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If You Wish ‘Top Chef’ Were More High-Strung, Welcome Back ‘Just Desserts’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 24, 2011

Some spin-offs are pointless; watered-down versions of their original selves, without purpose or energy.

But some are like Top Chef: Just Desserts, which returns for its second season on Bravo tonight. TC: JD is really quite different from regular Top Chef and has its own distinct reason to exist. In short, based on the first season, pastry chefs are fussier than regular chefs — because they have to be. Fussier means more high strung, more tense, more easily rattled. But, of course, equally capable of turning out some amazing stuff that’s glorious to behold.

Consider the differences, after all, between regular cooking tasks and making desserts. Making something like soup is easy to do without a recipe. Even I can do that, and while it won’t necessarily be magical, it will be pretty good. People cook with measurements like “one glug” and “two bloops” and “a big handful, and maybe a little more.” You can see people cook this way, even on Top Chef.

But if you’re going to make a cake, for instance, that involves more chemistry. You need it to rise; you need things to react in pretty specific ways so that they bubble at the right time, crisp in the right way, brown to the right degree, and so forth. That’s one reason why regular Top Chef contestants are so afraid of making desserts in the first place. They’ll do it, but they often don’t do it. In that sense, Top Chef: Just Desserts is like Project Runway: Just Long Sleeves.

The first season also showed off the wide variety of skills that come under the heading of being a pastry chef. One guy was basically a baker, some of them worked mostly in chocolate, some were very focused on artistic presentation, some like to sculpt things out of melted sugar, and so forth. Challenges involved little truffles, giant wedding cakes, tea party munchies, and dessert cocktails.

For a lot of us, pastry chef work is more exotic than soups and sandwiches and steaks and the things they make on regular Top Chef. The art component, while it is not necessarily any greater, can be more evident. The aesthetics play a more obvious role. I can’t necessarily judge chicken dishes based on appearance, but I know what a pretty bouquet of sugar flowers looks like, compared to one that’s falling apart. I know wedding cakes should only be gray if you have carefully, carefully thought out what you are doing, and I know chocolate souffles are supposed to stand up in this very proud, gravity-defying manner.

Not all shows should multiply. In fact, most shows shouldn’t. But I must admit that I’ll be glad to reunite with the intense, twitchy, exacting, nervous people who temper chocolate and whip meringue all day. Any show that can build genuine suspense over whether some little custards are going to set up is all right with me. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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