CityZen: Getting My Just Desserts with Matthew Petersen

Matthew Petersen, photo courtesy of Mandarin Oriental, Washington, DC

Some people get excited about meeting movie stars, athletes, rock musicians, or politicians. I get it.  In fact, I have had a celebrity interaction or two that has kept me grinning for quite some time.  But  these days my biggest thrills come from meeting Top Cheftestants.  These are people who have taken their cooking talent and transformed themselves into television celebrities.  As a fan of reality TV and food,  I am grateful to Bravo TV and the Food Network for creating a new category of stars for me to fawn over.

Last month I wrote a post titled “My Just Email Interview with Top Chef Just Desserts’ Matthew Petersen.”  I had received an offer from Bravo to interview Chef Peterson, who is the Executive Pastry Chef
at CityZen and Sou’Wester in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and is now appearing on season two of “Top Chef Just Desserts”I  lament the fact that the interview is via email rather than in-person as I had initially thought. The day after I publish it I receive an email from Linda Beltran, Director of Communications at the Mandarin Oriental Washington. She invites me to come meet Matthew and enjoy a dessert sampling with her.  This is an invitation I obviously cannot pass up.At this point, the season has not yet started so I have no idea who I will be meeting in terms of character and skill, or at least how he will be portrayed on television. In the ensuing weeks, I watch Top Chef Just Desserts taking note every time Matthew is on screen.  His team wins the first elimination challenge.  Matthew wins the quickfire challenge in episode two with lemon van crème with mint puree and hazelnut sablè. Matthew’s team is on the bottom in episode three, but he is quickly dismissed from the firing-line, as the judges like his white chocolate cherry and pistachio entremet.  Episode four airs the night before our meet-up.  It’s a wonderful, must-see if you haven’t already,Willy Wonka challenge.  Matthew is in the top three with strawberry, lemon, and vanilla profiteroles.  My husband and I anxiously watch the previews for next week’s episode. Matthew is barely seen, which bodes well for him. Usually those who are on the bottom appear in previews. As we head to the Mandarin Hotel, I know that I am about to meet a serious contender for the win.
Linda Beltran meets us in the lobby of the hotel and escorts my husband and I into CityZen. We have opted not to eat dinner before our arrival. It’s a rare treat to eat dessert and actually be hungry.  Why is it that we must save the best part of a meal until the end, when we are too full to enjoy it?  I think this is a custom that needs to be broken on a more regular basis.  CityZen offers a four-course dessert tasting menu for $25, which is what we are about to sample.
Soon after we are seated, Matthew comes to the table. He seems genuinely excited to meet me. In fact, we are treated so wonderfully by all of the staff that I am beginning to wonder if perhaps they have mistaken me for someone else.  I put this feeling aside and have an evening that becomes a highlight of my time as a food blogger.

You know how you watch a reality TV show and wonder what goes on behind the scenes? Are the people you see onscreen really as evil, or stupid, or sullen as they seem?  Was a challenge really as difficult or as fun as it appears to the viewers?  We have the opportunity to ask Matthew questions, understanding that he is only able to respond to things we have seen thus far in the series.  I imagine it must be difficult sometimes to keep it straight. He is good at it.  I’ll share a few tidbits later in this post but now on to the actual food.

I don’t know about you but when I watch shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America, Chopped, etc., I have cravings.  When I watch Top Chef Just Desserts I need to grab the most complex dessert in my fridge and devour it.  This means I eat a lot of Haagen Daz dulce de leche low fat frozen yogurt.

Now I have the chance to taste food prepared by a chef who’s creations I have only heard being tantalizingly described by the judges.  I am at a loss for words as I try to convey how mind-blowing this is for me. This is my second time enjoying this experience, my first being a Carla Hall cooking class I took as “Top Chef All-Stars” was being aired.  This evening at CityZen is all the more special because it is one-on-one.

Matthew takes his place in the kitchen and the dessert tasting, “Pastry’s Ode to Summer” begins.   

