Sweet Fancy Moses: Manhattan Pastry Potentates

Last week, as the scrubbed and smirking mugs of Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi continued to advertise Top Chef’s sixth season in Vegas all over town, Bravo announced an open casting call for the series’ latest iteration, Top Chef: Just Desserts, on Sunday, Nov. 8, at Craftsteak.

“It’s about time!” exclaimed Zak Miller, pastry chef at Kefi, Gus & Gabriel and Anthos (where his specialties include a concoction involving beet yogurt and tahini). “I may try out,” he said. “I haven’t decided yet. I guess it’s a six-week shoot, so I’m not sure if I can be away from work that long, Our general manager is like, ‘Do it! You should do it!’ I talked to a friend of mine in pastry”—at L’Atelier de Joel Roubochon—“and she said she’s going to try out, so we may go together.”

“I’m still in the process of finding out exactly what’s the deal,” said Gilt pastry chef David Carmichael, who has already logged many appearances on Today and the Food Network and been named among the top 10 pastry chefs in the country. “I would love to become a judge if Just Desserts is more for the beginner. But if they’re just doing anyone, I might consider that as well. … I was even coming up with ideas of challenges I wish I’d get hit with, like maybe one where you’re not allowed to use any measuring devices and you do everything by eye.” Mr. Carmichael hadn’t raised the idea yet with his bosses, but he was confident they’d be supportive if he were cast. “I have four assistants,” he said. “I can easily guide them by phone.”

A Bravo source said the network had not yet settled on an air date or judges for the show, but that it would consider everyone from elite chefs down to cupcake bakery owners. The casting call, like several others around the nation, will be a meet-and-greet with casting directors and not a baking competition.

Pastry, which involves art, science and recipes more than speed and improvisation, will probably require some tinkering with the Top Chef formula. “It’s considered a science, absolutely,” said Colleen Grapes, pastry chef at the Harrison and the Red Cat. “If you’re half a teaspoon off with something, your cupcake can explode.” 

“Pastry chefs are planners,” said Mr. Miller of Kefi. Many have backgrounds or at least interest in the visual arts.

Still, for all their training and artistry, and despite the fact that “we are the ones who finish the meal, and generally, if things aren’t as grand as the meal, it’s the last thing people remember”—as Gotham Bar & Grill’s well-regarded pastry chef, Deborah Racicot, put it—pastry chefs have long been the “red-headed stepchildren of the restaurant industry,” said Ms. Grapes, laboring 10 to 16 hours a day in obscurity as so-called “savory” chefs brand themselves in television appearances and get book deals. The recession has made full-time pastry jobs even harder to come by, according to several chefs, and pastry chefs’ pay caps off at $50,000 or $60,000, about half what the higher-paid executive chefs make. It’s also almost unheard of for a pastry chef to be made a partner in a restaurant, as is now common among the best savory chefs. “The constant battle that pastry chefs face is that we always want to be treated as equals in terms of comparing us to the savory side of the kitchen,” said Alex Stupak, pastry chef at WD-50, who has appeared on Iron Chef. “There’s been a lot of validation that has occurred and this is just one more thing.”

Top Chef’s interest in sweet-tooth programming may have been influenced by the rise of a curious subgenre of food TV known as “wedding-cake television,” best exemplified by shows like WE’s Amazing Wedding Cakes—the second-season premiere of which drew 1.1 million viewers (the latest season of Top Chef has been drawing 2.8, by comparison, according to Nielsen)—TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off and Food Network Challenges like Extreme Cakes and Princess Cakes. In place of makeovers, reality television is now dominated by extreme-weight-loss shows on the one hand and, on the other, massive edible confections designed to look like specific buildings in Barcelona or like Snow White. But Top Chef until now has been “pretty much panna cotta,” said BLT Steak pastry chef Erica Hanson, since savory chefs often find themselves at a loss when faced with flour, butter and eggs. “The number of times they’ve made scallops and panna cotta on that show is ridiculous,” she said.

Some more experienced pastry chefs sniffed at reality TV. “‘Oh, I’m going to make it big, I’m going to become a superstar!’” said Ms. Racicot, of Gotham Bar & Grill. “That should not be why you entered this industry.”

“I’m beyond that, I don’t want to do television or competition anymore,” said Pichet Ong, who years ago left Jean Georges’ employ to open the now-shuttered sweet/savory destination P*ong (he has several new venues in the works). “Maybe for judging,” he added.

And others argue that the grueling artistry of pastry would be lost amid the necessary drama of reality television. “At the end of the day, the show has to be entertaining,” said Mr. Stupak of WD-50. “Sometimes a decision will be made to keep conflict going to the very end. There have been some great chefs on that show who keep a very low profile. You’re better off being one of the two people who’ve been fighting like cats and dogs the entire time. …” Still, he allowed that “it does seem like it can change your life. Rick Bayless just won Top Chef Masters, and he’s always been successful with all his restaurants, but the word on the street is they’re freakishly busy now.”

And who knows, maybe the sugar will be flying! “In every place I’ve ever worked,” Ms. Grapes said, “they’ve all said that pastry chefs are absolutely crazy.”