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I Scream, You Scream: More Red-Hot Drama on Top Chef: Just Desserts

Just when I thought that things couldn't get any weirder on Bravo's Top Chef: Just Desserts...

Last night's episode of the sweets-themed Top Chef spinoff ("Lucent Dossier") featured not only one of the oddest sequences ever to air on a reality competition series but also one of the most head-scratching endings to a contestant's trajectory yet.

Which would have been more than enough to put this episode over the top, except that several of the remaining pastry chefs used this opportunity to have breakdowns of their own, with several contestants bursting into tears, expressing serious doubts about the competition, squaring off against teammates, eliminating themselves, and, well, suffering a major anxiety attack and being declared medically unfit to continue on the series.

Yes, all of this happened in a single episode that was intended to be about the theatricality and drama of the Lucent Dossier Experience... and the producers got some serious sparks flying and it wasn't from Zac's Black Forest in Burning cake.

I already wrote about Seth Caro's bizarro breakdown over some candy a few weeks back, but I'm just still reeling from last night's episode, which took the red-hot drama to a whole new level.

Forget about the ice cream and the flaming desserts and centerpieces, this episode might as well not featured the pastry chefs doing actual cooking as the tension contained within this installment wasn't from the competition element but rather from the internal struggles raging inside the contestants themselves. (Though I will say that I thought that Morgan's dessert looked absolutely gorgeous, an elegantly plated dessert that was at once elegant and whimsical.)

While the chefs dazzled and delighted the taste buds of the judges and the Lucent Dossier performers, the huge pink elephant in the room is once again Seth Caro.

I'll be upfront and say that Seth clearly has some major issues of his own that he needs to work through outside of the competition. The breakdown over the red-hots, the tantrum over grapefruit juice, the extremely random fury over missing paper cups, these are all signs of severe stress, if not mental anguish. Yes, there is a lot of pressure in this competition and you have the cameras on you at all times, which means that these already fragile personalities--each of whom seems to suffer from some form of perfectionism--are placed under additional scrutiny.

Not everyone can deal with stress or pressure in a productive or even rational manner. Considering that Seth started off so well in the first week and won the first Quickfire and Elimination Challenges, his fall from grace is even more staggering. But the red-hots incident revealed a brittle quality to his character, the ability to fall apart at the seams the second something didn't go his way, whether that was a sorbet that refused to set in time, the absence of grapefruit juice behind the bar at The Tar Pit, or paper cups that he admittedly threw away of his own volition.

Whereas someone else may have seen these obstacles and adapted, Seth found himself unable to do so, instead shutting down completely and then throwing the mother of all freak-outs, more than a little shocking considering the man is 33 years old and not an eight-year-old child.

Top Chef has long withheld the "sausage factory" view of what going into making the show, which is why we've never been privy to the stew room briefings with producers ahead of Quickfire Challenges, where the rules are revisited and questions raised. As soon as we followed the cheftestants back to that room, I knew that something unexpected and unprecedented was about to go down and, sure enough, Seth used this opportunity to accuse the producers of cheating, of unfair advantages, of all manner of things before he stormed off... and then fainted.

Paramedics were summoned, concerned looks exchanged, and head judge Johnny Iuzzini made an appearance to announce that Seth would not be returning to the competition.

I believed--wrongly, as it turns out--that this would be the end of the capital-d Drama this season. Not by a longshot.

Given Seth's unanticipated departure, the producers were left with a dilemma: the Elimination Challenge this week required three teams of three to complete and Seth's medical leave had left them one man down. With what seemed like no other options, producers opted to bring back ousted contestant Heather C.

Big mistake.

In her previous appearances, Heather C. also proved that she too was unable to cope with the heat of the kitchen, fumbling at every turn before getting eliminated just last week. Despite getting a second chance, Heather was once again flailling this week, between the meringue mess and the slew of questions dribbling out of her mouth. And she was destined to be eliminated again, two weeks in a row, for her dessert (black pepper pineapple with chocolate sherbet and meringue shards). That is, if Malika hadn't stepped in.

Here's where things got really strange. Malika interrupted guest judge Gail Gand as she praised her dessert--a saffron panna cotta with feuilletine crunch and candied ginger--to announce that she wanted to eliminate herself from the competition. The judges were stunned, particularly as it was clear that Malika was in no danger of being sent home and the judges were praising her rather than slating her at the time.

Yet she wanted out. I don't blame Malika for missing her kids and not being able to cope with being away from them, but I do take offense to the fact that she took away a spot in the competition from someone who may have fought harder than her, who may have wanted to win more fiercely, and who may have just wanted to be there instead of elsewhere.

So Malika, wiping away a tear, told the judges of her decision... and they respected it and bid her farewell, the second time in one episode that a contestant was removed not for cooking a shoddy dessert but for other reasons outside of the competition itself.

But, back in the stew room, things were heating up for Heather H., despite the fact that her team had actually won the challenge, though the singular win went to Morgan for his mango panna cotta with acai gels. Lashing out at him, Heather accused him of not being a team player. It all seemed to come out of nowhere, though Heather was acting moody after the Elimination Challenge as she passive-aggressively cleaned up the station and refused to talk to Morgan.

But Heather, let it be clear, volunteered to do the show piece. On her own. By herself. That was her decision to make and no one forced her to do that. Yes, she still made a great dessert and the judges raved about her chai-infused triple chocolate mousse torte. But she was the one who opted to make a dessert and do the huge show piece without the help of her teammates. Her ego was bruised because she wasn't singled out for the solo win by the judges and she felt that she had carried the heaviest burden on the team.

Guess what? The judges aren't judging on onus. They're judging on what's on the plate and Morgan's dessert was more accomplished and more in keeping with the theme of the Lucent Dossier Experience. Which is why he won.

Heather, so previously level-headed and calm, exploded at Morgan. And in that moment, she became no more likable than Seth himself.

One can only hope that this dessert-themed show gets back to the desserts soon and leaves the petulance where it belongs: in the past, rather than in the kitchen.

Next week on Top Chef: Just Desserts ("Edible Fashion"), the remaining pastry chefs have to create fashionable desserts to please the head judges Gail Simmons and Johnny Iuzzini.

Top Chef: Just Desserts Preview: The Notorious Souffle

Top Chef: Just Desserts Preview: A Dessert Fashion Event


Tonya Ricucci said…
definitely a fascinating show. Are pastry chefs more likely to be drama queens or that just happened to be who got selected? Seemed irresponsible at the time not to send "Red Hots" Seth home after his meltdowns earlier in the season - thank goodness the producers wised up and sent him home,
Cassie said…
I was really disappointed by Heather H.'s temper tantrum as, before this episode, I believed her to be one of the more practical and even-keeled contestants. She's immensely talented and shouldn't pout because the judges didn't award her the top prize in this challenge. I thought that the drama would subside after Seth left but, obviously, that didn't happen.
Anonymous said…
What's with Heather's forehead? Its distracting.

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