It's hard to take competitive cooking shows seriously when they start being called things like Zumbo's Just Desserts.

To be fair, this title is one hundred per cent accurate: the show, which premiered on TV3 on Monday night and was back again on Tuesday, is hosted by a bloke called Adriano Zumbo, a celebrity patissier who has frequently appeared on Australian Masterchef. Unlike Masterchef, contestants on this show don't have to prepare proper meals... just desserts.

But these competitions require a certain level of gravitas. Zumbo's Just Desserts sounds more like the name of a smartphone game that tricks kids into spending hundreds of dollars on in-app purchases.

It's a roadblock the Australian answer to the inimitable Great British Bake-Off (a good, serious name for a television show) ought to be able to overcome. But despite throwing large bags of whimsy and colour into the mix, it still comes out tasting a bit off.


The problem starts with the eponymous Zumbo. He just sort of stands there, an unmoving pudding king watching over his subjects as they frantically try to whip up something to impress him. When he opens his mouth it sounds like someone's pulled the string on a talking chef doll. Phrases include: "the biggest thing about making desserts is having fun."

Fellow celebrity chef Rachel Khoo does the heavy lifting of presenting the show, a job she seems kind of overqualified for. The pair are also the show's judges, while Zumbo's Brazilian assistant Gigi seems to be there solely to remind contestants how little time they have left and shout shrill motivational slogans like a misplaced aerobics teacher.

Compare this to Bake-Off, in which cake queen Mary Berry glides around the marquee like she is on a royal tour while hosts Mel and Sue cheerily banter their way through the formalities. But the most critical difference isn't the personnel, it's the tone. The reason Bake-Off is huge because it is unfailingly kind-hearted and encouraging. It challenges contestants to succeed, where Zumbo's Just Desserts, taking its cues from Masterchef, challenges contestants not to fail.

The twelve Australians who lined up for the first episode seemed a mostly likeable bunch, with a top-notch heel in dessert hipster Dan. "I don't care about chocolate brownies and raspberry coulis," he droned pretentiously. "I care about multiple layers, textures, different elements, hydrochlorides..."

Meanwhile 57-year-old Peter exhibited symptoms of a serious and debilitating addiction: "I don't think about cars at all," said the professional car salesman, "I just think about desserts."

He set about creating an ambitious layered fruit sponge cake with passionfruit ice cream - "it represents my passion for desserts." The raspberry jelly failed to set on time, and the whole thing slumped forlornly on the plate as he laid it before the unimpressed Zumbo.

Recruitment consultant Wendy endured an equally torrid time with her salted caramel apple pie with vanilla cinnamon ice cream, a dish she, like the others, chose as a reflection of her personality. The judges took one mouthful and offered the withering appraisal: "lacks finesse."

As the two lowest-scoring contestants, Wendy and Peter were subjected to the Zumbo Test, a near-impossible elimination challenge in which they raced to replicate one of their hero's elaborate creations.

Made by the artisan himself, 'Zumbo's Reflective Dessert Dome' looked like a rare dinosaur egg; the ones made by dessert losers Wendy and Peter ended up looking like a pair of tar-drenched lungs from an anti-smoking demonstration.

As the two lowest-scoring contestants, Wendy and Peter were subjected to the Zumbo Test.
As the two lowest-scoring contestants, Wendy and Peter were subjected to the Zumbo Test.

"It's all about multitasking," clapped Gigi, "I want you to move, move, move, the clock is ticking!"

"I am an amateur trying to recreate a dish of one of the best dessert makers in the world," said Wendy, experiencing a moment of Zen-like clarity.

"It is time to leave the Dessert Factory," Rachel Khoo smiled coldly. One day robots will replace television presenters like her, and they will deliver lines like these without a hint of sadness or shame: "May all your sweet dreams come true."