Review of Top Chef: Just Desserts 2.01 — Showpiece

“Showpiece,” aka The Bitch Ran Away with the Spoon

Welcome to season two of Top Chef:  Just Desserts. If you didn’t watch season one, get thee to iTunes (or your download site of choice) and check it out. Be warned, however; if you enter “just desserts” into a torrent search your first result could be Homemade BDSM Her Just Desserts, which I’m pretty certain is not about dessert (though it could be about pie or tarts). BDSM doesn’t stand for “Brownie Deluxe Sundae Magic.”  Well… not in this case, anyway.

After a brief look at things to come on the new season, the premiere episode starts out in Santa Monica on what I presume is the pier, where the contestants meet and we start to get little introductions to them. We get audition clips and photos of past work. Blah, blah, blah. Some of them know each other from pastry school or competitions. We’ve got an alpha female. We’ve got Fluff Bar domination, whatever that means. No disco powder guys yet though.

And then Johnny and Gail come out looking better than ever. Gail is so beautiful. And Johnny? Well…I may have just crème fraîched my underpants.

It’s time for the first Quickfire Challenge of the season. Everyone is told to pair up with someone else even though they don’t really know each other yet. I bet people who know each other don’t choose each other, because pastry chefs are bitchy. Nobody wants one guy.

The challenge is to create a Modern Soda Fountain Treat. And they better take it to the next level. No basic sundae’s here. The winner gets immunity from the Elimination Challenge.

Everyone runs inside an actual soda shop on the pier. They’ve got 30 minutes to create something awesome, with their partner. Let’s see if they can be team players. I’m betting it’s going to be a challenge for some of the. And pretty quickly I’m proved right as we’ve got a dude who seems to be totally directionless. (the one nobody wanted, surprise!).

As they work we get more glimpses of competitors’ pasts and skill levels. Blah, blah, blah. Directionless dude Craig still has no clue and doesn’t know what to do. His partner thinks of Elvis though, when she thinks of soda shops. So she takes over. I’m not banking on them.

Ooh. Here’s something I’m interested in — there’s a chick making pickled cherries. Not something we saw last season. If they’re good, it’ll go over well.

Directionless dude is still directionless. He’s also annoying me already. And he’s a Harry Potter fan. (No offense to anyone, but not my thing and doesn’t tell me anything about his ability to make desserts, so I don’t really care.)

First up. Sally and Chris (but not the Sally and Chris living in my home) — A take on a banana split. Caramelized bananas, wafered crunch, white chocolate, and butter pecan ice cream. That’s a mouthful before you even taste it. Nods and thank yous.

Melissa and Vanarin — Micro cake made with malt and with shattered banana carpaccio & white sauce. The phrase “white sauce” brings Chinese food to mind.

Orlando and Megan — Their take on a banana split. Feulletine, brûléed bananas, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate syrup. There’s strawberries on there for garnish. There’s also a vanilla bean and Gail calls them out for “NFG” (non-functional garnish). Oops. Orlando turns away and says something that has to be bleeped. Oops times two I’m betting.

Carlos and Rebecca — A breakfast milkshake with chocolate chip ice cream and Captain Crunch that they froze with liquid nitrogen. I want one.

Katzie and Matthew — Chocolate egg cream with île flottante, citrus and lemon (as if lemon isn’t citrus?) Whatever. It seems a little boring actually. Johnny asks if there’s anything else in the bottom and Matthew says no. Not the answer Johnny was hoping for.

Nelson and Amanda — Their take on a sundae. Chocolate sponge cake, pickled cherries (there they are!), and pistachios. There’s whipped cream and chocolate sauce in there too. Johnny likes the cherries. Amanda is at the top of my list.

Craig and Lina — “A little bit of Elvis died and went to heaven” (her words, not mine — I could never come up with that and I’m glad). Craig’s the little lost boy. Johnny’s not looking too impressed. Almond crispies (whatever that means — made with almonds and milk chocolate), raspberry sauce, and butter pecan ice cream. There’s a slice of banana and some caramel in there too. It’s very sparse. Johnny asks what they think makes it modern and Lina says, “That’s a very good question, Chef.” It’s also a question she has no answer for. Craig doesn’t say anything at all, which is good for him. But it’s really not so good.

The judges step away and then they come back for Johnny to make the decision.

Least favorite — Orlando and Megan (banana split is a banana split), Craig and Lina (don’t throw Elvis at Johnny and not back it up, everyone knows he’s a fan just by looking at him — something so classic needs to be stepped up).

Favorite — Carlos and Rebecca (it was interesting and he liked the flavor, texture, and presentation), Amanda and Nelson (had balance and good presentation).

Winner — Amanda and Nelson! He felt they went for it and set themselves apart. They’ve got immunity in the first challenge. Amanda is very happy. I’m very happy for her.

Now they’re off to the Top Chef Just Desserts kitchen and it’s time for the Elimination Challenge:  Fairy Tale Showpiece.

Everyone except Amanda and Nelson draw a book off a shelf. Inside each book is one of four fairy tales, the contestants are grouped into teams based on their fairy tales. Nelson and then Amanda get to choose which team they want to be on.

We’ve got:

Hansel and Gretel – Melissa, Vanarin, and Lina

Little Red Riding Hood – Chris, Carlos, Matthew (and Amanda)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – Orlando, Rebecca, Sally (and Nelson)

Jack and the Beanstalk – Craig, Katzie, and Megan

Challenge is to create a showpiece and two plated desserts inspired by the fairy tale.

Nelson says he’s from Argentina and doesn’t even know what these fairy tales are. And we soon see that they’re working with the original stories and not all the other contestants are as familiar as they thought they were.

Riding Hood Team is off to a good start — they’re communicating, they’re sharing ideas. And they’ve got Amanda, who despite immunity isn’t going to slack one bit.

Planning starts for the Beanstalk Team and once again, Harry Potter boy Craig is annoying me. If he doesn’t get it together, he won’t be long for the show. He wants cotton candy clouds at the top of Jack’s beanstalk. Not a bad idea, but he doesn’t know how to make it actually work. On this show it’s not just the ideas that matter, it’s the execution. I worry for his teammates.

Moving to the Goldilocks Team, they’ve got Nelson who doesn’t know the stories or how to tie it into desserts. And right now neither does anyone else. Rebecca (who is almost as annoying as Craig so far) says that Hansel and Gretel would be easier because at least in the story they bake things, then she remembers that they bake children and that gets a little awkward. Brings new meaning to the term babycakes, doesn’t it Rebecca? There’s immediately a conflict between her and Orlando about using rice pudding as porridge. Orlando is a self-proclaimed “bitch in the kitchen.” I’m thinking there’s no Orlando in “Team” but I’ll have to consult a dictionary.

Team Hansel (and Gretel) is a hot mess. Lina (Craig’s partner of the above Elvis snafu) wants to make a house out of cake. The others point out that the house needs to have candy on it because you know… the story has a candy-covered house. No one even mentions gingerbread. This is going to be a disaster. Lina just keeps reiterating that she’s the best at cake. She won a cupcake competition. Okay… maybe she should be on Cupcake Wars then. Showpieces aren’t made out of cake unless it’s specifically a cake challenge. Melissa argues with her. Lina doesn’t care. Maybe they’ll get down and wrestle in pudding to see who gets to be in charge.

Beanstalk team lets Craig take on the showpiece because he’s “excited about it.” The other two will make the desserts. Right away I’m thinking not so good. These ladies are going to be disappointed, I can already tell.

Riding Hood has a well-coordinated plan for sharing the workload. And instead of just using chocolate, they’re making a Little Red Riding Hood figure from worked sugar that I cannot wait to see. Done right, it could be amazing.

Hansel & Gretel? Surprise! More fighting. Lina and Melissa are not getting along at all. Lina wants to be involved in everything. Melissa’s very “whatever” about it. The guy on the team (Vanarin) is pretty much non-existent.

Over at Goldilocks the porridge/rice pudding fight continues. And porridge lady (Rebecca) is irritating as all hell and if I were Orlando, I’d be fighting with her too. Just because. I get the idea behind her suggestion of the pudding, but I’m trying to imagine presentation and nothing good comes to mind. Like Orlando says, rice pudding is something you feed old people when they have no teeth left.

Uh-oh, Sally’s got overwhipped egg whites. We don’t know what they were for, but it could spell trouble.

There’s a beanstalk that’s … well just a big brown support with nothing on it and the ladies haven’t finished their desserts because they keep having to stop and help Craig get nothing done.

The day is over and the contestants are at their home. Beanstalk team has a little confab about everything they need to get done the next morning so they’ll have something to present. Craig’s going to pull some sugar for the showpiece and Katzie and Megan ask how he feels about that. And then we learn that he “hasn’t done that in a while” so maybe not a good job for him. It seems like he hasn’t really done anything in a while and given that he’s so young … If it’s been a while, how did he get on this show? Every minute that passes, Craig’s confidence falls so the ladies decide to let him handle final dessert prep like cake cutting while they take over all the real work including pulling the sugar.

