One reason that Mrs. Tuned In and I have a lasting marriage is division of labor. I am the cook; she is the baker. I blister dried chilis in cast-iron pans and bring weird meats back from the store; she produces meltingly buttery cookies and a chocolate-frosted malt cake that I would kill or die for.
I say that by way of full disclosure, so you know where I am coming from when I say it would be unreasonable to expect Top Chef: Just Desserts to be as good as Top Chef. Because cooking is better than baking. It just is. Come on. Everybody knows that. (Another reason Mrs. Tuned In and I have a strong marriage is that I say things like that not to her face, but on my blog, like a coward, and later claim it was a joke if she sees it.)
The superiority of cooking aside, baking has a special challenge simply as TV-competition material. As the debut episode reminds us constantly, baking is not improvisatory. “Pastry is a science,” one contestant says. “You can’t just wing it.” Which makes designing challenges itself a challenge. But so far, the spinoff is a pretty sweet diversion.
We meet the usual complement of chefs here, in the usual way, but in the process we also learn a thing or two about the special culture of dessert chefs. For starters, they are well aware of the snobbery of cooking-is-better people like me, and some of them are a little defensive about it. Because they are referred to with a qualifier—”pastry chefs”—they have coined the term “savory chefs” for their counterparts. Which, come on, is a little like calling doctors “body dentists.”
You would guess they would be offended by hearing someone calling the predecessor of their show “Real Top Chef” or “Regular Top Chef,” as they almost certainly will. But these chefs, suitably for reality-show contestants, have no inferiority complex. A pastry chef, one of them says, could almost certainly do a “savory chef’s” job, while a savory chef probably would be “at best mediocre being a pastry chef.” Further, there is apparently a caste system within their own community: “pastry chefs”—who construct ethereal desserts in restaurant kitchens—seem to lord it over “bakers,” who make homey treats in bakeries. Or at least the bakers seem to think so.
Gail Simmons, on loan from Real Top Chef (sorry!) as host, has able help from pompadoured pastry chef Johnny Iuzinni, who’s serious, dryly cutting and intimidating without being shtickily so. (Judge Hubert Keller is best known as a savory chef—you saw him on Top Chef Masters—while fellow panelist Danielle Kyrillos, a DailyCandy.com editor, seems like the kind of telegenic personality you might see on any other reality show.)
The first challenge shows some of the limits of the format. I won’t spoil it, but it involves one of those change-the-challenge-in-the-middle twists that Top Chef overrelies on, forces the chefs to change up and improvise, but that just isn’t as possible with a dessert recipe as an entree. (“One of the differences between being a pastry chef and a savory chef,” a contestant says, “is that you can’t taste your cake halfway through. You have to get it right before it gets in the oven.”) We end up with some spectacular-looking finished products, but some of the chefs seem to suffer not from lack of talent but by having started with a hard-to-adapt recipe in the first place.
That said, the season seems to have a good set of personalities, with the requisite number of extroverts. (“They call me the Snow Queen. Because everything I make is frozen, and because I’m gay!”) And by the end of the first hour—somebody, distressingly, inadvertently makes “pastry hummus”—I was absorbed. Look, I like dessert too, and it can’t be lost on the producers that shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss have made pastry into high-ratings cable TV. To be fair too, the almost-completed Top Chef DC has been a relative dud. Who’s to say that Just Desserts couldn’t someday become better than the original Top Chef, just as Top Chef came to outshine its predecessor, Project Runway?
Just don’t expect me to admit that to Mrs. Tuned In.