Hello and warmest greetings to sweet-lovers everywhere!
Welcome to our second season, and thank you so, so much for watching. For those of you who joined us last year, welcome back, and let me tell you: you are in for even more sugary yet dramatic fun, more visually stunning creations, more deliciousness, more intrigue and ferocious competition, and more charming, outstandingly talented but delightfully nutty chefs. Throw in a Beastie Boy, some Willy Wonka cast members, a water park, and a beanstalk, and we’ve got ourselves one heck of a show!
For those of you just joining us this season, a very, very hearty welcome. My job on the show and here on BravoTV.com is as a style and food editor, an educated diner, and a color commentator. I am not a chef and do not play one on TV; I instead offer the smart consumer’s perspective: If I ordered this dessert from a menu in a restaurant and paid good money for it, would it meet my expectations? Would I be satisfied? Is it surprising and delightful in the context of all the inventive desserts I see in my work as an editor? I also try to remain pretty cheery. It is a competition of the highest level, and we judge the chefs strictly on the food they present to us, but they are, after all, Just Desserts -- and desserts are by definition a happy thing!
The contestants this year are truly top-notch. Many of them are really well-known in the pastry world. Some of them are teachers, some are team leaders, and all of them are that awesome and rare combination you only find in pastry chefs: mad scientist and brilliant artist. I think you’ll like them. They’re focused on their food; of course there is some personal drama, but putting out winning creations is at the fore. They also surprised me again and again — just when you think someone is down for the count, they pull out all the stops and push to the front. Also, I am happy that so many fierce female competitors are with us this time.So they all meet each other on the Santa Monica pier. I wasn’t there, obviously, but if I remember correctly everyone had to assemble very early, to beat the crowds and get the right light. Talk about jumping in headfirst. It was fun seeing who knows whom, who’s worked together or been in a class together or competed against each other in the real world. And then, without further ado, game on!
The soda jerk Quickfire, as frenetic as it was, gave us some early insight into the chefs. Who partnered up first, who was a less desirable pick … even this early, strong characters emerge. Like Amanda knowing she was going to pickle cherries, no matter what. Given the circumstances -- it was so crowded, they barely know their partners, they have so little time, there was definitely an element of chaos in the air — it seemed to evolve pretty smoothly.
Something I was shocked to see were Chris’s hands shaking so nervously. He runs a pastry school, so you would think he’d be fully confident. Just shows you how the intense pressure gets to everyone.
The other notable development in the Quickfire was Orlando and Megan’s use of the NFG. If there is one thing that makes Johnny crazy, I’ve learned over the years, it is definitely a non-functional garnish. The team didn’t really move the noble, classic banana split into the future, and whether or not that was caused by the visible tension and dissent between them, I bet the NFG pushed them over the wrong edge. And Craig and Lina just never got it together, spending more time floundering and bickering than crafting something tasty.
Carlos and Rebecca’s Cap’n Crunch shake looked awesome, and the cereal’s texture, along with the flavors they combined, seemed to win over Johnny. It was neat to see those cherries of Amanda’s, along with her and Nelson’s exciting, luscious presentation, push them to victory, and the enormous smiles of relief that come with winning for the first time.
And then, to the Elimination Challenge. There’s something goose-bumpy about watching the chefs see their fancy pastry kitchen for the first time. That room really is something to behold, so shiny and new, like a dessert wizard’s playground with every conceivable bell and whistle.Channeling the chefs’ creativity through a fairytale challenge ensured they would have to think not just about flavors, but about astounding and gravity-defying visual elements. Nelson wasn’t the only person not raised in America who wasn’t as familiar as so many of us are with these stories… as you know, my fellow judge Hubert Keller grew up in France, and we had to give him a crash course in the goose that laid the golden egg, the three bears, that terrible wolf, and all the rest.
My perspective is to see only the finished product, at the Elimination Challenge service, until I watch the episode and see all the crazy goings-on in the kitchen. Two big things were gracefully minimized when the chefs presented their creations to us: the extreme angst and tension between Melissa and Lina, and the challenges Katzie and Megan faced in their teammate Craig. Seeing this unfold in the kitchen in hindsight explained a lot. Remember, we judge only on what we are presented, but watching the behind-the-scenes, I felt sorry for Katzie and Megan having to really carry someone who should have pulled his own weight, and annoyed by the way Lina was talking to Melissa.
Walking into the dining room, I literally gasped. The chefs had completely transformed it into a fairy wonderland. It was beautiful, it was magical, and it blew all of us away. Along with our colorful, costumed guests (I think they were drinking mead!), we were transported to Middle Earth, an enchanted forest, and a childhood memory, all at once. Plus, getting to wear a cape on TV has been a lifelong dream of mine, so that was a very exciting personal highlight.
Team Goldilocks’s showpiece was nuanced, textured, and quite architectural, and that log cabin was rock solid. I mean, you could survive anything in there. The three little pigs should look into leasing it. As for their desserts, the almond bar and fruits of the forest with honey ice cream was not just what bears like to eat, it was totally what humans like to eat. Such a smart and delicious way to do it -- tasting it, you felt like a bear putting his paw into the forbidden honey pot. Decadent and forest-y, but perfectly elegant in its presentation. I will be honest about the other dish… while it was a clever execution and overall very tasty, I think Orlando was right about porridge in dessert in general… to my taste, it veered a little in the direction of nursing home.Poor Katzie and Megan’s beanstalk was really pretty, even if only on one side. I think they did the very best they could, considering they not only pretty much lost a teammate, Craig created some problems before they realized how in over his head he was, which they also had to fix. Their bergamot cloud was truly intriguing. I had never tasted the combination of sweet peas and ginger before, and it was a mesmerizing one. As Johnny said, the ginger was a bit overpowering, but it’s rare you get to try something entirely new, so that was cool. The cake could have been so much more flavorful, incorporating more of the surrounding flavors, but it seems like it just got overlooked in the scramble to finish.
The Hansel and Gretel house was, as I said, a combination of wonder and terror. I mean, they made a rather Bohemian forest scene, like something out of a storybook from the 1970s. But the witch’s house is almost as well-known in America as the White House, and everyone knows it’s covered with candy. It boggles the mind why and how they missed such an obvious opportunity to make their showpiece more glorious. Their dishes were equally horrible. The butterscotch brioche with pineapple, sage, and goat cheese mousse was confusing and out of sorts. Whether or not there are pineapples in any forest, the whole thing was kind of a mess, and the goat cheese mousse was a little icky. The chocolate cloud with milk sorbet, cinnamon cotton candy, and hibiscus seltzer was equally jarring, and the seltzer was sticky sweet and nearly flat. It was a weird add-on that didn’t add much.
Team Little Red Riding Hood crafted a spectacular spectacle that even included grandma’s spectacles! I’m not sure if you got the chance to really stare at it, but the longer you looked, the more you saw. You could honestly spend hours gazing at that thing, and it was darn near a work of art. The bomboloni with strawberry was satisfying yet refined, and their blackout sponge cake with poached cherries and basil was straight out of the Black Forest and utterly yummy.The best team really did win. We weighed the level of creativity in the conception of the showpiece, as well as its execution, the difficulty of technique and the finesse and skill each team exhibited in assembling theirs. As always, most important was what we ate. And Team Riding Hood knocked it out of the forest.
It is always sad when the first person has to go home. Really sad, because you know there was potential the chef just didn’t get to show us. But, that is the way the cookie crumbles, and so off Lina went. Have a fairytale of a week, and we’ll see you next episode.
For more sweet musings and happy inspirations, please follow me on Twitter @DKyrillos.