Matthew Petersen, pastry chef at CityZen, had plenty of reasons not to compete on the second season of “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”First among them may have been the experience of former Hook pastry chef Heather Roth, who was eliminated not once, but twice in Season 1. She also suffered the indignity of competing with an obvious head injury, apparently suffered when a Bravo camera hit her.
Petersen, 32, had other reservations, which still didn’t stop him from joining 13 other pastry chefs who will compete for the top spot on the sweet spinoff of “Top Chef.” He took a few minutes to talk with All We Can Eat about the upcoming season of “Just Desserts,” which debuts tonight at 10 on Bravo. Edited excerpts follow:
All We Can Eat:How did you manage to swing time off to get on the show?
Matthew Petersen: It was really important to me that everybody in my life was onboard with me doing this. Before I went ahead with interviewing with them and everything, I ran it past my family, ran it past by chef [Eric Ziebold of CityZen] and just made sure they were excited about it as well. If they weren’t, I didn’t want to do it. The fact that they were onboard with everything was really great. I knew that they were going to support me no matter what happened.
AWCE: Who filled in for you while you were away?
MP: Nobody really filled in for me, per se. I have four cooks that work underneath me. I made a huge menu change before filming and implemented some more simple dishes that were easier for my cooks to prepare, things that weren’t as technically difficult as what we were doing before. I streamlined a lot of things so that it made their production day a little bit easier. They wouldn’t have as much to worry about. . . . I made everything a little bit easier for them without sacrificing quality.
AWCE: What drove you to want to be on the show?
MP: You know, I’m not sure. I was a bit skeptical at first — and only because of how last season kind of played out. I always said if they did a dessert spinoff of “Top Chef,” I’d totally try out for it. I wanted to see the first season, just to see how it went, and I could see how difficult it was for those chefs, just from being guinea pigs for the first season.
All the producers and everybody making the show is learning at the same time, and I could tell that they didn’t have a lot of equipment that they needed. And also the thing that really stuck out to me was not having recipes. . . . I will say 95 percent of pastry chefs, maybe even 99 [percent], will tell you that recipes are their life blood. I can survive on a daily basis without certain things, but when it comes to a competition such as this, where you want to make your best every single time, I need my recipes. Throughout the interview process that was one thing that I kept harping on was, ‘I want my recipes, I want recipes.’ Whether we got them or not, I can’t say. . . .
AWCE: So before you went on, whether you can say you had your recipes or not, did you cram, almost like you were studying for a test, by memorizing every recipe you had, down to the exact ingredient?
MP: [Laughs]. You hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what I did. I was really trying to do anything and everything like to prepare myself. Let me be honest in saying: Everything I did to prepare myself did not prepare me at all for what the experience was like. There’s no way you can prepare yourself. It’s just insane.
AWCE: So after watching the first season, what were your concerns other than the recipes?
MP: I was so concerned about the challenges as much, because I thought some of the challenges were good. . . . I really thought that there could have been more. Like in the first episode, they’re making their signature dish, and then they say, “Turn it into a cupcake.” Really? A cupcake? That’s it? There’s a challenge in that, but any pastry chef worth their chops can turn on a dime and make something into something else. Granted, you may pass the point of no return with something that you’re making, but I felt there could have been more.
Like I said before, the thing that really stood out for me was not having recipes. I could make it past the first one or two, maybe even the third episode, without my recipes, but I know I would get to a point where I would be stuck. I’d be able to picture this formula in my head, written down in my book, but I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the numbers that were with it. And these days, some of my recipes include 10 different ingredients. When you have five, six, seven different components on a plate, and each component has a certain number of ingredients in it, it’s really hard to remember that stuff. When you’re running around like an idiot, you’re trying to focus on what it is you’re doing, I don’t want to sit there and try to think about, “Okay, what numbers do I need to plug into this formula to make it work?” Because I don’t have time for that.
My thing was, if you want to get the best out of pastry chefs and you want to see what we’re really capable of, let us have our recipes. Let us blow you away. Because that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to make a show for you. So give me my recipes. Don’t worry about whether I got a good memory or not. It’s not Top Memory Chef, it’s Top Pastry Chef.
AWCE: How much different was the show this season than the first season?
MP: Totally different. Everything. You could really tell that they thought a lot about this and really spent some time and talked to industry professionals and really, really made a concerted effort to make it different.
When you watch, you’re going to see a big difference between Season 1 and Season 2, not only in the talent pool but just the way the challenges are constructed and the way everything played out. I know in the first season, there was a lot of backstabbing. It seemed like a lot of people didn’t really like each other, and there was just a lot of drama out of the kitchen. That was another thing that turned me off. I didn’t want to jump into a “Real World” situation, if you will. I mean, that’s not why I was there. I was there to show the world what I can do.
AWCE: Is there less “Real World” stuff this time around?
MP: I think so.
AWCE: Have you seen the finished show?
MP: I have not. You potentially have seen more than I’ve seen. I’m not sure. I’ve only seen the trailer that’s been released since they announced the cast.
AWCE: It seems like you had a lot of concerns after watching the first season. What was your motivation then [for appearing on the show]?
MP: You know, my motivation was $100,000, essentially. I know I’m a good pastry chef, and I don’t need a show to tell me that I’m a good pastry chef. I’ve worked at some of the best restaurants in the country [including db Bistro Moderne in New York City and Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, both Daniel Boulud restaurants], and I’m at one of the best right now. That’s not what it was about for me. It was about making that $100,000 and proving something to myself — that I can do something like that, that I can survive under insane amounts of pressure because that’s kind of what I thrive on. I really enjoy the sense of pressure in the kitchen. . . .
And if I was able to win, I wanted to buy a house for my family. That’s what I was there for. I wasn’t there to get that money to open a business or do anything like that. I want to buy a home for my family and make a life for my daughter and the baby that we want to have.
AWCE: So when you were told that you were on the show, did you scout the competition and gauge their strengths and weaknesses?
MP: I didn’t know who they were. We were not allowed to know who any of the contestants were. I remember asking, “Oh, well, can you tell me how many contestants there are on the show?” No, we can tell you that! All right! So I got on that plane, flying blindly. I had no idea what was ahead of me, no idea who I was going to be competing against. But I will say when I found out who they were, there was one guy I recognized, that I’d known before, Carlos [Enriquez]. But everybody else I didn’t really know. I could tell that these people knew what they were doing.
AWCE: So let me ask you about the competition, as much as you can talk about it. Where there challenges that were a complete curveball to you, that truly tested your skills?
MP: Yeah, definitely [laughs]. There were some that push you to the mental brink, and you want to explode and you have no choice but to just put your head down and focus. Hopefully something good comes from your hand, and the judges will like it. You never really know. You can be as confident as you want to be in your food and your skill level, but how are the judges going to perceive that? You don’t know, and you obviously want to push the envelope and make something that you’ve never made before. It’s a tough kind of balancing act.
AWCE: Can you talk about any of the particular challenges?
AWCE: Or even any of the techniques that you had to resort to, to deal with any of them?
MP: That might be clueing in a little too much information.
[The publicist listening in on the phone chimes in: Right, right.]
AWCE: So I guess asking how you fared would be way out of bounds?
[Awkward laughter all around, even from the publicist.]
AWCE: You had a desire to show the world what you can do? Did you feel like you were able to do that?
MP: When I got on the plane to come home, I had no regrets. I walked away clean. I felt like I represented myself, my family and my restaurant to the best of my ability. If they asked me to do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, because it was ridiculously fun. I mean, albeit, emotionally, physically, mentally just draining to the max, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was so much fun. I made13 amazing friends.
AWCE: Did you talk to Heather [Roth] at all about the show?
MP: I have not actually. I just called L’Academie de Cuisine yesterday because they want me to come up and do a little something with them. I come to find out that she’s now their director of admissions or something. I can’t remember. I don’t know if that’s her exact title. I’m like, “Oh, wow, that’s really interesting.” I’m curious as to how she made the transition from pastry chef to admissions director at a culinary school. I’m really fascinated by that. So hopefully I’ll have a chance to chat with her next week about her experience and how she picked up her job.
AWCE: I think she would have told you to watch out for the camera.
MP: [Laughs]. Yeah, I heard about that.