Amid a busy day of media commitments for Adriano Zumbo’s new Seven series Zumbo’s Just Desserts, the softly spoken dessert doyen removed his chef uniform to speak with Mediaweek, revealing a stunning Willy Wonka tattoo on his right arm.
The fictional Roald Dahl-created candy baron has been a major influence on Zumbo’s attitude, with the chef prizing Wonka’s spirit of imagination. He admits that it is the 1971 Gene Wilder film adaptation that stirs his passion:
“It has a lot of imagination, creation, and things created for that film. I know it is just imaginary, but they’ve never been created in real life yet. People still don’t have chewing gum that tastes like three meals in one or soda that makes you float.
“It keeps imagination alive in people who work in creative fields. You can always imagine the unexpected and strive for it. You may never get there, but it’s always a good thing to have.”
Striving for the unexpected was part of the brief for Zumbo’s Just Desserts, explained series EP Evan Wilkes. A cooking competition show focused on desserts provides challenges beyond most cooking format shows. The difference with desserts, Evan explained, was the need for precision. It can’t be faked.
“They [the contestants] have to go in with a plan and know what they’re doing. You can’t just make desserts up on the run. The hard thing was to turn it into something we could all watch and enjoy without having prior knowledge of high level desserts,” he said.
The contestants on Just Desserts are not trained professionals, meaning the complexity of the desserts being prepared will often be beyond the skills of the home viewing audience too. In a sense the show is aspirational cooking.
“I never got signed up or anything from that. I just pushed on with my business.” – Zumbo
To compensate for this and make compelling television, the show put a premium on encouraging cooking tasks that are left-of-centre. Viewers will see desserts cooked with fire, so-called “franken-desserts” which combine two different desserts into the one, and some desserts that defy gravity.
“We wanted to do things that allowed people to try something that wasn’t the norm. It is not the normal stuff you would see in a restaurant or in a cooking show.
“Some of the stuff we were seeing on this was unbelievable. I was quite amazed and, obviously, super-happy. You create a cast on these shows and you hope they are going to help you make a great television show and be entertaining, but also deliver great food. They managed to do it, which made us very happy,” Wilkes explained.
Zumbo’s Just Desserts marks Adriano Zumbo’s return to television, having secured a national profile through his role on TEN’s MasterChef. Despite presenting a croquembouche on that show that people still discuss to this day, it didn’t launch a TV career for Zumbo in the way many people had expected.
“I never got signed up or anything from that. I just pushed on with my business. It was kind of like I was the guest dude coming in for one day. I did my job and got out. I’d do a few a season and that was it,” Zumbo revealed.
With his new TV show on Seven, Zumbo has been given the opportunity to showcase his dessert-making ability on the national stage once more. Here he is teamed up with the British chef Rachel Khoo as his co-host, with Brazilian pastry-chef Gigi Falanga as an assistant.
Developed in-house by Seven, Zumbo’s Just Desserts features 12 amateur cooks competing against each other. The winner of the series receives a $100,000 prize, with one of their dessert creations sold in Adriano Zumbo’s retail stores for a full year.
“To be a part of Seven and the Just Desserts team, it’s amazing. You get to work on something you have a say in and something you have a push and vision for to share with special people. I’m working with great people as well – Gigi and Rachel.
“The format was already done. I’ve obviously talked back and forth about what I think of this and that and how it’s run. On the floor, when you’re on set, things happen and I’ll say ‘no, we should do it that way’. It’s working together with producers to get the realest result about the desserts that we can. Because we’re the ones professionally in desserts, we’d say things we believed in and obviously the producers know how to make great TV. Together, I think we’ve made a great show,” Zumbo beamed.
“It was great working with Rachel Khoo. I didn’t know her beforehand. It was the first time I’d met her. She has a great passion for food. She has a good knowledge of pastry. I like her accent. I like Gigi’s. I had two great accents either side of me. It was pretty amazing. I love accents. It gives the show a different depth of flavour as well,” he explained.
Despite now signed to Seven, Zumbo dismisses the suggestion that he is a certainty for an appearance on the upcoming season of My Kitchen Rules, but jokes, “I will be on Home and Away. I’ll take over Alf’s diner.”
Zumbo does have a lot on his plate already, with his retail business taking up considerable energy. Doing the TV show was a drain on his time and energy. He has plans to ease his day-to-day involvement in the business, freeing up his time to get involved with more projects like Zumbo’s Just Desserts and reduce nights of limited, four-hour sleeps in order to do them.
His involvement in the show, however, will be reflected in the products available across his eight retail stores.
“We’re hoping to do some of the creations in the series through our stores. Some will be tough because some are quite technical, but we’ll try our best to do them all,” he explained.
Gigi Falanga is a newcomer to television, having been recommended for the job by Zumbo. Prior to her role on the show, Falanga has been working in Sydney as a full-time pastry chef in fine dining. For the past four years she has baked in the kitchen of a five-star hotel.
Falanga explained, “At the beginning they didn’t mention it was going to be Zumbo’s show. We did a few trials and they explained to me the role I was going to play and I was excited about that. I guess they liked my personality and energy.
“It was very similar to what I have been doing in the pastry kitchen. I had to guide the 12 contestants and try to show them the right way to do things.”
While it was Falanga’s first time in front of the camera, there was also another significant first happening behind the scenes. EP Wilkes revealed that this was the first time he worked directly with Seven head of program development Sonya Wilkes – his sister.
“She’s my oldest sister, so I, of course, have to do what she says. I’m happy to take the lead from her. We have similar opinions on what works and doesn’t work. We’ve never had a proper argument. We’ve had heated discussions. We work together extremely well,” he explained.
A benefit of working with one’s sister appears to be the honesty of the relationship, which can avoid mediation through an HR department:
“There’s a huge advantage being brother and sister because you can cut through the crap because you don’t have to worry about offending or saying something that may be off the mark and you don’t have to worry about impressing. It allowed us to get into a good creative space together and just say what we thought would work.”