Top Chef Just Desserts: Nice guys don't finish first

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Dessert's a funny thing in fancy restaurants these days. No more slices of cherry tart, chocolate cake or apple strudel unless they're miniatures, deconstructed, flavored with something incongruous like curry, set on curlicues of sauce you have to sample with your finger because there's not enough to get on a spoon, topped with a stick or wafer so tiny you can't figure out what it tastes of, sided by rosemary-infused cream or a shotglass of something liquidy. Or mousse-y. You hardly need to consume these playful little plates; you're supposed to appreciate them for their beauty and cleverness. Right before you rush home and rummage frantically in the cupboard for a candy bar.

And yet, you know there are great desserts out there, desserts that combine the joys of tried and true combinations -- meringue and fruit, sugar and nuts, cold ice cream against warm pudding, chocolate with hazelnuts or raspberries or mint or cherries or caramel or .. hell ... with just about anything -- with an adventuresome spirit.

How does all this work in Top Chef: Just Desserts?

Last night's was the second episode,and the Quickfire challenge was more about ingenuity than taste. The chefs had to make a dessert using a bunch of penny candy. "This is revenge on my vegan mother for never letting me get to the candy store," exulted irrepressible Zac. Some of the competitors came up with very grown-up concepts (in a couple of cases, making only minimal use of the lurid candies); others thought in terms of children. The winner -- so judged by well-known pastry chef Elizabeth Faulkner -- was Danielle, who elevated the kids' party treat of pudding dirt and gummy worms.

The Elimination challenge was to create something inspired by a great cocktail, using alcohol and ingredients from behind the bar at Mark Peel's restaurant, The Tar Pit. Judges were Faulkner and Peel, as well as the regulars: Gail Simmons, Johnny Iuzzini and the benevolent and talented Hubert Keller. The winner was Erika, who made what she called a tequila mousse and margarita bomb. Other favored desserts were by Yigit and -- satisfyingly -- Eric, who defines himself as a baker rather than a pastry chef and who created a bourbon pineapple upside down cake (the judges said they didn't want to stop eating it, but suggested he hone his plating skills).

There are several differences between Just Desserts and the regular Top Chef. Seeing the food didn't make me yearn to taste it; it seemed to be all about patterns and colors and I couldn't imagine the flavors, anyway. That may change as the season progresses and the challenges become more grounded. With Top Chef, you want the recipes because you figure you can at least approximate the winning dishes. Here, you know you can't -- at least, I know I can't -- and aren't sure you actually want to. Head judge Iuzzini, a youngster with Elvis hair, doesn't begin to have the gravitas of Tom Colicchio, which is both good and bad, since he also lacks Colicchio's pomposity.

But the biggest difference is the dynamic among the contestants. These guys are more volatile, funny, emotional and flamboyant than the regular Top Chef contingent. They confess their insecurities more than they boast, help each other out readily in the kitchen, are quick with hugs, words of consolation, and the occasional piece of bitchiness.

This is all very enjoyable, but last night's episode was far too dramatic. Seth, an experimentalist who possesses every new and scientific cooking technique imaginable, was seen at the beginning of the show talking on the phone to his mother, who was in the hospital and has undergone several surgeries. When he ran out of time to freeze his passion fruit sorbet for the Quickfire, to the consternation of everyone in the kitchen, he began to weep, sinking to his knees on the floor. Later, at the Tar Pit, he yelled at the other contestants because he couldn't find the grapefruit juice he wanted. Then he apologized, but in his anxiety to be helpful and make up for the tantrum, he got in everyone's way, yelling that he was available, racing round the kitchen. The Elimination challenge found him in the weeds again, and Zac offered his help: "As much as I bitch about him," he said, "I can't just see someone going down like that."

This might have been a rather sweet moment, but shortly thereafter a plate of Zac's chocolate squares somehow ended up on the floor, with Seth right beside them. Seth swore he hadn't moved, they'd fallen by themselves. Zac thought otherwise. Seth appears to be one of the most talented of the contestants, but his tizzy in the kitchen put him in the bottom three. Asked by the judges if they could be sure he wouldn't melt down again, he responded, "I honestly can't promise that."

And yet it was Tim, the oldest and kindest member of the group, who was sent home, despite being told by Iuzzini that though his dessert was a mess, he probably had "one of the sharpest palates of all the chefs here." I'm sure the chorus of groans and "Oh no"s with which the other chefs greeted the news was in large part because they liked him so much. But also because it meant that Seth would be staying.

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