Cafe Society

Top Chef: Just Desserts: The icing on the cake

It's nice when contests end the way they should. Of the three finalists, Morgan is the master technician, cool and generally unflappable, and Danielle is strong on taste, not quite as strong on finesse. But Yigit, who has both heart and an impressive range of skills, wound up winning the first-ever Top Chef: Just Desserts title last night.

The last test was to make a four-course dessert tasting menu. For the prep, the finalists were given sous chefs, all highly respected professionals. Morgan got Claudia Fleming, a traditionalist baffled by his molecular gastronomic approach (I know no one actually says molecular gastronomy any more, but I don't know what else to call it). She disliked his macho posturing, and they didn't work together well. Danielle was paired with Elizabeth Faulkner, who willingly and good-naturedly shelled hundreds of pistachios for pistachio ice cream. Yigit's sous was Sherry Yard, and you knew they were off to a good start when you saw them actually dancing together while they prepped.

As for concept: Danielle went for flavors she loved and knew would work well, beginning with a cheese offering -- hazelnut cake with Spanish goat cheese and fig jam. Yigit's fanciful notion was that he was taking the judges out on a date, starting with flirtation -- cucumber-lime sorbet -- and ending with a satisfying, let's-go-home together hazelnut dacquoise with milk jam and caramel ice cream. Morgan wanted to take it to the max: Rather charmingly, he envisioned light broken into layers of color. His first offering, a passion fruit cannoli with mango carpaccio, fluid gel (I've always wanted to taste fluid gel, haven't you?) and tarragon jelly, and his last plate, which featured a perfectly layered baumkuchen and an impeccable square of transparent caramel laid over creme brulee, were visual poetry. Ironically, given his mastery of chemistry, he was brought down by a very traditional sweet: His chocolate souffles fell, and some were undercooked.

Final prep was accomplished with the help of previously eliminated contestants. Tim and Yigit worked peacefully together; Tania -- the first pastry chef to be eliminated, which bummed me because she seemed interesting -- was paired with Danielle; and -- uh-oh -- Heather H got assigned to Morgan, whom she loathed and didn't want to see win. One of the first things she did was sugar Morgan's souffle molds, which he hadn't intended -- though I don't think that's why the souffles fell. But she was very helpful during the plating, calming him down and helping select unscathed souffles for the judges, and he ended up thanking her effusively.

The tasters included all the past contestants; the guest celebrity sous chefs; and Saveur's James Oseland, among other recognizable faces. As always, Johnny, Gail, Dannielle Kyrillos and Hubert Keller had the final word. Everyone agreed that all three finalists had outdone themselves, and there was lots of hugging when Yigit's win was announced.

These shows attract two kinds of viewers (with overlap, of course). There are those who like to watch other people cook but don't spend much time in their own kitchens. And then there are those of us anxious to focus on food prep and learn culinary skills. You can pick up a few usable tips from Just Desserts. After years of souffle-making, for example, I started turning down the heat and using a bain marie because of a comment by Johnny Iuzzini -- and the souffles were definitely more tender. And though I've loved meringues and pavlovas all my life, I hadn't realized that they were supposed to be crisp outside and soft within, so I think my technique will improve. I'll be thinking harder about contrasts in temperature and texture in the future when I fix a sweet.

But copy the things these chefs did? Deconstruct a vacheron? Make yogurt caviar? Wouldn't have a clue how to start. So, overall, Just Desserts has less heft for me than the regular Top Chef. The judges are kinder, and the show is more playful, sillier, and more ephemeral. But it's also kind of fun. And seeing Yigit and Morgan topless hasn't hurt, either.

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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