Clark’s Diner in Evanston, Ill., is still my favorite dessert of all time. And though its culinary cred may be suspect to some, I’m a firm believer in Applebee’s motto that “Happiness begins with dessert.”I am, what you may call, a dessert fiend. I’ve had sweets at some of the finest foodie spots, like wd~50, Georges at the Cove, and Jean Georges’ now-closed Vong’s Thai Kitchen. At the same time, I appreciate the beauty of a big sloppy sundae, and the Charlie Brown brownie a la mode at
Oh, and I also had two root canals by the time I was 12, so there.
But I still wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a Top Chef spin-off that focused on the pastry world. Spin-offs almost always pale in comparison to the shows that spawn them, and in the worst cases, can come off as cheesy copies. Thankfully for my sweet tooth and me, Top Chef Just Desserts had all the fun, creativity and crazy characters you’d see on (a good season of) Top Chef, without feeling like a stale knockoff.
This time around, the cheftestants are vying for a feature in Food & Wine, a showcase at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, a Buick Regal, and $100,000 courtesy of Godiva. But something struck me about this group of bakers. The cheftestants here reminded me more of Project Runway’s colorful casts, and that’s not just because of disco glitter. Let’s see exactly who we’re dealing with:
Seth, 33, New York City — a pastry chef and consultant; insomniac, prima donna, looks like Dexter, crushes on Gail
Tania, 38, Boston — exec pastry chef at Max Ultimate Food; a Jewish-atheist artist
Heather H., 39, Atlanta — exec pastry chef at Cherokee Town Club; won the 2009 ACF National Pastry Chef awards
Erika, 40, Jacksonville Beach, Fla. — exec pastry chef at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club; doesn’t like wind messing up her hair when she’s on a bus
Zac, 27, New York — exec pastry chef at Flex Mussels; enjoys glitter and a flair for the dramatic
Tim, 41, Oakland, Calif. — exec pastry chef and ice cream maker extraordinaire at Scala Bistro; also goes by “Snow Queen” (frozen food + gay)!
Morgan, 37, Dallas — exec pastry chef at Ritz-Carlton; raven-haired Ken doll with the attitude of a five-year-old
Heather C., 37, Washington, D.C. — pastry chef at Hook/Tackle Box
Malika, 35, Chicago — pastry chef/consultant for ByM desserts; a single mom who wants to win for her three sons
Yigit, 29, San Francisco — exec pastry chef for Taste Catering & Event Planning; resident cute boy
Eric, 38, New York City — pastry chef at Baked; doesn’t do “froofy”
Danielle, 29, South Pasadena, Calif. — pastry chef/owner of Bittersweet; doesn’t like it when people think desserts are magical
For the inaugural Quickfire, the cheftestants had the typical challenge: Create a dessert that represents them. But wait! After already being sent into a tizzy for their very first task (and after Seth had run laps, nay, miles around the kitchen), Gail then broke the news that they’d have to turn their desserts into cupcakes. What?! America’s trendiest, happiest treat can be sinister? I just don’t want to believe it.
Then, almost everybody’s sweets seemed to go to hell. Tania was worried that she couldn’t taste anything until it was done, Seth wondered how the basil component would fit in, and Malika’s meringues were overdone on the outside and underdone on the inside. Morgan took it upon himself to judge after the one hour they had cooked in the same kitchen, but to be fair, she didn’t even finish the Quickfire.
That meant she was obviously on the bottom, alongside Tim’s goopy non-cupcake cupcake, and Zac’s marshmallow cupcake. He put it best: “One couldn’t get anything on the plate and the other didn’t make a cupcake, so I had the worst actual cupcake.”
Seth ended up taking the first win for an herbaceous steamed Malaysian coconut cake with basil buttercream. I know winning first is a nice honor, but aren’t cupcakes like Tootsie Rolls to the pastry world: cliché and uninspired? Even Seth couldn’t believe that he won…for a cupcake.
Since Top Chef winner Harold won the first challenge on his season, and Seth used to work for Harold, it’s only logical for Seth to win the whole shebang. That makes sense, right?
The Elimination challenge was the same sort of bread and butter. They had to create a luxurious chocolate dessert for 50 guests, including Mr. Chocolate, Jacques Torres.
Head judge Johnny Iuzzini (pictured, left), the pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York, did his best not to intimidate anyone with his sideburns and pompadour, and mission accomplished: the kitchen was pretty much disaster-free. Well, except for Tania, whose hummus white chocolate was a textural nightmare.
Seth, Zac and Heather H. got the judges’ thumbs up, but disco Zac stole the spotlight, not for his brownie sundae, but for talk of birthing his dessert and a veiled reference to his childhood. (“I have a lot of experience [in this]…you don’t know who that kid’s going to hang out with and you don’t know how that kid is going to be perceived.”) But count on Zac to bring it back to the disco: “I aim to make a party.”
Still, blowing sparkles onto a dessert? Gross! Seth went for another savory and sweet combination with his Madras curry and chocolate palette, but ultimately Heather H. took home the prize for understanding “chocolate decadence” via a dark chocolate mousse torte.
Both Danielle and Morgan had no clue why they were on the bottom, while Tania looked ready to pack her toolkit before anyone even told her to take a hike. Not surprisingly, Danielle’s fall from grace sprang from her poorly deconstructed “free-form tart,” and Morgan’s from his lopsided flan. I hate when people get defensive at judges’ table, and I kind of love how quickly and smartly Tania copped to her mistake, but is admitting your error grounds for keeping someone on?
Apparently not. Tania was sent home, tears on her face, pastry tips in her pocket.
Did you think Tania deserved the dubious honor of first contestant out? What did you guys think of the show? Did anyone else feel tepid about judge Dannielle Kyrillos (pictured, right)? And does Just Desserts seem like a worthy sister show to the big kahuna? [RELATED: ‘Top Chef’ finale recap: And the winner is…]