We don’t really see anyone else at the house, so I’m assuming they’re having a big orgy with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Don’t look at me like that, it could happen.

Morning. Back in the kitchen with four hours to get things done. Goldilocks has texture issues with their “porridge.” More Rebecca v. Orlando snipping and bitching. Some gorgeous flower shaping. Showpieces well into assembly for three teams.

Beanstalk team has nothing. Megan’s sugar cracks but they keep going. Craig makes a comment about how they took over and now look what’s happening. Umm… Craig? What’s happening is that they’re actually getting something done. It might not be perfect, but they’ll have a piece to put on the effing table. Shut up and go cut some cake.

Hansel & Gretel ladies are fighting. Again. (Still?) It’s brilliant. Lina’s all “Did you do this? Did you do that?” and Melissa’s passive-aggressive with the “Nope. I had to do this instead, so that’s not going to happen.” She totally wanted to do a head bob and snap her fingers. Lina just stares at her like WTF? And she comments on how Melissa’s so “negative.” But I’m kind of with Melissa on this because if I were her, I’d have shoved her head in an oven by now. Burn the witch, put her corpse on the table for a showpiece. What? It fits the theme.

My early prediction — Lina and Craig as the people most needing to go home. If someone gifted like Amanda or Chris leaves, I will totally cut a bitch with my icing spatula.

Melissa’s ready to kick the table and knock their showpiece onto the floor because she’s so upset with what they’ve got. Damn, girl. Sabotage. I like it.

Presentation Time! The guests are all in fairytale costumes that are pretty awesome. They look at the showpieces and find them to be cool. Then the judges begin to arrive. Gail and judge Hubert Keller look at Goldilocks and find it to be really well done. They’ve got Some big abstract molded chocolate work, a cabin that actually looks like logs, and some gorgeous flowers.

Team Goldilocks. They’ve gone with things that “maybe bears like to eat”. Umm… Okay. An almond bar sponge cake, some fruits and nuts and stuff across the plate, some roasted almond marscapone cream, and honey ice cream. It looks good; presentation is nice. Their second dessert is based on baby bear’s porridge (here we go) — the porridge (rice pudding) in a small but nice puddle on the plate, hot Rainier cherries, basil syrup, and cherry syrup. They’ve got sorbet “too cold,” cherries that are “too hot” (including chili as well as temp), and porridge “just right.” I think they actually pulled it off really well. And nobody died in the making of their desserts.

UPDATE 8/26 — It turns out Team Goldilocks ended up swapping oatmeal for the rice pudding. I didn’t catch that, but it explains the appearance on the plate better.

Enter Johnny and judge Danielle Kyrillos (who is gorgeous). Their first stop is the Beanstalk showpiece. It actually ended up much better than I expected. The sugar work looks great. From the front. Johnny is pleased that they’ve used different techniques, but sad to see imperfections on the back. Dessert one is a bowl of bergamot clouds, whipped lemon ricotta, sweet pea sorbet, and spiced golden syrup. I like the choice of ingredients in terms of the theme and everything looks good, but Johnny finds the ginger overpowers the sorbet. Dessert two is a brown butter hazelnut cake with lemongrass stalk-infused cream and passion fruit. There’s a nice chocolate beanstalk leaf for garnish (no NFG here). Sadly, Megan ruins the moment by explaining that the “milk” chocolate leaf ties into Jack’s cow and it falls flat. Then she laughs nervously and Johnny and Danielle are not laughing with her. Awkward. Danielle describes the hazelnut cake as “one note.”

Gail and Hubert have moved to the Red Riding Hood showpiece and it is freaking gorgeous. The sugarwork on Red is really well done; Hubert notes how the design makes it look like her cape is blowing in the wind. It’s kind of amazing and confims that Chris is very talented. They’ve got this delicate structure of trees underneath a platform that Red’s on, which shows more technique and knowledge of showpiece building. The platform is actually an open book with Granny’s glasses on it. I’m super impressed for a first challenge and the time given. They did a great job.

Moving to the Red table, everyone is smiling — they’re clearly a team and they’re ready. They explain that Red was gathering flowers as she went through the woods, so they’ve started with a rose-scented bomboloni coconut tapioca and red berry gelée with a strawberry consommé to drizzle on top. Apparently Gail’s a sucker for coconut tapioca (something I’ve never heard of before). Next up, blackout sponge cake, cocoa nib nougatine, poached cherries (Amanda clearly likes cherries), and micro basil. Gail comments about how the basil adds flavor and brings it all together. I sense a winner.

