E: Man, this show is disappointing.
I really love Top Chef. I thought a dessert version would be wonderful, and I want to love it, I do. But this week’s episode leaves a really bitter taste in my mouth.
To quickly recap last night’s episode, competitors were subjected to a sudden death quickfire (make a donut for dunking) which reduced the number of competitors to 6. From there, the remaining chefs were split into teams of two, which were then charged with making a chocolate showpiece and 3 plated chocolate desserts. Whether intentionally or not, each team had a member who happened to be a showpiece specialist, and those two men (Chris and Orlando) did essentially all the work on the showpieces. Of those two men, one (Orlando) worked solely on the showpiece; his teammates prepared his dessert from his recipe.
So, cool, right? I don’t really get the appeal of sugar or chocolate showpieces myself (they’re so highly stylized) but I can appreciate the work and technique that goes in to them.
At no point were we given any criterion on how to judge a chocolate showpiece, which frankly would have been helpful. What makes it good? What are the judges looking for? Height? Detail? Technique? Color? We got more information last week on who the Beasties Boys are than what this challenge really was about. And surely, even within the subset of people who watch TCJD, more people know who the Beastie Boys are than know what makes a prize winning chocolate showpiece? Worse, we were given no indication of how the judges made their overall choice. Was there a rationale going into the judging? Did they pick the best showpiece and then choose the worst dessert from the losing team to send Katzie home, or was it the “cohesion” of the three blue team desserts and their showpiece which garnered that team the win? We heard that their offering was more cohesive, but not why. Did the judges take into account Chris’s work with the showpiece to save him? There was no individual winner, and why was that? We hardly got a solid look at Orlando’s structure, and other than his flower, we don’t really know why (or if, for that matter) the judges preferred it.
The “twist” of this episode, entitled “Death by Chocolate,” was that each team would eat with the judges, and get to comment on their opponents’ food. What we were shown of the “judging” was mostly the chefs insulting each others’ food (largely Chris and Orlando doing the talking). Since the judges seemed to abstain entirely, we’re left wondering. Katzie and Matt tried to stay positive about the desserts, making sure to say something nice about everyone’s plate. But Chris on their team, and Orlando, Carlos and Sally on the other, all made sure to deconstruct and detail every flaw. Now, does that mean that those two chefs were nicer, or that they were tasting better food? Were the judges influenced by the relentless negative critiques? Since we heard so little of their deliberations – and so much of the biased insults – it’s really hard to say.
For that matter, listen to the critiques of the donut which sent Megan home in the Quickfire. Megan’s caramel glaze was too thick, and stuck her donut to the plate – but it tasted good. Competitor Matt’s donut, on the other hand, was dry. His cream didn’t make it inside the donut, and they didn’t like the flavor of the cream even if it had. Yet she’s the one who goes home? Then, there’s Katzie’s dessert. It’s too big, not neat enough, and the promised jasmine flavor is lacking, but it has two fantastic elements that the judges went out of their way to praise. Matt – again, it’s Matt – presented a dessert that was too sweet, too chocolatey, and too boring. They didn’t single out any food item on his plate as redeeming – only his use of technique, but not his presentation or taste.
Yet it’s Katzie who went home. Why? How can putting too much dessert on a plate be the same sort of sin as a dessert which isn’t very pleasant to eat? We sent two of the three remaining women home in one episode. And whatever you think of the contention that Top Chef is sexist (based in part on the single female winner), when an episode fails to justify its eliminations, it only adds fuel to that fire.
Top Chef, in any incarnation, only works when the judges stand in properly for the viewers. Food may be a highly visual art, but only the diners can tell us if a dessert is as good as it looks. If the judges cannot convey to us why the food we’re not tasting is good or bad, then the show fails. It’s that simple. So perhaps this lack is the judges’ fault. And Top Chef: Just Desserts has always had a problem with this. Now, we know from reading about it that on the savory show, at least, the Judges Table debates can last 6 hours or more. During some finales, the debate has raged an entire night. So the final story is in the editor’s hands. While of course they want to craft a story with suspense in it – who will go home? – the TCJD editors seemed to have veered into the opposite danger. They haven’t presented us with the information which makes sense of the decision.
People are disposed generally to like dessert. As with all food shows, there’s the danger of sounding too picky or elitist when you slag something that looks good to the viewer. How bad could those chocolate desserts really have been? The cheftestants weren’t merely saying that a dish wasn’t as good as it could be; they implied the food was actually bad, and that, frankly, is hard to believe. So if you’re going to critique desserts, I think you need to be more than usually precise in explaining why one or another didn’t measure up. What’s more important, presentation or taste? Fulfilling the challenge, or showing off technique? Now, maybe the judges truly didn’t make that case. Or maybe the justifications for these eliminations were left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Either way, it’s clear that something here is definitely rotten.