Top Chef: Just Desserts has reached its halfway point, and so far, I’m sorry to say I’m underwhelmed. I had pretty high hopes for the show, primarily because as both a cook and an eater I love desserts of all sorts – classic and modern, simple and complex, pastries and custards, you name it. Even though I understand the chemistry behind the transformations, there’s something thrilling about watching a handful of basic ingredients turn into a finished product that delivers flavors and textures unimaginable from the initial list of components, just because of a little know-how and the skill that comes from repetition.
But the emphasis of TC:JD hasn’t been the food so much, but the contestants, who seem to have been selected for their capacity to generate drama rather than their culinary know-how. As a result, the show seems to have more in common with Project Runway than with the original Top Chef, and while I watch Runway*, it’s primarily my wife’s show – our deal is I watch that with her and she watches the Top Chef series with me.
*I had to leave the room after the elimination on last week’s episode of Project Runway because I couldn’t watch the eliminated designer’s reaction, which seemed to me to reveal a lot of pain beyond the end of his time in the competition. I can’t imagine a life where something as fundamental to your identity as your sexual orientation leads to a gulf between you and your parents, and it’s clear that his parents’ treatment of him has had lasting, negative effects on his emotional state and even his self-esteem. It was brutal on its own, and to see that in light of the recent spate of news stories about suicides by gay teenagers … I couldn’t watch it. Just love your children, people.
The initial drama was high-strung (but apparently talented) chef Seth, who won the first quick-fire of the season and by the end of the second episode seemed to be suffering from some sort of mental illness or breakdown – I’ve theorized something along the lines of Asperger’s, although I am not a professional and recognize that you can’t diagnose someone through a television set. But his reactions to setbacks and inability to communicate with other contestants had to be evident to the producers during the interviewing process, and I can only conclude that they chose him for the show because they thought he’d be good television, rather than seeing him as an unstable person who, at best, would make other denizens of the house uncomfortable with his antics. His exit, after an unseen anxiety attack, was more than welcome if only because of the amount of time in each episode devoted to his weirdness and others’ (valid) complaints about it, although I find it odd that they didn’t show whatever meltdown he had right before the attack. (You put him on the show, and he does something crazy yet utterly predictable, and you don’t show it? Exactly how bad was it?)
No sooner was Seth out the door, however, than Heather H. loses her mind over some slight, real or perceived, from Morgan, although the edited version we saw made it appear that she volunteered to do the one group piece for her team by herself and then was annoyed that Morgan didn’t help her with it and won the overall challenge himself. Again, we’re seeing edited footage, but the complaint that he degrades women by calling them “darlin” doesn’t hold much water with me – it’s not an insult by itself, and he’s pretty clearly a charmer by nature, with that language just part of his overall act. Last week, there’s a pea-puree-style controversy when one of Heather H.’s items disappeared, and she’s blaming Morgan despite a total lack of evidence that he did anything, making her look like the paranoid nut job brought in to create drama after Seth left. That’s a lot of unnecessary, uninteresting drama for six episodes, and I haven’t even mentioned the apparently-depressed Heather C., the definitely-depressed Malika (with good reason – she was going through a divorce after her restaurant failed), or the angry Tania (thankfully ousted in episode 1). Was this really the optimal set of contestants, or merely the mix most likely to deliver water-cooler fodder for the show?
As for the competition itself, I thought after week 4 that three of the eight chefs remaining had separated themselves from the group – Morgan, Zac, and Yigit. I’m pulling for Yigit primarily because I’m most interested in his food; Morgan seems extremely skilled and I do like his ideas, but Yigit offers the best combination of pushing the envelope and technical ability, although I’d like to see him able to use his reported background in molecular gastronomy more, perhaps as we approach the finale. Zac appears to be very talented and might have the strongest sense of flavor of anyone on the show, although his personality is about as grating as a rusty Microplane, and the whole obsession with Gail’s shoes fell somewhere between creepy and stalker-ish.
- I’m glad to see that Eric, the lone baker among a group of pastry chefs, is faring better in the various challenges, but if you’re going to invite a baker to compete on the show, at some point don’t you have to have a baking challenge? Some of the early competitions made him look sloppy and talentless, but the issue is that his talents are geared toward a different sphere of desserts.
- Gail’s been a little better in her role as head judge after the first week or two, when her attempts to seem severe (a la Tom Colicchio) made her seem unlikeable, but her main issue now seems to be excessive awareness of the camera. She needs to just forget the camera’s there, because what she says is usually informative, but she’s coming off as stiff when I would wager good money that she’s nothing like that off air.
- My wife and I both feel like Johnny Iuzzini keeps falling on the wrong side of the snark fence. There’s funny snark, and there’s vicious snark, and I think Iuzzini too often comes across as nasty, or at least cutting. If a contestant’s dish sucks, it sucks, but there’s a way to express that without conveying the sentiment that the contestant is simply incompetent and should stay out of the kitchen – especially when said contestant is standing right in front of you, already humiliated at his/her place in the bottom three (and often with the knowledge before judges’ table that his/her dish failed).
- Erica’s soapy ice cream is a real mystery to me, and I wish they’d spent more time on that – or, in general, on why certain dishes failed. Soapy taste or texture is usually a case of too much baking soda or an otherwise basic (as opposed to acidic) product, but that wouldn’t apply here. Was there actually soap in the ice cream, perhaps from the last time the ice cream machine was cleaned? (That would be ironic, since the whole show is sponsored by a soap company. I imagine Dial executives hitting the ceiling when they saw the judges talking about “soap” like it was a dirty word.)
- Was it just us, or were the judges awfully lenient about the “black” part of the black-and-white desserts challenge in the last episode? There was an awful lot of brown on those plates, as well as some purple. (My wife thought red should have been acceptable, since newspapers are black and white and “red” all over.)
At this point, I’d rank the remaining six contestants, best to worst, like so: Yigit, Morgan, Zac, Heather, Eric, Danielle. I think any of the first three could win, and I expect Danielle to be next out the door. The biggest gap in those rankings is between Zac and Heather, with another between Heather and Eric, but I think Yigit has the potential to blow away the field if the challenges give him more opportunity to show off his technical skills.