Pastry chef Tova du Plessis kept a secret for over two years.
In late 2019, du Plessis, owner of the South Philadelphia Jewish bakery Essen and four times nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award, traveled to New York City and spent a day recording interviews, cooking and competing on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay”. a series of competitions where chefs from across the country face off against the former “iron boss”.
Since the recording of the episode – her release date delayed due to the pandemic – du Plessis has been unable to confirm or deny whether she had beaten Flay in the competition, but ultimately du Plessis’ secret is revealed.
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On November 23, the “Beat Bobby Flay” episode “It’s a Cakewalk” premiered, where du Plessis takes the cake, baking a superlative Jewish apple cake to the show’s titular chef, not just showing off his Culinary chops but a lot of fun to do so.
“I would totally do something like this,” said du Plessis.
In the show’s tight 21-minute format, du Plessis first beat California chef Holden Jagger, making a 20-minute superior dish with the secret ingredient in raspberries. She then faced off against Flay – who bragged about 23andMe’s results indicating her 25% Jewish ancestry. His Apple Cake with Buttermilk Sorbet and Rum Caramel was deemed a winner of the Flay iteration, topped with chopped apples, nuts, and a pomegranate crème fraîche.
Du Plessis grew up in South Africa, where she cooked alongside her mother in the kitchen, making challah almost every Shabbat. She loves cooking Ashkenazi favorites, like beef brisket, and her bakery sells variations of these classics, like her cinnamon hazelnuts and chocolate halva babka.
But all of these dishes have one thing in common: they all take a long time to prepare.
“All of my favorite things take hours to do,” said du Plessis. “I am a patient chef.
And while all the dishes she finds pleasure in preparing, their long braising, proving and cooking times made them impossible options to challenge Bobby Flay in a 45-minute competition.
In the months leading up to the competition, du Plessis memorized the ingredient ratios in simple pastries like shortbread cookies and prepared streamlined and streamlined versions of recipes that provided a template and could easily incorporate a mystery ingredient. This is how she managed to whip up a raspberry mascarpone filled blini dish with a pomegranate and raspberry gastric in just 20 minutes.
“I thought to myself, ‘What could be the basis of my dish, and whatever secret ingredient? ”Said du Plessis of how she prepared for the competition. “So I started to think, ‘What if it’s a fruit? What about nuts? What if it was chocolate? And I kind of thought about how I would use it. “
And despite the show’s kitsch antics (Ace of Cakes hosts Damaris Phillips and Duff Goldman really want to see Flay defeated), the “Beat Bobby Flay” format really requires contestants to be nimble, working under stiff time constraints with unknown ingredients.
“It’s really real,” du Plessis said. “You see the secret ingredient, then you have to go into the kitchen and cook something. I can’t believe what I did in 20 minutes, and it’s so rewarding; it feels so good. It really brings out your competitive spirit.
But beyond the bragging rights and the intrinsic reward of surviving a competitive show, du Plessis’ presence on a national cooking show – and the one du Plessis watched in its first seasons – is something that she hopes to use to the advantage of Essen.
“I knew I wanted to be ready to ship nationwide, and that was a great motivation to set up nationwide shipping,” du Plessis said.
Last year around Thanksgiving, du Plessis began shipping Essen favorites across the country via Goldbelly, an online artisanal food market, expanding its business beyond its small storefront on East Passyunk Avenue. .
Although du Plessis has received national recognition in recent years as nominee and semi-finalist James Beard, her stint on a Food Network show may have a bigger impact on business, she said.
“Bobby Flay’s show is reaching a wider audience,” said du Plessis. “Not many people know about the James Beard Foundation… Bobby Flay’s show has such a huge audience across the country that I thought it was really a big deal – incredible exposure.”
And while du Plessis works to grow businesses across state lines, she has a home community where she is fully supported.
When du Plessis announced that she would be appearing in “Beat Bobby Flay,” customers and community members assumed du Plessis would win before they even saw the episode.
“The response I got the most was, ‘Oh, you’re totally going to beat him,’ said du Plessis. “That was the general feeling, and that’s a big compliment.”
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