously. Based on what the show reveals so far, can you blame them? Here are a number of people begging for their chance to show their talents as creatives and professionals behaving like children who have ingested one too many of their own sugary treats.
Despite these factors, there are glimpses that the show has more to offer than tears and tantrums. Pastry cooking is highly mathematical, requiring a delicate dance with time, temperature, and materials. No recipes or notes are allowed forcing cheftestants to think on their feet and trust their instincts. With generally one dish to focus on rather than several courses to plate, chefs must bring a high level of sophistication and complication to their desserts. This is already apparent in both challenges of the second episode where participants used penny candy to create truly original, ornate dishes and later devised a dessert meant to simulate a cocktail using top shelf alcohol. If it is one thing that Top Chef does well, it is capitalizing on culinary inventiveness, and for this alone, Just Desserts might be worth watching.