Top Chef Just Desserts secrets: “freak-out” about recipes, Seth’s meltdown, more

Top Chef Just Desserts ends its first season tonight. While Top Chef Masters developed its own personality, this seemed more like a particularly great season of Top Chef with Gail Simmons subbing for Padma Lakshmi, and completely insane contestants whose talent was matched by their strong personalities and wacky behavior, from uncomfortably mean Morgan to “the Red Hots are for my mommy.”

For an upcoming Daily Beast story about aggression on reality TV shows, I talked to Top Chef executive producer Dave Serwatka about what made this season so much crazier. First, we talked about Seth’s breakdown and the show breaking the fourth wall, and my disappointment that the show cut abruptly and thus didn’t make it clear what happened.

“The truth is what happened did happen off camera,” he said, saying that Seth “was consulting with the producers.” Serwatka said, “We still wanted to respect his privacy as well and be respectful of where he was at that point in his life, but at the same time, show the audience and help the audience get some understanding so it didn’t seem too abrupt.” Thus, producers chose to break the fourth wall and show behind-the-scenes footage because without it, there would be “no way of explaining and we took a risk to break that fourth wall a little bit.”

Another risk Top Chef Just Desserts producers took was not letting the chefs use recipes, even though pastry involves much more precise measurement. “We don’t let them use recipes, which was a difficult decision and something that we debated a lot. We consulted with a lot of people that you’ll see as guest judges about that and we felt we just try it and see what the results would be early on and see if they could succeed without the recipes. As it turned out, the results were actually quite good and they really were able to remember things and modify things, and the results were excellent,” Serwatka told me.

But since the chefs brought their recipes with them, “there was a little freak-out about that. We decided in the early episodes to see what would happen. But we wanted them to have their recipes with them because if it somehow didn’t work out, we wanted to be able to change course,” he said. “We always knew there was this possibility we would have to go back if everyone fell on their face. But it turned they didn’t; they just responded incredibly well.”

For the next dessert season, Serwatka said, “we may do some combination because I think there’s some things that there are some things that probably they could execute with their recipes that might be very amazing, and we’re like to see that. But for fairness’ sake, we’d have to state that early on,” like allowing them to bring five recipes, for example, so “everyone comes prepared.”

Another thing producers learned was about timing. “The more time a pastry chef has to refine the presentation of his desserts, the better it will look on TV. And that has to be balanced against the finite amount of time we have in a given production day relative to cost and things like that. It’s a trickier thing to balance on desserts than it is on Top Chef,” he told me.

Besides the fact that the chefs couldn’t use their recipes and were totally out of their element–they’re not used to working in big groups under tight time constraints, at least not in the same way savory chefs are–producers suspected one other thing was contributing to their insanity: sugar. Serwatka said, “When we started to see a lot of tears–happy tears, sad tears, tears when they won–as lay people, we were like, ‘That looks like a sugar low or sugar high,’ but I can’t really say for certain.”

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.