Award-Winning ‘Top Chef’ Spawns Successful Spin-Off

by Shannon Baldo
Columnist

It has hit that time of the semester, dear readers, when I suddenly cannot find much to write about each week. All of my time — and yours, too, I suspect — is spent in the day-to-day stress of homework, projects, jobs and (gulp) applying to graduate school. At the end of that busy day, I don’t seem to have time to curl up and watch hours of television like I used to, and I certainly don’t spend the time I do have watching the shows and movies I can’t help but thoroughly analyze.

So this week, dear readers, I present a review of a show that I probably shouldn’t watch, but I just can’t help myself: “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”

Now it’s rare for a reality show to impress me in its first season. Actually, it’s rare for a reality show to impress me at all. But Bravo’s latest culinary competition has somehow done the trick. Perhaps because it’s learned its lessons from its Emmy-winning inspiration “Top Chef,” perhaps because it’s led by such veterans of the trade as Gail Simmons and Hubert Keller, but somehow “Top Chef: Just Desserts” has shaped itself into a success through even its first run.

Of course, when I first heard that the “Top Chef” franchise was expanding into the dessert category, I was more than a little worried. I couldn’t help but ask, “What are they going to do every week? How is that possibly going to be interesting after the third or fourth episode?” But somehow none of the season’s competitions seem dull or repetitive. From wedding cakes to catering, from cupcakes to candy, from sundaes to soufflés, from truffles to tea parties, every competition features a different area of dessert-making — and every one will satisfy even the worst chocoholic’s sweet tooth.

Replacing the inimitable Padma Lakshmi as the host of this spinoff is Gail Simmons (Food & Wine magazine), who regularly serves as one of the judges on the “Top Chef” series. Taking Tom Colicchio’s role as head judge and makeshift mentor to the chefs is dessert genius Johnny Iuzzini; like his predecessor, Iuzzini seems perfect for the television spotlight. Tall, dark and good in the kitchen, Iuzzini’s eye-candy factor is only outdone by his utter charm, which fits perfectly with the exuberance of the series. Joining Simmons and Iuzzini on the judge’s panel are food critic Dannielle Kyrillos and restaurateur Hubert Keller, who coincidentally made it to the finals in the first series of “Top Chef Masters.”

And, although the show keeps its professional flair through its intense challenges and harsh criticism of the contestants, “Top Chef: Just Desserts” holds an element of whimsy, which is incredibly refreshing for the usually extremely competitive series. Perhaps because the challenges are focused on sweetness, perhaps because the contestants are fun and flamboyant, perhaps because the kitchen is decorated in pinks and purples — “Top Chef: Just Desserts” is more like a chocolate-covered playland, like a Candy Land brought to life, than a typical reality show.

So for now, after a long day’s work, when I should be reading or studying or watching something important, I will be watching “Top Chef: Just Desserts” and escaping into its whimsical world of sweetness. And with the finale premiering this week, if you haven’t already seen it I suggest you start watching now. Nothing is more relaxing than watching someone else make chocolate cake, and I’m sure Bravo will be serving it up to you in marathons.

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