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September 3, 2015

Johnny Iuzzini Talks 'Top Chef Just Desserts' & Stepping Things Up in Season 2

by Maggie Furlong, posted Aug 31st 2011 11:00AM
Johnny Iuzzini, 'Top Chef: Just Desserts''Top Chef' is a juggernaut, with cheftestants competing for huge prizes and culinary glory going on nine seasons now. But one thing has been a constant on 'Top Chef' and its spin-off 'Top Chef Masters': desserts can send even the most talented chefs off to pack their knives and go.

Pastry is full of complicated, mathematical equations that savory chefs don't often bother with, and if a dessert fails, it's not usually a simple fix. The recipes call for much more time and patience, a luxury not usually given in reality TV competitions.

Which is why I was so thrilled that 'TC' got another spin-off last year: 'Top Chef Just Desserts.' While Season 1 delivered on drama, it left too much to the imagination when it came to the food, but they've kicked it up a few degrees with Season 2 (Wednesdays, 10PM ET on Bravo).

I caught up with the show's head judge and chef mentor, James Beard award-winning pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. Iuzzini's ditched his buzzed-about pompadour and chops from last season and is putting all his opinions and personality in his cryptic facial expressions. Let's just say if you're a chef on the show and you're questioning your dish, an eyebrow-raise from Iuzzini will drive you insane wondering if you've failed or triumphed.

Season 2 really started out with a bang. I feel like it's almost a different show this season ...
It's very different. Very different, for a lot of reasons. The level of professionalism is much higher. First season, we had great chefs -- not to take anything away from our Season 1 competitors, but Season 2 you have chefs that have been in the industry a lot longer, for the most part, with a couple exceptions. They've been pastry chefs at places for quite some time, so they're a little more cool and calm, and the skill sets are a bit wider. They're able to do more, so we took that into consideration when writing challenges. This season I got to be part of all of it -- casting, challenges, everything else -- to really kind of make sure that we created a stronger show that wasn't based on drama, but really based on food, and still made for good TV.

Johnny Iuzinni, Season 1And I love that it was immediately noted that your sideburns are gone and your hair has lost some of its height. Does it crack you up now that people track your hairstyles?
Um, well it's no different than Gail [Simmons]'s shoes I guess. [Laughs] It was very much intentional -- I got a lot of criticism the first season and people seemed to be focused on my looks maybe more than my pedigree. They called me a hipster or a wannabe Elvis ... whatever. I can show you pictures of 50 different hairstyles I've done -- I like to change the way I look, and I just happen to like a retro style. But after the show, I started to get identified quite easily because of it, and I don't want to be known for a look. I want to be known for what I've achieved in my profession.

I think people want to see you in the kitchen, showing off those skills.
I'm in the kitchen every single episode with them, doing walk-throughs ... I don't get to cook with them though. I just get to talk to them, ask them questions, pick their brains a little bit, plant seeds of doubt or seeds of confidence, without ever giving away what I'm actually thinking. I get to be menacing. [Laughs]

Menacing is a good word. I really never know what you're thinking.
Yep, and if you see the way they've edited it, they're catching a lot more of my expressions this season -- like the dead silent ones where I don't say anything, it's just looks. And you can see that the competitors don't know what to think about it. It's amazing.

Do you want to get in there to cook with them? Tom Colicchio does that sometimes on 'Top Chef' ...
Yeah, I've offered that up. At this point, I think they're just still trying to figure out which way the season is going. And I don't think [Colicchio] does it as often as you think he does. Last season he did the one where he made the dish with a stopwatch, but it's not really his role. And it's not really my role. I'm good at what I do, but these guys are all good at what they do ... they don't need me to show them how to do something. But I love putting that chef jacket on. It's hard to film that show for a month and walk through a kitchen everyday and not be able to cook. That's been my hardest challenge since I started.

You all kicked off the season jumping right into show pieces. Does that set the standard for the rest of Season 2?
Yep, it's definitely setting a tone. It's not going to be as easy as last season. But if you think about it, the way it's done is smart -- it may be a show piece challenge right off the bat, but it's also a team challenge, so you're not isolating anybody, we're more testing their ability to work as teams. How are you as a team player? Everybody has a weakness; the idea of the show is to find the person that has the most strengths. But just because you're a great chef doesn't make you a great competitor. You can be a mediocre chef and just be very competitive and think well on your feet and you can go very far. It's a TV show -- do I think that the winner of any of these shows on any network is necessarily a great, great chef? No, I think they're solid cooks that can think very quickly on their feet and handle stress and pressure very well.

Would you every do a reality show as a competitor?
I've been offered shows tons of times on different networks. You're either a competitive person or you're not, and I've never been a competitive person. But I'm very competitive with myself. I'm a part of this show because I care a lot about my industry and I care a lot about what I do for a living and how we're seen. 'Top Chef Just Desserts' is the first time that the public is seeing a pastry chef and what a real pastry chef is. This is shedding some light on the depth of skill and technical ability that a real pastry chef possesses.

Do you have a favorite upcoming challenge?
There's no point in giving the chefs challenges that they face everyday in their home kitchen, right? So the trick is to maybe test their ability and their skill sets, but maybe screw with their pantry. Give them ingredients that they're not used to working with. Take them out of their comfort zone, which is the kitchen. Pastry chefs, we rely on time. So take away the time and recipes are irrelevant to them -- we get them to think on their feet.

And then there are the guests.
The fact that we have guys like Ad-Rock on? I had so much fun with him. He showed up with a Catskill hat -- Catskill, New York -- and that's where I'm from. Just random. And I was like, "Oh my god, you're awesome." We took all these photos, I was DJing Beastie Boys music. It was fun.

Any dream guest judges?
I love the idea of bringing people in from outside industries, like a motorcycle racer. What would we make for a pit crew? I love sh*t like that. I have so many interests outside of the kitchen. NASCAR ... how do you get that audience? Get Dale Earnhardt on there to judge.

Dessert crazes keep going through cycles -- yogurt, cupcakes, macaroons. What do you think is next?
I think media creates trends -- I don't think chefs create trends. I don't follow trends, although they serve a purpose and they create business and that's great. There's plenty of great ideas that are already out there, but because it's not the next hot thing ... I'm not interested in that. I think it's funny that cupcakes and pizza and donuts have all gone around, but I think cookies [are next]. I think really good cookies are gonna start coming back. A healthier cookie craze.

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This show was a lot better last year. Maybe the novelty of it has worn off. I also think Johnny Iuzzini's approach to hosting and judging was more enjoyable to watch last year. This year he seems uptight, much too serious and bitchy. Why don't producers eliminate the scene where the camera pans the judges scowling faces as the top and bottom three enter the room?

August 31 2011 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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