Anyone who's clocked in any time watching Top Chef knows that the contestants always lose their shit when they're called upon to make a dessert, or even when they're handed a challenge that puts them in the position of at least considering including one as part of a larger menu. On more than one occasion, a chef has boldly announced that he or she is going to tempt the fates and make a dessert, whether the judges are expecting one or not. The announcement is usually delivered in the tone of Evel Knievel vowing to jump Snake River Canyon, though Knievel's daring feat, which ended with a rescue team disentangling him from the wreckage, turned out better than most of those desserts. It took the Top Chef producers a few years before they realized they were whetting viewers' curiosity: Who willingly makes desserts, and what the hell is wrong with them? With two full seasons now under its belt, the franchise spin-off Just Desserts has done a better job of answering the first question than the second, but not for lack of trying.
No one can accuse the show of going easy on its luckless contestants. More debatable is how much chance it gives them to really show what they can do. Many of the ambitious treats created for the show are more fun to look at than, the judges assure us, they are to eat, and many of the challenges have a similarly showy edge to them; they seem less like opportunities for the chefs to push themselves in a potentially fruitful and meaningful way than practical jokes cooked up by guys whose day job is overseeing fraternity pledge rituals. This past season, contestants were given the chance to create desserts utilizing different ingredients selected at random from a list of savory foods that have been name-checked in Beastie Boys songs (with Ad-Rock present at the judges' table) and show that they could cook a pie using just one hand. Even the more ambitious challenges brought out some of the contestant's inner Weird Al, such as the time they were required to pool their talents to create an edible wonderland inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. One chef decided that the image wouldn't be complete until she'd stained the grass with chocolatey Oompa Loompa scat.
If this season had a breakout star, it was probably the tall, pressurized Orlando, an inherently dramatic presence with a low boiling point and little but contempt for the skills and personalities of most of his rivals. Despite his high estimation of his own talents, Orlando finished up in the bottom and was threatened with elimination on many more occasions than he took home the gold. The judges didn't seem much more crazy about him than the fellow contestants he trash-talked, and there was an ugly moment during the episode devoted to elevating amusement-park cuisine when head judge Johnny Iuzzini seemed to take great personal offense at Orlando's ground-breaking attempt to incorporate chocolate in his candy apple.
Unfortunately, Orlando got booted last week, at the end of a challenge that involved creating a dessert that was made to look like a savory dish that was associated with the cuisine of a particular country. Chris, one of the chefs who was still standing at the end, made a chocolate mousse with raspberry jam that was disguised as Beef Wellington. The only problem was, Chris had been assigned France as his country of origin. When the judges asked if Beef Wellington wasn't an English dish, what with it being named after the defeater of Napoleon and all, Johnny just shrugged and muttered something about how Beef Wellington itself was probably a rip-off of some French dish, whogivesaratsass, grumble grumble. It appeared that, having cared too much too early in the game, he was checking out of the series a couple of episodes early.
Orlando's exit left us with a final three that included Chris, the guy who won't shut up about his wife and child, whom Gail Simmons, in a voiceover intro, tagged as a man to beat because of his "sensational showpiece"; Matthew, the other guy who won't shut up about his wife and child, whom Gail Ann credited with "flawless flavors"; and Sally. When Gail Ann got to Sally in the intro, she couldn't be bothered to come up with an alliteration and just started throwing stuff at the wall: Sally, she said, impressed the judges with her "precision, creativity, and skills." It was as if Gail had suddenly decided that if Johnny wasn't going to even try any more, then she wasn't, either. The final menu required each chef to create a showpiece featuring an entremet, savory bread, a bonbon, and a plated dessert inspired by the feelings the chefs had for a special person in their lives. You got no points for guessing that both Chris and Matthew wanted to dedicate their food to their wives and daughters. Sally dedicated hers to her sister or something, because she and her goldfish haven't made up yet since their last big fight.
For help, each chef also got to select two of their eliminated rivals to serve as sous chefs. Each selected a sous chef at random based on numbers the chefs were holding, which is how Vanarin, who was eliminated on the second episode, managed to get a little more face time, riding Sally's gravy train. Sally's other sous chef was, thank God, Orlando. The official scandal of the season finale was how Sally set Orlando to work assembling her showpiece practically single-handedly. It was her design, she insisted, even if she, like Warhol during his Henry Ford period, had farmed out the actual physical labor. For his part, Orlando seemed to be working so selflessly hard, laboring away like a saint to make something beautiful that someone else would get the credit for, because he was trying to make a point. Maybe it was a point about who really deserved to still be in the competition. "I'll be honest," he told the camera, "I did not want to work with any of the individuals in this kitchen." He's still got it!
Matthew, on the other hand, wasn't really in the competition at all. This became clear from the start when Matthew, who can make chocolate tap dance and fill out his tax forms for him, announced that he was going to concentrate on using sugar because he's never used sugar that much and has no special facility for it. Long-time viewers of the Top Chef programs know that whenever a contestant decides to "prove himself" by doing something he's never done before, especially at a do-or-die moment in the competition, they're seeing someone kick a chair out from under himself after making sure that the noose connecting his neck to the overhead beam is good and snug. "I could easily do chocolate," Matthew said, "but I don't want to take the easy way out." The cameraman must have watched him for awhile and then asked, "Seriously, dude, why the hell are you using sugar?" because then Matthew said, "You don't win by sitting back and doing the same [BLEEP!] every day, right?" The discovery that Matthew was using sugar instead of chocolate in the most important bake-off of his life seemed to irritate Johnny enough to rouse him somewhat, and soon he looked like his old self again, complimenting Chris on his showpiece by saying that it was so lovely, it was a shame that part of it was already visibly falling apart.
The judges convened and set about doing what they do. Hubert Keller was avuncular and reasonable, Dannielle Kyrillos smiled and made airhead noises, and Gail Simmons seemed distracted, as if she were wondering how much time she had to get to the gym before the new season of Top Chef rolls around and she has to go back to being seen on TV standing next to Padma Lakshmi. But since Matthew, by boldly stepping out of his "comfort zone," had removed himself from consideration as effectively as if he'd sent Sacheen Littlefeather to stand in for him at the judges' table, and since both Sally and Chris had basically done well by their menus, the choice just came down, as Johnny put it, to whether you'd rather reward someone whose showpiece was built for her by someone else or someone whose showpiece didn't remain in one piece for the length of its intended natural life. In the end, all of Chris' teary invocations of the family that was suffering so terribly from his absence paid off for him. Will Top Chef: Just Desserts ever develop beyond a thin, geek-show version of its big brother? I kind of hope not. For one thing, the producers still have two more Beastie Boys they can book as guest judges.