Netflix’s School of Chocolate and The CW’s Great Chocolate Showdown both place chocolate at the center of competitions, but that’s about all they have in common. They take significantly different approaches to the use of chocolate and reality TV.
Great Chocolate Showdown is an import from Canada, and while I was hoping for Canadian charm in the style of The Great British Bake-Off, it’s essentially a middle-road Food Network competition, serviceable without being special.
Far more interesting is School of Chocolate, which premiered on Netflix late last year and stars chocolatier and pastry chef Amaury Guichon. His show is a competition that tries to conceal its competition inside the cultivation of skills, and mostly succeeds.
The Great Chocolate Showdown
The Great Chocolate Showdown (The CW, Saturdays at 8 and streaming free) is more like Food Network’s Baking Championship than the UK’s The Great British Bake Off.
Half of its contestants are from the United States, and half from Canada, though it’s not a Canada vs. the U.S. thing.
Should you have a Food Network competition itch, this will scratch it. But if you want more than that, or something new, it doesn’t really have much to offer.
The Great Chocolate Showdown is quite generic and uninspired, from the one-note music to the brightly colored yet somehow still personality-free set design. The coolest parts of the set are a large faux dispense of chocolate, and the way the front of the tables mirrors the shape of a chocolate bar.
It has two challenges, with one person exiting at the end of every episode. The three winners in the first round win immunity, and get to skip the second challenge. But that just means we don’t get to see the three best people competing.
The show opens with judge Steven Hodge demonstrating tempering chocolate. It’s framed as a demo for the contestants, but so dumbed-down it seems insulting to imagine that the people they’ve cast wouldn’t know what tempering chocolate is or how to do it.
The second lesson is literally about creating impressions in chocolate with things like leaves and bubble wrap. It turns out that you put chocolate on a thing, and then peel it off after the chocolate has set. How surprising! The most-complicated demo is uses a balloon to create a cup, a technique I’ve seen six or seven million times on Food Network shows.
The whole thing is so aggressively generic that it almost tips into mockery; the setup is what I’d expect of an SNL parody of a Food Network competition.
“We hope you see this as an opportunity to grow,” judge Anna Olson says to the first eliminated contestant, who says, “I am very grateful to learn to grow.”
If you’re more interested in seeing actual growth, along with real instruction, Netflix’s chocolate competition School of Chocolate is a show I’d recommend.
School of Chocolate
School of Chocolate is a competition built around the talents of Amaury Guichon, a 30-year-old pastry chef.
He was once a contestant on the second season of a French competition, Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier?, or Who will be the next best pastry chef?, but had extensive experience and training prior to that, starting when he was a teenager.
His realistic chocolate and pastry creations are impressive, though not quite as hyper-realistic as Natalie Sideserf’s cakes, which have set a very high bar for me.
Teaching that takes place on reality shows should generally be placed in scare quotes. That’s because “learning” usually means watching a brief demo, and then being expected to replicate a complicated technique flawlessly. It’s setting someone up for failure.
Whether it’s Gordon Ramsay screaming on Hell’s Kitchen or Anne Burrell giving a quick demo of a dish on Worst Cooks in America, cast members are mostly just being set up to create some entertainment. The participants may learn things, but the focus on drama demonstrates the show’s real priorities.
Guichon, however, actually helps the eight participants in the School of Chocolate. Is this the same as culinary school? No. But for TV teaching, he’s excellent teacher, landing somewhere between Tim Gunn’s mentorship and Christian Siriano’s exasperated suggestions.
He opens the episode with a demonstration of a technique he wants the chefs to try. But he doesn’t stop there. Whether he’s judging or wandering the kitchen, he leads with empathy, and offers actual help:
- “I don’t want to put you under pressure; I know what you must feel. Can I help you?”
- “I know how difficult this is, like, for real. I think it’s very good for a first one. I just want to you know that you can really push yourself further, and I really want to help you achieve that.”
- “Take your time”
- “Did you accomplish what you wanted?”
He’s so kind that one of the contestants, Stephanie, tells the others, “I think he was way too nice. I gotta start preparing for him to be tougher next time.” It’s like she can’t quite believe this is what she’s getting from a reality TV show.
That’s not to say Amaury doesn’t offer critiques; he does. “For me, the chocolate is way too thick,” he explains to one chef. To another: “your flavors saved you.” A design “lacks a little bit of what you announce,” he says, while he tells someone else that their choice was “very smart; I wish I would have thought of it.”
The episodes have varying shapes and lengths, but generally contain two challenges: an individual and a team challenge.
Those on the bottom of the individual challenge sit out the team challenge so they can—and here’s where things get really interesting—learn more, and get one-on-one help from Guichon.
It’s a remarkable choice, and underlined by the show’s structure, which does not eliminate anyone, kind of like Tough As Nails. The contestants are truly there to learn, though the person deemed the best student at the end will receive $50,000 and teach a master class in Las Vegas.
This is fantastic, yet School of Chocolate somehow can’t resist the call of more sensational competitions. (It’s produced by Super Delicious, a production company best known for the Food Network shows Cake Wars and its spin-offs, and who also produced the absolute disaster that was Candy Land.)
After the first challenge, Guichon chats with the two who struggled the most in an office. “I don’t think you are ready for the next challenge,” he says.
And that’s when “[tense music plays],” even though there’s no reason for tension.
He says next: “I want to get you there. I don’t want you to jump into something that you are not going to be comfortable succeeding in, so tomorrow I will have you practice. It’s for you to be able to succeed better next time and to join up on the next task.”
How great is that?
The producing and editing is dramatic than the actual content—constant cymbals and “[dramatic music]”—and the contestants are clearly being prompted in interviews to talk shit about each other.
They don’t always take the bait, and you can see the producers’ heavy hand creep in. When there’s an alleged tie, Amaury defers to the contestants to vote for a winner, which undermines his authority in a failed attempt at creating drama.
That manufacturing of drama is nowhere near as bad as it is in Guy’s Chance of a Lifetime, but it was frustrating for me, considering how strong School of Chocolate is otherwise.
Watch talented people attempt challenging tasks offers plenty of drama by itself, as The Great British Bake-Off has proven for years.
Also an odd choice: There are two other pastry chefs in the kitchen, Devin Cowan and Carolyn Nugent, who help and give feedback, but the editing kind of ignores them, and their roles and even identities are not very clear, at least not in the first half of the season. Are they assistants? Co-teachers? Why are they not introduced?
Overall, School of Chocolate respects its cast’s talent and host’s skill, and admirably centers actual learning, which make its attempts to inject drama seem like filling a chocolate bunny with lime juice: unfortunate and unnecessary.
School of Chocolate
Amaury Guichon’s dedication to cultivating its contestants’ skills is admirable, but it tries too hard to add unnecessary drama. B+
What works for me:
- Amaury Guichon’s approach to teaching and giving feedback
- The format: giving the weakest chefs one-on-one lessons
- Not having eliminations each episode
What could be better:
- Fewer attempts to inject drama, including the music and editing
- More attention on the co-teachers
Great Chocolate Showdown
The Great Chocolate Showdown is an adequate but ultimately generic competition. C+
What works for me:
- Has all of the elements of an average baking competition
What could be better:
- Letting the immune competitors compete
- Adding more personality and life, or something to differentiate the show