Contestants on Top Chef have forever been plagued by the dessert course. Somehow, it never works out quite right. Timing was off. Chocolate didn't set. Sorbet didn't freeze fast enough. Why not do a show about chefs who specialize in that kind of confectionery magic? Why not honor the skill it takes to whip up a meal's grand finale? What could go wrong?
And thus, Top Chef: Just Desserts was born.
"Delightful desserts, a delightful cast, we thought it was going to be all laughs and fun, fancy-free all day long," Dan Cutforth, executive producer of the Top Chef franchise, said. Only it was the opposite that came true: "It turned into this crazy war zone."
If anything, the inaugural season of Top Chef's sweet-centered spin-off showed pastry chefs to be special people with special needs. Rather than having to cook entrees to order, a pastry chef's work is all about prepping well in advance of service. Baking the cake. Tempering the chocolate. Piping the sugar flowers. Their niche is one in which the detail-oriented, the controlling and the neurotic excel — not exactly one that meshes well with the twists and turns of a competitive realty show.
Throw in what seemed to be a huge chip on the collective shoulder of the contestants — all out to prove that the world of pastry was far more demanding than that of savory cuisine — and viewers were treated to a rather cranky lineup of temperamental artistes working well outside their comfort zone. They seemed to be a turn-off: The penultimate episode of Jus Desserts drew under 1.2 million viewers, a significantly smaller audience than the 2.7 million who watched the finale of the latest edition of Top Chef set in Washington, D.C.
The producers are the first to admit that they had not anticipated how swapping in sweets for steaks would fundamentally change the dynamic of the show.
"Pastry chefs are used to being 100 percent in complete control of everything," Cutforth said. "They're very anal about how they do things. So when you throw them in the Top Chef mix, where you don't have your recipes — by the way, every pastry chef was appalled by the idea that we do that — and we take away the comfort of time? And throw in some twists? It really pushed them to the limit."
That's not an exaggeration. Seth suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent home three episodes in. Malika withdrew, overwhelmed by the time constraints and pressure. Others struggled to adapt, but whined about it constantly: Eric could never think outside of his bakery box and without his recipes wound up baking two uneven shortbreads within the same challenge. Yigit all but crumbled on the spot when chocolate was eliminated as an ingredient from one challenge, forcing the contestants to rethink their desserts halfway through. It made for an exasperating season
It also made for a tense production. "Honestly, it was incredibly stressful. You become a therapist overnight," executive producer Jane Lipsitz said Wednesday, just hours before the finale.
Perhaps even more problematic was the complicated nature of the desserts themselves, and the fact that they were being put out by problematic personalities. With all the back and forth trash-talking, it was hard to get worked up about gallettes or genoise, terms that only the most educated eaters would get in the first place. The monster egos of and vicious commentary from Heather H. and Morgan often left their winning dishes cold — sophisticated but rarely decadent. That's a real problem for a show about food, and an even bigger problem when viewers are supposed to root for someone.
Still, in the end — which saw mostly deserving chef Yigit claim victory Wednesday — producers said they were satisfied with the first try. "It was definitely an adventure. An unexpected adventure," Lipsitz said, laughing. "When you're doing a spin-off and you want it to feel different while maintaining the same things that are successful about the original. I think we achieved that because these characters are so unique and different from the savory chefs."
"I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they were able to do in the conditions we put them in," Cutforth added. Knowing what they know now, would they tackle a second season? "Absolutely."
What did you think of the season?