In 2019, I went into a deep sugar dive that involved bingeing several shows about sweets: Nailed It, a series that pits nonprofessional bakers against each other and lovingly ridicules their abominable creations; Sugar Rush, a similar, less rude but I think more stressful timed competition; and Zumbo’s Just Desserts, a Chocolate Factory-style contest built on the provocation of expertise. The show originally aired on Australia’s Seven Network, and Season 2 hit Netflix in January 2020.
Adriano Zumbo, an Australian pâtissier known for his elaborate pastry inventions, created Zumbo’s Just Desserts after appearing on MasterChef Australia. He is basically a Candy Man. The show is part competition and part exhibition, essentially a vessel for Zumbo’s maniacal skills, combining the fantasy of desserts with craftsmanship. Starting out, a group of 10 cooks (down from 12 in Season 1) compete for a $100,000 prize inside a buzzing “dessert factory” clearly modeled after Willy Wonka—“You can smell the sugar in the air,” a contestant named Kristie says in Episode 1 of Season 2. “It’s like you’ve stepped back into your childhood.” Each episode begins with a bakeoff that’s centered around a theme. In Season 1, the contestants make a “Frankendessert,” which means fusing two different types of dessert into one enchanting creation. The first task of Season 2 is to create “a dessert that has a secret inside.”
After the cooks build their desserts step-by-step, from design to finishing touches, Zumbo, alongside British cook Rachel Khoo, score the competitor’s dishes, rating them from 1-10. One contestant wins Dessert of the Day, while the two with the lowest scores face off in a timed elimination around, which is where things get interesting.
As part of the Zumbo Challenge, as it’s called, Zumbo unveils one of his wild creations. The two bottom contestants must duplicate this dessert’s visual elements and also make it taste good. Much of the show’s suspense rests on these battles. Unlike the amateurs who recreate desserts on Nailed It and fail miserably, the competitors here do manage to match the aesthetic and vision of Zumbo’s dishes. In Season 1, Episode 5, he reveals a floating hat with scoops of ice cream that contain layers of ganache, mousse, custard, and jelly. The ice cream sits atop a cone inside a top hat, and the hat is floating. Now, this is drama!
These battles are all awe and illusion. In Episode 10, two contestants have to create A TABLE WITH A DRAWER AND TWO BONBONS INSIDE THE DRAWER! AND A PERFUME BOTTLE! The fact that neither of them is able to get the drawer to close properly should not matter because: they had to make a working drawer. It’s amazing what can be constructed out of pieces of sugar and dough.
The consensus, at least according to some viewers, seems to be that Zumbo’s Just Desserts is merely a bite of baking shows with a better format—one viewer described the show as a “slow, boring, unoriginal mess.” I’ll respect that comparison, having only watched portions of both Great British Bakeoff and Masterchef. As a judge, Zumbo is often too pleased with himself, and both he and Khoo underwhelm in terms of spark. But that’s not what I’m here for; the contestants are skilled and quirky enough to make up for that, the desserts are visually incredible and make me want to jump through the screen, and I love seeing people’s wild imaginations turn into sweets. The show goes overboard on the childlike magical theme—the twinkling fairytale music throughout enhances the theater of it all—but I have admittedly fallen for the orchestrated magic. Like Project Runway, it’s the degree of difficulty that merits an investment, even if you’re just watching it in the background while dreaming of many, many layers of sweets.