After a successful first season last year, "Top Chef: Just Desserts" is back starting tonight with another group of skilled pastry chefs to, according to the show's press page, "outbake, outblend and outbrulee the competition." Like its parent series, "Top Chef," the goal isn't only bragging rights for showing what you can do with desserts but, in addition, a $100,000 cash prize, a feature in Food & Wine magazine and a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Cayman Cookout.
The first season judging team of host Gail Simmons, pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, food & lifestyle expert Dannielle Kyrillos and Chef Hubert Keller is still intact for this second round as well as an eclectic group of guest judges including The Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz and the cast from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
At the recent Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, our Jim Halterman sat down at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to talk with Iuzzini and Simmons. Not only did they cover what's changed in the second season and which contestants viewers should keep their eye on from the start but also the absence of the Elvis-style hair and sideburns that Iuzzini displayed in the first season.
Jim Halterman: When I watched the season premiere, Johnny, I was very concerned that your hair is not as big as it was last year. What gives?
Johnny Iuzzini: I got rid of the sideburns, too! I don't want to be known for a look and it's the first thing that people gravitate towards. I've worked my whole life to achieve what I've achieved in the kitchen and I don't want to be known for a look so as soon as people started responding to the way I looked more than what I achieved that really upset me and I'm not attached to anything like that so I got rid of it.
Gail Simmons: I never knew that. I like it. It's a softer look.
JH: Going into season two, was there any retooling that went on in the show's format or competitions?
JI: It's actually very different in a lot of ways. First being the level of competitor that we brought on this year. We really spent a lot of time looking at resumes, learning about these people, where they've worked and what they're capable of because in order to really define stronger challenges, we had to make sure that they're able to do it so we elevated the challenges and elevated the quality of the competitor.
JH: How are the competitions tougher this time around? They were pretty tough last year!
GS: We ask a lot more of them. We give them a little more time because we realized in the kitchen that recipes and time are the two things you have and when you take them away chefs get very angry, which is very good for television, but at the same time we want them to produce bigger, more beautiful, more over the top more out-of-the-box creations and in order to do that they really need more time to do it well so we sometimes give them more time this season but we also demand that the results are that much better.
JH: How much does personality play into being on the show? You can be the best chef but have a less-than-appealing personality or have a great personality but not be the best in the kitchen.
JI: There's definitely a mix. You've got some people who are very professional and they're not interested in the drama; they just interested in producing. But then other people get waylaid by it. They want their voices heard and want the attention but that's going to happen anywhere. In any real kitchen you work in you're going to have both styles of people so it's important to have both styles of those people in the competition.
GS: Magical Elves does an incredible job casting and they've obviously had a lot of experience over the years with 'Top Chef' and the truth is that it was always hard for me. When I first started on the show I'd get mad and say, 'It doesn't matter about personality! We need them to cook! If the food isn't good it doesn't matter!' And it took Bravo to say to me 'Actually, Gail, it's television. Don't forget - we're making television.' And you'd be surprised, Jim, how hard it is for people to talk and cook at the same time and not a lot of people can do it well. That doesn't mean we're sacrificing talent but we're looking for people who are able to be comfortable on camera and be able to talk and be dynamic in terms of being a personality and unique and, at this point, too, they're also super professional.
JH: Of the new contestants, who would you tease that viewers should pay attention to either for the sake of drama or maybe because they're going to surprise us?
JI: There's a great dynamic between Chris [Hammer] and Orlando [Santos] because they've competed with each other in the past. They're both very strong competitors and have both been in this arena before and a lot of the other chefs have not competed before. Another chef to watch out for who does competitions is Sally [Camacho].
GS: I think Carlos [Enriquez] is an amazing chef and he's a family chef with an amazing backstory. He really started at the bottom and worked and scrambled his way to the top and is now running a pastry kitchen in Las Vegas. He's so creative and it's like an American story.
JI: Another chef to watch out for is Craig [Poirier], who actually has the least amount of experience but has a tremendous amount of heart. He's one of those people where his heart exceeds his skill but it's strong enough to carry him through.
JH: There was so much drama in the first season. How are you going to top that?
GS: We top it in different ways but you cannot make that stuff up. There is drama but it's a different sense of drama. I think a lot of the drama this season comes from the pressure in the challenges as opposed to the personal lives. Because they all have many more years experience in general as pastry chefs. There is more respect for each other and they get along very well but that doesn't mean that it's not interesting to watch. Their dynamic in the kitchen is fascinating and there is some stuff that goes on behind the scenes. There are some people who can be villainous.
JI: What's funny is we don't really see what happens behind the scenes. The first time we're seeing it is on the episodes and I was like, 'Oh wow, I had no idea this was going on!'
JH: I guess that could influence your judging if you did know, right?
GS: Yes! We don't see what goes on in the house [where the contestants live together] or their private interviews. We don't see any of it so we can only judge on what we eat and not what we think about the people. Often, I'm actually really shocked. I go through the whole season with one view of certain contestants like [last season contestants] Morgan and Heather H. I had one thing in my head from my interaction with them but when I watched the entire season I came out thinking of both of them totally different because they show a side of themselves in their private moments. They're always on their best behavior with the judges.
JH: What are your guilty pleasures in terms of desserts right now? From talking to you before, Gail, I know you change yours up every so often.
JI: I'm really into soft cheeses but with really ripe fruit. I love grilled peaches with fresh ricotta and a really strong honey. For me, right now, I'm trying to eat lighter but I am learning more about cheeses and I want to start making my own cheeses so I'm just eating a lot in that direction.
GS: I go through phases. In the winter, I tend towards caramel and chocolate when you're kind of hunkering down and want to stay warm but in the summertime, especially in August, this is a good time to be eating fruit. I really tend towards peaches and plums and really simple desserts like that or figs and cherries and strawberries and, of course, ice cream! It's ice cream season, Jim!
JH: It's always ice cream season!
"Top Chef: Just Desserts" airs Wednesdays at 10:00/9:00c on Bravo.