Based on the first episode, Top Chef: Just Desserts is a serviceable spin-off from a franchise that could use a shot in the arm. This season of regular Top Chef has been pretty blah, so the hope seems to be that Just Desserts, coming on the tail end of a surprising surge in cake-based TV (what have you started, Ace Of Cakes?), could add something new to the table, so to speak.
In a sense, it does that. Just as using respected figures like Gael Greene, Jay Rainer, and James Oseland as judges on Top Chef Masters signals a gravitas to its viewers, the judges on Just Desserts veer younger and hipper—even veteran chef Hubert Keller is disarmingly youthful. Daily Candy’s Dannielle Kyrillos and the show’s mentor-chef figure, Johnny Iuzzini of Jean-Georges, are both quite good-looking and come across as snappier versions of Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio; Simmons herself, as the new show’s host, takes over the Padma Lakshmi spot (a little nervously, I think—more later).
The contestants, too, veer toward the young and attractive. It’s such a deck stacking of snappy gay mean and striving career women—the show’s very target demographic—that it runs the risk of self-parody. It's easily the best looking crew in the franchise's history. Bravo did not spare any effort to sell this one to a nation obsessed with cupcakes and cute.
And no, it isn’t giving anything away to say that the Quickfire challenge on the debut episode doers involve changing each chef’s “signature dessert” into a cupcake. Of course it’s a cupcake. What else would it be? Well, OK—an ice cream. But still, the cupcake market has been booming for years. It’s “relatable,” as I imagine they say in meetings, and so is chocolate—equally unsurprisingly, the theme of the elimination challenge, requiring the chefs to prepare “the most decadent chocolate dessert imaginable” by Iuzzini (who looks like he’s spent some quality time listening to the Reverend Horton Heat) for the guest judge, veteran chocolate man Jacques Torres.
The social aspects of the group are played up immediately, throughout, and especially heavily in the brief “Here’s what’s coming this season” preview at the end. Two of the men—New Yorker Seth Caro, who professes at the show’s beginning to looking a bit like Dexter, and Morgan Wilson of Dallas, who does not seem to take criticism well at all—are co-running for season villain role, with Morgan stewing theatrically and Seth exerting major attitude. (The “this season” clips show things progressing in more or less the fashion you’d imagine from the premiere.) We also get glimpses into the life of a newly divorced Chicagoan Malika Ameen, and the shamelessly camera-ready pontifications of New Yorker Zac Young make him someone Bravo will probably want to keep around in some manner. And at the group house, personality clashes are seemingly being primed already.
Obviously, interpersonal drama brings ratings—that’s reality TV’s entire principle. If those trappings make Top Chef: Just Desserts seem like a slightly more cynical version of the main show, it’s also a gooier one in some ways too. Gail Simmons is still a little stiff as host; she thinks on her feet as a Top Chef judge, and this is a cue-card job. But she’s warm (and has long professed a sweet tooth), and I’m guessing she’ll adjust. Iuzzini has it easier: the Tom role has gruff built in. He doesn’t have to be ingratiating. Kyrillos’ “It was like a party in my mouth” from the opening sequence will become a much-reblogged .gif in no time. Just Desserts is lit brighter, edited perkier, and has possibly more appeal than the show it spun off from. Whether it becomes as essential remains to be seen.