Maybe the most surprising thing so far about Top Chef: Just Desserts is just how shameless it is. The enterprise it’s part of isn’t above pulling at the “Fight! Fight! Fight!” strings, of course—that’s reality TV’s remit—but not since Season 2 of Top Chef proper, when four contestants ganged up on fellow competitor Marcel Vigneron and attempted to shave his head, has this franchise come so close to freak-show territory. Even if we didn’t get to suffer along with the rest of the chefs as Seth Caro—who, judging from the season’s first three episodes, falls into screaming fits at the drop of a cookie—there’s enough internal sniping (the mid-contest sniping between Morgan Wilson and Malika Ameen last week, for starters) to keep Real Housewives fans happy—happier, maybe, than those of us who like these series best when they emphasize the food.
Still, if Just Desserts is the least of the three Top Chef shows thus far ( Top Chef: Masters is a reliable fill-in series; Top Chef All Stars is set for December), it’s at the top of its class in its own division: Cake TV, all those damn shows about cupcakes, pastries, sculpted-with-fondant edible sculptures, wacky chefs, buttercream, will-it-fall-apart? deliveries in rickety trucks. En masse, Cake TV may well be the most banal TV genre going—and I say this as an avid fan of both House Hunters and How It’s Made.
To start with, pastry is not generally an exciting trade. You might go out to dinner at night hoping for a culinary adventure, but when you go buy your bagel or muffin or scone or Danish or whatever in the morning, you want it the same every time. That’s what baking is. Pastry, like few of foodservice’s major areas, from waiting tables to working the counter to food prep to line cooking to menu planning to mad-scientist molecular gastronomy (the subject of the endearingly geeky Future Food on Planet Green), is inherently limited in dramatic possibility.
Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential introduced American pop culture to the chef as pirate, swashbuckling his way through endless hours and uncertain working conditions and coming out the other side with great food and a certain grimy sex appeal, based on the ability to improvise when necessary—often the mark of a great chef. The mark of a pastry chef is not to improvise. They go to work at 4 a.m.; they measure everything precisely; they time the ovens carefully. No improvisation, very little inherent sex appeal—where’s the TV in that? (That may be key to Just Desserts’ relative success in the field: it’s not just about pastry, but chocolate and other kinds of sweets, which all have their own rules, some more advantageous dramatically than others.)
You can, of course, blame TV for starting it—namely, Sex and the City, whose spotlighting of the West Village’s buttercream Mecca, the Magnolia Bakery, has inspired a wholesale cupcaking of America. One of the keys to Andy Samberg’s instantly iconic Saturday Night Live short, “Lazy Sunday,” was its prominent mention of cupcakes. What had been a staple of the 3 a.m. 7-Eleven run was suddenly designer.
Naturally, there has been a big surge of TV shows about cakes, in or out of cups. The godfather of these is Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, which premiered four years ago and for some reason is still going. Ace documents the day-to-day business of Charm City Cakes, a Baltimore bakery specializing in sculptural work—scale replicas of volcanoes, ballparks, and cigar boxes, among other things, decorated in frosting.
The finished products are cute—cartoony and vivid, with imaginative detail work—but watching them be made is less enchanting than you might expect. There are some moments, as well, when the chefs’ improvisational skills come into play (also true of other Cake TV shows), but the show is so lax everything flattens out. Most everyone at Charm City mumbles, from the boss, a totally chill brah named Duff Goldman, on down; many of the bakers’ sentences don’t end so much as trail off. (The exception is Mary Alice, the office manager—who doesn’t work on cakes, which is when much of the action takes place.) The talking-head interviews are a chore. The staff’s occasional attempts to drum up bits of business for the camera (look, Duff plays bad punk rock in the basement sometimes!) are as hokey as Webster. Ace of Cakes has no dramatic tension whatsoever; it’s the kind of show people hate on principle, like a bum roommate.
Duff and friends are not the only ones who mug for the camera. The worst offender by far is Buddy Valastro of TLC’s Cake Boss, a bug-eyed Italian-American baker (he runs Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey) who manages to look at the camera all the time even when he’s not actually looking at the camera. He runs around yelping orders to everyone in front and back of the house; it’s cute for about five minutes, tops. (There’s a Tumblr dedicated to photos of the line in front of Buddy’s bakery, taken from across the street, called I Need a Little Fondant Over Here). Needless to say, there is now a spin-off, in which Buddy judges a baking competition.
Less obvious but more insidious is the WE Network’s The Cupcake Girls, about best friends Heather White and Lori Joyce, who run a string of cupcake shops in Vancouver and try to play their show for laughs, badly. In one episode, they hire a quality-control expert, who soon reveals that Heather and Lori have never made cupcakes, as they squirm trying to get out of attending a 4 a.m. mandatory baking meeting. (“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” one of them pouts into the camera.) On the show, they come across as the SNL “Delicious Dish” women from hell, clueless and indulgent. That goes for the show, too, particularly when Joyce, after an employee on maternity leave comes by to show her colleagues her new baby, brings the camera along to an in vitro fertilization treatment. I don’t know what the hell this has to do with cupcakes, either.
I don’t know what the hell this has to do with cupcakes.
I don’t know what Seth Caro’s multiple freak-outs have to do with them, either, and when he’s ranting I have to avert my eyes from the TV. (During the shots of Caro’s fellow contestants averting their eyes from him, naturally.) For his sake, I hope he gets eliminated sooner rather than later. The other contestants are primed to keep squabbling without him, anyway. There’s little of the cozy insularity of most Cake TV on Just Desserts; it goes for (or the contestants provide) the opposite pole. It’s sensational, which for reality-competition TV is par and for Cake TV is major.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign 'O' the Times (Continuum, 2004), part of the 33 1/3 book series, and writes columns for The Stranger, Cowbell, and Flavorwire. He lives in Brooklyn.