Johnny and Danielle are now at the Hansel & Gretel showpiece (at this point I have the Zoolander announcer voice in my head … Haaaaaansel). Danielle comments on the combination of wonder and terror this story should evoke, but Johnny’s looking for technique and not finding it. They both want a gingerbread house covered in candy and this most definitely isn’t it. The piece is embarrassing and doesn’t tell the story well at all. How about their desserts?

Lina presents a butterscotch brioche, goat cheese mousse, and dehydrated smoked pineapple. I have no idea what this has to do with the story. Oh, it’s the “essence of the woods in your mouth” Vanarin explains and Johnny beats me to the quip with “You have pineapple that grows in the woods where you’re from?” No surprise, no response. Next up is a chocolate cloud, something kind of crunchy, and a little bit of cotton candy, milk sherbet, and hibiscus apple seltzer. Johnny asks who made what and then addresses Melissa on much of it being too soft and lacking texture.

Away from the tables, another guest comments on the missing gingerbread house. The judges head off for judging. But before we hear from them we get more bitching and bickering and self-congratulations. Melissa is embarrassed and blown away that Lina is happy with their Hansel & Gretel mess. Linda is clearly out of touch.

The Stew Room. A little chit-chat between the teams on how they worked. Gail comes in wearing a fabulous pair of red, peep-toe, slingback heels that I would die for and that remind me why I’d love to be in a Gail/me/Johnny ice cream sandwich. Talk about Tres Leches. Back to reality… Gail asks for the Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks teams to come out.

Gail gets all serious and reminds the competitors of the challenge. Then she smiles and says these two teams were their favorites. Hubert says they’ve started things off at an 11. Spinal Tap from a European pastry chef — I love it. They start with Riding Hood and Johnny says their desserts were excellent and he praises the work in their showpiece. Team Goldilocks — Johnny says their desserts were unique and relayed the story. They were also very complimentary of their showpiece, especially the flower work. Riding Hood wins! In the cut to a direct-to-camera interview, Orlando’s cranky it wasn’t his team that won. (Dude, normally I’d say second place is first loser. However, in this case you are so far ahead of the losers that you’ve pretty much won. Besides, you’re not going home. Get over yourself, dude.)

Now for the least favorites — Hansel & Gretel and Beanstalk. Immediately the judges are all over the absent gingerbread house. Lina defends their piece, saying “My opinion was it was a witch’s house, it shouldn’t look like a gingerbread house.” And she smiles. Gail doesn’t smile when she points out that the damn story has a candy-covered gingerbread house. (They were given a copy of the story, it’s not like they had to remember it from when they were five years old.) Then Melissa steps up and says it was horrible and she disagreed with the use of cake. Lina argues back that Melissa’s claims about making a house from cake aren’t true. The judges then go on to slam their desserts, especially the pineapple brioche which is all that Vanarin made and how it didn’t work and had nothing to do with the story.

Moving to Team Beanstalk. Gail asks how they divided the work and where they think things went wrong. Craig finally speaks, saying that the showpiece was supposed to be majority his and that he should have been more honest upfront that he didn’t have the ability. At least he finally gave credit to the ladies for all their help. Megan defends the problems with the back of the showpiece by saying they did the best they could to catch up and recover. The judges were pleased with the front of it. On the desserts, however, Gail points out the overpowering ginger in one and hazelnut in the other. The result in Johnny’s words was that everything was very “one dimensional.”

Judges meeting. Johnny points out that Craig lacks experience and maturity. But there are so many more problems with Team Haaaaaansel. Hubert points out that the trail to their non-gingerbread house goes to a solid wall on the side of the house, not to the front door. D’oh! Gail was extremely unimpressed with Lina. And Johnny found the use of cake for the showpiece to be a bad choice. The desserts are totally slammed. Johnny recognizes Melissa’s objections and that she got overpowered. He also comments on how Vanarin just let the ladies fight and didn’t get involved, and wonders what he did for 10 hours, because there wasn’t that much work in his crappy pineapple brioche.

You can see an extended clip of the judging online here.

A decision is made. Johnny calls out Team Hansel for having too many egos on a team and Team Beanstalk for their problems with flavors and time management.

Gail makes the announcement:  “Lina, please pack your tools and go.”

Lina’s embarrassed and she should be. She blames Melissa for throwing her under the bus. She didn’t have enough time to show her talent, but she had as much time as everyone else. You can catch her exit interview here.

And that’s it for this week. We get a glimpse of future episodes including a guest appearance by Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys.

Be sure to check out Just Desserts at Bravo TV for photos, clips, and exit interviews. And you can follow Johnny (@Johnny_Iuzzini), Gail (@gailsimmons), and #justdesserts on Twitter or check out Just Desserts on Facebook.

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