The first course is sparkling peach lemonade, vanilla glacé, and melted Path Valley raspberries.

The second course is star anise rice pudding with whipped plum, rice flour sablé, and honey ice cream.

 The third course is caramelized mission fig with vanilla sorbet.

 The fourth course is Valrhona chocolate brioche with salted pretzel ice cream.

The tasting is a whirlwind of textures and flavors.  Tart and sweet. Crunchy and smooth.   Salty and  sweet.  
There is a common thread running through the dishes in that they each have a component that is cold and also crunchy.  Nothing is overly sweet.  The flavors are delicate and yet complex. I am delighted that there are no nuts in sight, which is just a twist of fate.  I have opted not to divulge my aversion to nuts as I want to experience whatever Chef Matthew prepares.  I rejoice in the fact that I am able to thoroughly enjoy every ingredient that is put before me.

If I have to vote for a single favorite dish of the night it is the rice pudding and honey ice cream.  The rice pudding, with flecks of forbidden rice on top, is wonderfully innovative.  The honey ice cream literally makes me gasp when I taste it. It is without question the best ice cream I have ever had.   I tell this to Matthew when he comes back to the table as our tasting is winding down. He is telling us about the honey, which comes  from Path Valley Farm in Pennsylvania.  I am listening intently and at the same time marveling at the wonderful  chocolate brioche, which actually tastes more salty than sweet.

Another highlight in an evening of many is witnessing the interaction between Linda and Matthew.  They both clearly understand that the time to take advantage of Matthew’s participation on Top Chef Just Desserts is now.  This is a unique opportunity for the already top-rated hotel and restaurant, as well as for Matthew. I am privvy to some brainstorming about a possible tie-in promotion, which I am not at liberty to divulge,  but I hope it comes to fruition.

If you are not watching the show, I urge you to do yourself a favor and check it out on Bravo, Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm.  If you’ve decided to skip it because last season was a little boring, get over it.  This season is much more interesting.

If you are watching, here are a few things that I learned:

  • There really is a bromance between Matthew and Chris (he smiles broadly when asked about this and talks about how much the two of them have in common)
  • Craig was as over his head as he appears
  • The filming of the Willy Wonka episode took three days
  • There are many things that happen which that we don’t see on television and conversely things we see on television that the participants don’t realize until it is aired
  • Matthew’s friends and family are surprised that thus far he has been fairly quiet, because he can have a tendency to “shoot his mouth off.”  His strategy is to keep focused and under the radar.  (It seems to be working.)
  • Matthew felt so strongly that they should be allowed to have recipes on hand that he considered not participating in the show if this was not going to be the case. Fortunately, the rules were changed from last season and each chef was allowed to bring along a book of their own recipes.
  • On the Willy Wonka episode Matthew’s strategy is to hold on to his snacks rather than eat them, in case he needed them for a challenge.  He can’t believe that no one else has thought of this. They weren’t needed and sadly he never gets a chance to enjoy his snacks.

As we depart the Mandarin Oriental, I am gushing to my husband about how Linda is such a thoroughly lovely person and how genuine and adorable Matthew is.  He agrees that Linda is charming and Matthew is charismatic, and then reminds me that I have now said “Matthew is so cute” about five times.

DC has embraced our Top Cheftestants.  It’s difficult to get reservations at Mike Isabella’s Graffiato and Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt.  There are often lines to get into Spike Mendolsohn’s We the Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery.  Carla Hall is noticed everywhere she goes and is now a television star, with the new series The Chew premiering this week.  It is time to do the same for Matthew  Petersen.  Check out Top Chef Just Desserts.  And embrace Matthew Petersen.  I know I did.

Top Chef Just Desserts
Bravo TV, Wednesdays, 10:00 pmCity Zen and Sou’Wester, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington, DC


  1. Lori — You have just made a proud mom even prouder. Thanks for such a fabulously written blog post! Best regards, Lori Petersen

  2. Yes, dessert instead of dinner. Way to go! Great details of it all! I guessed the rice pudding would be your fav:)

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