Zumbo’s Just Desserts Netflix Binge

The suspense is terrible…I hope it will last

Hosts/Judges: Adriano Zumbo, Rachel Khoo

My reality television consumption has stood at a total of two shows for years: Ink Master and The Great British Baking Show. You could reasonably argue that no sane person watches both, since they represent diametrically opposing versions of skill based reality competition programming. But here we are, and now there’s a show positioned right between them – Zumbo’s Just Desserts.

Ink Master is absurdly American. Cut throat competition with a $100,000 prize; caricature contestants representing all of mankind’s worst instincts; edited for extra outbursts, drama, bullying, and trash talk; forcing contestants to live in a single stupid space to make them extra unlikeable; judges who encourage all of the aforementioned. Yet it’s all somehow addictive. Great British Baking is the polar opposite. Earnest and polite, with interesting, smart contestants; no cash prize; gently funny hosts and gently judgey judges; edited to showcase people at their best; contestants get to live something like normal lives. Yet also absolutely addicting. Zumbo’s Just Desserts is their quirky Australian cousin who wants the best of both those worlds, and succeeds quite well.

The Format

Zumbo’s Just Desserts is founded on the reputation of Australian dessert master Adriano Zumbo. He and British chef Rachel Khoo serve as both hosts and judges. The contestants are amateur dessert makers who are vying for a $100,000 prize and the opportunity to have one of their desserts in Zumbo’s shop. Note that desserts aren’t just baked – they are frozen and boiled and tempered and blended with all sorts of magical culinary techniques on display.

Each show is made up of two segments. The first is the sweet sensation challenge. The dessert makers are given a theme around which they must create an imaginative, delicious dessert. They bring their unique skill sets to these challenges, with lots of room for interpretation. The desserts are then judged with one person winning dessert of the day and two people going to the bottom.

The second segment of each program is the Zumbo test. The two contestants at the bottom much recreate a dessert made by Zumbo, and they are incredible. Always ridiculously complicated and difficult, the person whose Zumbo dessert gets the lowest scores is eliminated.

The set is neon colored chaos. It’s like Willy Wonka’s factory on steroids, and I am here for it.

The Desserts

Holy mackerel these people are amazing. Unlike British Baking, we don’t see a whole lot of the nuts and bolts of these creations. They are so complex that we jump around from table to table and watch as one creates a puff pastry tower and another a seven layer mousse egg. Some of the challenges are based on traditional Australian foods, so we had to look up a few things (not unlike we do with British Baking), and nearly everything looks like it couldn’t actually exist in the world. And they are all home bakers!

The Judging

Zumbo and Rachel simply decide who gets dessert of the day or goes to the bottom, but on the Zumbo test there are scores out of ten from each judge. For me, the scoring adds nothing and I would rather they got rid of it. It’s not objective and really adds nothing but a few more torturous moments for the contestants. Otherwise I think the two judges give good critiques. But Zumbo tends to be a little awkward and seems uncomfortable on camera, which leaves Rachel to pick up the slack and she comes off as a bit stiff and overly formal. They don’t have the kind of easy graciousness that lends itself well to any commentary during the competition and they are wise to keep that to a minimum. The third cast member is Gigi, Zumbo’s assistant who is supposedly there to help the contestants with time management. SHE IS AWFUL.

The Contestants

For the most part, you’ll root for everyone. But not always. I’m not sure if it was an unfortunate happenstance, but there is one contestant on the first season that is an absolute jerk. A couple of others sort of break down during the season and become messes. The tasks are extremely difficult, time is always tight, and the atmosphere is always frantic. Nobody really has a chance to show their best selves and the show thrives a little bit too much on their discomfort. I’ll be interested to see what if any changes they make to the format for season two.

Overall

Zumbo’s Just Desserts is a worth entry into the skill based reality competition genre. The desserts are much more elaborate and with far fewer constraints than on British Baking, and the result is some truly magnificent food art. The cash prize and tough time constraints add a layer of stress to the whole production that can honestly be exhausting if you make the mistake of watching more than one episode at a time. The editors play a few games with showing people at their worst but I’m hoping that the jerk contestant was a rookie mistake that they will not repeat. I’m also extremely glad to have discovered that Gigi is not coming back for season two! Apparently I was not the only one who found her grating. It isn’t her fault – the role was absolutely thankless and she was given nothing to do but bellow out instructions to hurry up. She was set up to fail.

It would be nice to get a couple of people who are more congenial and comfortable on camera to cut the tension, but that’s the British Baking fan in me talking. The Ink Master fan…well that part of me gets no say because it is irrational and this show would be better off with as few traits of that show as possible. So if you like British Baking give Zumbo a try, but go in knowing it’s far more frantic and chaotic. I feel like I need a week or two off before I start the second season, just for a nap. And maybe a seven layer mousse egg. Or both.

Zumbo’s Just Desserts, seasons 1 and 2, is streaming on Netflix.

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