Top Chef Just Desserts: Matthew

Matthew Petersen took a risk and it didn't pay off. Far from a showpiece specialist, the Top Chef: Just Desserts finalist opted to make a sugar showpiece instead of a chocolate one — which he was familiar with — in the finale, only to have head judge Johnny Iuzzini criticize him for taking the gamble. "I needed to do that to have a chance," he tells "It's not something I do. I make plated desserts. I don't make showpieces. ... But I was totally stoked [with how it turned out]. It was standing! It looked good and more importantly, I was proud of it." See what else he has to say about being the underdog, why he didn't want sous chefs and blowing Gail Simmons' mind with speculoos.

Top Chef: Just Desserts' Orlando: I'm sorry if I came off as the villain

Were you surprised Chris won?
Well, I wasn't sure from the judges' perspective. But quite honestly, that style of finale was best suited to Chris and Sally because they have done that kind of a competition before. They've both done major competitions like that and I just felt like the odd man out because I don't do that and I never really cared to do that, so I was the underdog. It was frustrating when I found out what the challenge was because it wasn't what I wanted to do, but I didn't have a choice. I had to put my happy face on and make the best of it.

Johnny criticized you for doing a sugar showpiece since you're more comfortable with chocolate. Do you regret doing sugar? I feel like if you had done chocolate, they could just flip it and say you should've taken more risks.
You are exactly right! [Laughs] And that was the way I thought about it. I'm more comfortable with chocolate, so from my point of view, if I could make that sugar piece look better than anything else in the room, then I had a better shot at winning. I needed to take every shot I could because Sally had Orlando. Had she not picked him, I would've picked him, so I knew I needed every millimeter I could get to move ahead of those two.

Did you have a lot of trouble making it?
Oh, sure. There's stuff that you learn when you go along and you make those things day in and day out. But I don't [make them] normally. I realized things I should and shouldn't have done. I mean, it's just one of those things you need a lot of experience with. I remember asking Orlando a couple questions about what I should do. He was gracious enough to help me.

What did you think of Sally having Orlando basically make her whole showpiece?
I had mixed feelings at the time, but quite honestly, when you think about it, they gave us sous chefs to do stuff for us. You know what? If it was her vision and she said, "Go do it," then kudos to her because that's what you do as a chef. I do it every day at the restaurant. I tell my cooks I need this, that and the other thing, and they go do it. That's the way it is.

VIDEO: Are Just Desserts' Gail Simmons and Johnny Iuzzini up for a Top Chef crossover?

Would you have used Orlando in the same capacity had you gotten to choose him?
Oh, of course! No doubt!

And then they would be criticizing you for relying on him.
[Laughs] Yeah, probably! But it would've been cool because I would've learned something along the way. My showpiece would've looked 100 times better.

How did you use Megan and Carlos?
Well, I wanted the three of us versus each other. I didn't want sous chefs. I didn't want help. I wanted to do all the work myself, so I was a little frustrated that we got sous chefs because I felt like I had set my work up for myself to do it. I hadn't set it up so that other people could help me. When other people were introduced into it, it kind of threw me for a loop and I wasn't ready to delegate. ... It kind of pissed me off. I tried to put a good spin on it and give them stuff to do that I knew I wouldn't need to pay much attention to. I had Megan scaling stuff out for me and I would put it together. I had Carlos work on some more intricate things because I knew his body of work better than I knew Megan's, so I trusted him doing the more intricate things. No offense to Megan. It's just my level of understanding of their abilities. [Carlos and I] were really close and I wanted to have him on my team.

You were surprised they gave you sous chefs? They've usually brought back past contestants as sous chefs.
Yeah, I was and I wasn't. I felt having the MOFs [Meilleur Ouvrier de France titlists] there was kind of our sous chef thing, so when we came in the second day, I was ready to do all that work myself. I was really surprised when I saw the rest of the contestants standing there, but I did the best that I could.

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Are you obligated to use them?
Uh, well, I think it would've looked pretty bad [if I hadn't]! [Laughs]

The judges didn't like your plated dessert presentation. Was the playground layout something you were set on from the start?
That was my vision from the beginning. I could've tightened it up afterward and made it neater. A lot of it came down to execution during plate-up time. It was, like, 10, 12 steps on each plate and you multiply that by 10 or 11 people, that's a lot of steps to execute in about, I think we had, 15 minutes. I think I bit off a little more than I could chew with it and I couldn't make it look the way I wanted, so I probably should've simplified it a little bit and made it a little more refined.

Do you think you needed more time for the dessert? Sally couldn't finish off her spheres.
I'm not sure because you look at my dish and you look at Sally's dish, and I think she tried to do something a la minute, which ended up biting her in the butt. But her dish was really simple in the way that it looks, so when you think about it, it's like, she should've had time to put it together and made it look really nice because at the end of the day, it was a sphere, a canal and I think there was a streusel and a cream on the plate. I'm not sure where the fault lies — probably with the chefs!

Were you surprised Gail didn't know what speculoos was? Her mind was completely blown.
[Laughs] Actually I was. I think the only ones who knew it were Johnny and Hubert [Keller]. Everyone else was kind of thrown by it, and that surprised me because it's a really traditional French spread cookie. I discovered it a couple years ago and I've been in love with it ever since. I use it pretty much every fall. That's why I wanted to use it — I knew it was something obscure that not everybody knows about, so I was happy that they enjoyed it.

What are you up to now?
I've just been focused on work ... and just trying to figure out the next best thing for me. Obviously, I want to ride this gravy train as long as I can and really bring some exposure to the restaurant and what I do. We've implemented a dessert-tasting menu at CityZen. ... It's a three- or four-course dessert-tasting menu at our bar and it's going to be inspired by what's going on in the menu, but it won't be things on the menu, so every time you come in, you'll have something different. And obviously, it'll change with the seasons. That's something I've always wanted to do for years and I feel like CityZen is the perfect platform for that, so I'm definitely going to start working more on that.