Cafe Society

Top Chef Just Desserts , round eight: CelebriTea sweepstakes

I really like this batch of contestants on Top Chef Just Desserts -- well, perhaps not "I focus on me" Morgan, who does seem to be a bully in the kitchen -- and also the general dynamic among them. Several are clearly fond of each other, and almost everyone is genuinely sorry when someone gets sent home. In fact, it was his affection for Heather, eliminated last time, that almost brought Yigit down this week, when he was called before the judges for his half-hearted Elimination Challenge sweets. "I completely came undone," he said, "and that directly translated to my food."

What I don't like so much is the shallow whimsicality of the challenges.

I'd love more talk about traditional desserts -- and it was fun watching everyone trying to pull strudel dough last time (my mother, with her swift, smooth strokes, would have aced that one). Yes, I know desserts these days are playful, decadent little things that have more to do with fashion, chemistry and novelty than comfort, deep pleasure or taste. But you are supposed to put them in your mouth. And if I wanted pure fashion, I'd be watching Project Runway.

The Quickfire Challenge was to create an edible bouquet. It was judged by cake decorator Shinmin Li, a hard-shelled young beauty whose criticisms were incisive but displayed an unfeeling arrogance. Yigit's gorgeous spun-sugar vases might have won for him, but they were extraordinarily fragile, and Morgan unfortunately -- and I do believe accidentally -- broke one of them. The winner: Morgan. Since the flowers were intended as purely decorative, no one actually tasted them.

I've explained to my American friends until I'm hoarse that tea in England is a robust, universal tradition, and not just about frilly cakes and lifted pinkies -- not to mention the fact that high tea is a working person's supper, not something so high-falutin' you might enjoy it with the Queen. But there's no convincing anyone. And, okay, cream teas are nice and decadent. But a CelebriTea in which contestants had to pick a celebrity couple to be represented in pastry? Please!

Perhaps the lowest point this season came when Dannielle Kyrillos informed Yigit, who had chosen Madonna and Guy Ritchie, that his cake was hardly representative of Madonna because it wobbled, and the singer works out three hours a day. Danielle, who's held on much longer than most of us expected, was in the top three, with Morgan and Zac, and it was a pleasure to see Zac take the win.

A pop-culture lover, he had taken the challenge completely to heart, representing Blake Edwards with a pink (think Pink Panther) pavlova -- you can't get more traditionally tea-timey than pavlova -- and placing a spoonful of tarragon-flavored sugar on top of his Cap'n Von Trapp Crunch. I think he used Cap'n Crunch inside for texture as well.

Eric and Yigit suffered because they'd planned their work around chocolate, and just as everyone began, they were told there'd be no chocolate available. Also, each was suffering a severe crisis of confidence. Gail Simmons had tears in her eyes when she told Eric -- a favorite with judges, viewers, and the other contestants -- to pack his tools and go. Shaking his hand, Johnny Iuzzini told him he was a great chef.

So Eric's sadness at being eliminated was tempered by a bubble of joy. He's always identified as a baker, he said, and "no one ever called me a chef ... I became a chef here."

Read Juliet Wittman's last Top Chef Just Desserts piece here.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman