You look at Ron Ben-Israel and think: Seriously? The host of the Food Network's pastry competition show Sweet Genius is like a composite of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. He's part Dr. Evil superciliousness, part Church Lady simper: head shaved, eyebrows plucked into a perennial "Oh, reeaally?" He perches on a stool above the set’s centerpiece tasting counter with the twee poise of Pee-wee Herman on his bike. He samples contestants’ soufflé cakes and marshmallow fluff through thin, moist lips, like a hummingbird sipping nectar. And at the end of each challenge, he delivers his signature send-home line to the failed contestant in an accent that sounds made up.
And then it hits you: Ben-Israel and his show, which launched its second season last night on the Food Network, are seriously brilliant.
Each hourlong episode has a familiar rhythm: Four contestants (pastry chefs and other professional sweets makers) vie in three dessert challenges. At the end of the show, Ben-Israel crowns one of them a "sweet genius," an honor that comes with a $10,000 purse. Being a genius means not only demonstrating talent with a stand mixer and a pastry bag, but also the ability to take oddball challenges in stride.
The elimination challenges involve making a particular kind of dessert using a mandatory ingredient and a single source of inspiration, all revealed on a conveyor-belt runway. In the case of last night's episode, this translated into making a chocolate dessert incorporating strawberry Pop-Tarts (or, in Ben-Israel-speak, “toaster pastries filled with jaaaaaam”) inspired by a goldfish. (I am not making this up.) And like all cooking competition shows, there was the twist: Halfway through the contestants' fevered prep, Ben-Israel—his eyes sparkling through artsy eyewear—threw in a second surprise ingredient, pumpkin seeds.
Frankly, the four contestants’ creations looked mediocre. Oddly, that makes the show likable. Unlike on Top Chef, where the food is often so well-made it leaves me feeling awed and helpless, the desserts here look doable, albeit tarted up with spun sugar and chocolate bark. And it turns out that Ben-Israel is a benevolent Willy Wonka, not a vengeful one. Hear him tell one contestant at the judging table that he could have done better—“Genius is not a whisper, it’s a ROAR!”—and it occurs to you that the advice could apply to life, not just profiterole batter.
Let’s face it, cook show competitions are so formulaic that even the best ones can have your thumb feeling for the fast-forward button. A series like Top Chef: Just Desserts relies so much on story lines of competitor conflict it can end up feeling scripted. But Sweet Genius director Michael Pearlman and the show’s producers are smart enough to match the look and pacing to SG's flamboyant host. Which is probably why Sweet Genius stands alone in the Food Network roster as a series with a flash of Project Runway brilliance. The producers let Ben-Israel be himself, the way the producers of the Bravo fashion show let Tim Gunn be Tim Gunn. This is food TV that roars.
Sweet Genius airs Thursdays on the Food Network at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time, 9 p.m. Central.
Image source: Food Network