Anyone who's watched Top Chef for any length of time will be familiar with the feelings of terror and loathing that run through the contestants like tremors on a fault line whenever someone is called upon to create a dessert. Nobody ever wants to do it, and those who get called before the panel of inquisitors at the end of the show because they tried to do it and failed are usually indignant: What do you sons of bitches think I am, anyway, a pastry chef? It's like those rare occasions when Project Runway has traumatized one of its designers for life by forcing them to whip up some menswear. After a while, you have to wonder just what sets ordinary chefs apart from those mysterious samurai who actually prepare sweet treats as a vocation. Watch a few episodes of Cupcake Wars, and you'll have your answer. It turns out that these people are nuts, and I don't just mean "passionate about their work" nuts or "a little eccentric" nuts. To put it in terms that reality show addicts can understand, I'm talking about the "makes Santino Rice look normal" kind of nuts.
The show's format is pretty close to that of the Food Network's other big kitchen competition show, Chopped, but the tone is very different. The atmosphere on Chopped tends to be so pressurized, with its chefs so intense in their determination to outdo their rivals, that it can wear you down a little just to watch them. Cupcake Wars isn't exactly relaxed, what with a steadily dwindling cast of chefs whipping through a series of challenges and then presenting the results to a panel of three judges, who, even as their sweat is still glistening on their faces, will proceed to tell them why they failed and encourage them to enjoy their bus ride home and lovely parting gifts. But it is more fun to watch, because watching crazy people knock themselves out at ridiculous tasks can feel like fun. You know how, on Storage Wars, the auctioneer's wife, with that big, bright-eyed, toothy smile she always flashes, no matter what the contents of an abandoned storage room look like, lightens the proceedings by bringing something almost giddy to what could easily come across as a seedy proceeding carried out by a bunch of low-lifers and vultures? The people on Cupcake Wars seem to think the way she smiles.
I'm specifically thinking about the contestants, but it's not as if the regulars aren't all pieces of work themselves. The host is Justin Willman, comic magician and host of yet another Food Network show, Last Man Standing. Cast members of Saturday Night Live playing the hosts of absurd fictional game shows cannot equal him in smarminess and lack of gravitas. Prone to rubbing his hands together as if he were about to explain his plan for world domination to a trussed-up James Bond, he smiles broadly throughout every minute of the show, except for those moments that seem to call for him to smile extra broadly, such as the hard-to-top moment on tonight's episode when one contestant's sous-chef noticed that one of her pans was in flames, and, grabbing it off the stove and sticking it under a kitchen tap, damn near burned down the set. The woman who found out why everybody's grandmother always counseled them to never throw water on a grease fire was named Debbie. Heather, her boss, who's also her sister-in-law, made the most sensible comment of the evening when she spied her still trying to help and told her, "Debbie, why don't you get away from the stove?" (The second-most sensible comment came from the chef who let us all in on the little secret that "You can't have chocolate pecan pie without pecan pie.")
Heather and her fellow cupcake architects had been brought together to compete for the honor of providing the cupcakes for what one of the judges, Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson, referred to as "the drop of a cutting-edge album!" Specifically, the event they were being given the chance to cater was the release party for the debut country album by nineteen-year-old actress and singer Jennette McCurdy, who I confess I'd never heard of before but whose Wikipedia page makes for good reading. ("She gained interest in acting after watching Harrison Ford in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope right after her mother recovered from breast cancer.") Justin was quick to seize on the possibilities presented by the guest judge's musical career, advising the contestants to be sure and "hit the right note," because "only one of you can top the charts." But it was the country music angle that really caught the producers' attention. Since, as Justin explained, country music is a product and staple of Southern culture, the chefs were required to come up with "savory" cupcakes employing staples of Southern cooking: fried chicken with mashed potato gravy cupcakes, creamed corn with barbecue pulled pork cupcakes, hush puppy cupcakes, shrimp cupcakes. For those joining us late, "savory" when applied to cupcakes is code for "a starving man wouldn't agree to put that in his mouth at gunpoint."
Whether the challenges call for savory or sweet cupcakes, the products of the chefs' culinary ingenuity and the sweat of their brows must go before the judges, and it's the judges who could really get, say, the manager of Ted Kaczynski's literary estate to rethink his conception of crazy. Candace Nelson, with her wide eyes and three rows of teeth, is all over-the-top effusiveness, and it's not alway easy to decide whether a compliment from her is really what you want. After Heather goes before her with her confidence shaky and her eyebrows singed, Nelson blurts out, "It's appropos that your kitchen almost burned down, because your flavors are on fire!" Her regular co-panelist is executive pastry chef Fliran Bellanger, who at first seems like the sanest person around, until you start to wonder just how crazy he must be for him to want to be here at all, considering that he looks as if he ought to be off running the World Bank or something. It's the thickness of his French accent that finally pushes the whole thing over the cliff. For all his dignified bearing, once he starts talking, he is the Inspector Clouseau to Eric Ripert's suave, continental Monsieur Ooh-la-la. "Theese coopcake ees just a beet compsy-cumpsy. Like. eet deedn't eempress me, but, on the other hand, I can't say I didn't like eet. Eet was just kind of, hokay!"
By the end of tonight's episode, Marie Osmond, Pepe le Pew, and Taylor Swift's little sister had winnowed the field down to Heather and South Carolina-based cupcake queen Dawn Eskins, whose special gimmick is that she cooks using a power drill. (I could never be sure what exactly she was doing with the power drill, because the camera man apparently didn't trust her enough to get too close to her whenever she had it in her hand, but she referred to it so often that one can only assume that she has dreams of a corporate sponsorship deal with Black & Decker.) One of the highlights of every episode comes when the two finalists get to confer with the two loose-limbed bearded dudes who, based on their requests, will construct the showcase platforms for their cupcakes, despite the fact that they always come on looking as if a grip had just used a taser on them to get them to set aside their Fritos and L.A. Noire and step away from the bong for a spell.
Dawn had a clear idea of what she wanted: "I want him to make a thousand cupcakes float under balloons. And I don't care how he does it." This was apparenly a reference to a Jennette McCurdy video Dawn had seen that had balloons in it. She gets a solid A for doing her homework, but when you saw her designer/construction whiz backstage smiling and saying something to the effect that, hey, if she just wants him to blow up balloons, he can do that, you gonna finish that soda?, it was hard not to feel that she might just be heading back to South Carolina without a cutting-edge record release party added to her CV. Heather, on the hand, just sort of shrugged and figured that some kind of picnic table would be nice. Dawn, who was inordinately thrilled when Shaggy came back in with her balloon-bedecked display, sneered at the picnic table, saying that it struck her as all Dukes of Hazzard, maybe not the most cutting insult on a show that had been making it clear all night what its concept of country music and Southern culture was by playing what sounded like outtakes from the soundtrack of Hee Haw as background music. Sure enough, Heather was the victor, a major comeback for someone who, just half an hour earlier in the show, had admitted to having possibly created "the nastiest cupcake in the universe." Cupcake Wars is a small, strange universe all its own, but it's nice that it's a place that does not rule out the possibility of redemption.