One of the region’s most accomplished and acclaimed pastry chefs is opening a Jewish bakery when most others are closing their doors.
In a surprise and welcome development for Jewish bakery aficionados accustomed to only reading about emporiums closing their doors, one of the region’s most accomplished and acclaimed pastry chefs is making news because she is opening them.
Tova du Plessis, perhaps best known in Philadelphia when she was the pastry chef for the Rittenhouse Hotel, is the proprietor of Essen Bakery. The bakery, whose name means “to eat” in Yiddish, is located at 1437 E. Passyunk Avenue, where Belle Cakery used to be. It has been in the works since early February, according to du Plessis who is hoping for an early April opening.
Du Plessis’ affinity for baking began when she was growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She attributes her love for baking and cooking to her mother, with whom she would make challah every week for Shabbat.
“I grew up cooking and baking with my mom as a child and always loved being in the kitchen,” she remembered. “We would cook a lot for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. We made a lot of really traditional items like potato kugel and gefilte fish.”
However, despite her love for being in the kitchen, du Plessis hadn’t thought of it as a career until much later.
She moved to the United States 12 years ago, where she almost became Dr. du Plessis. She started studying pre-med at the University of Houston before realizing it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
“By my junior year, I realized, ‘I’m not going to med school.’ I had completely changed my mind, I had to figure out what else I could do,” she recalled. “I realized the one thing I really loved doing is to cook. So it just seemed natural to me and seemed like the only choice.”
She moved to California and attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. When it came time to decide her culinary track — she had to choose either culinary arts or baking — she chose to pursue the pastry arts.
Afterwards, she got an internship and subsequently a job at a restaurant in Napa Valley, which she said was a “phenomenal experience” that really shaped her career. After a few other jobs, she started thinking about opening her own place.
“I think for the last few years, I’ve been wanting to open my own bakery. Why? It’s hard to say,” she mused. “I think I am a very independent person. I think I have an entrepreneurial spirit, which I probably got from my parents as well.”
These qualities stuck with her as she moved to Philadelphia where she worked at a plethora of places, most recently at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
That role was what she said actually motivated her most to open her own bakery, as it was the largest role she's had and there were many parts to it.
She had taken maternity leave back in June after her daughter was born. During that time, she thought about what to do next. She was not comfortable going back to work in the fall and leaving her daughter, who was not quite 3 months old by the time du Plessis had to return to work.
She decided not to go back and instead, starting in February, began moving forward with the idea of opening her own bakery. The 12- to 14-hour days at the hotel were not something du Plessis felt comfortable with while her daughter was still so young.
“The irony is that now I decided to open my own business,” she said with a laugh, noting that the hours are still long.
However, the long workdays are her choice, and right in her backyard: The bakery is a short walk from her South Philadelphia home.
She hopes that the bakery can become a go-to for people in the neighborhood.
“My goals are to provide the best Jewish baked goods in Philadelphia to draw people from all over Philly and also to become a neighborhood staple,” she expressed, adding that she is not just targeting a Jewish audience. “I’m really hoping that people who live around here will stop here for a cup of coffee, pastry, loaf of bread, sandwich.”
She has been working on the menu, which will feature goods that all have Jewish-infused themes. She will not be kosher-certified, but she noted that the pastries are dairy, the breads will not be made with dairy and there will be no meat on the premises.
Right now, her offerings will include rye bread, challah bread, babka — which is one of her favorite things — rugelach, cookies, cakes and cheesecake. There will also be sandwiches and coffee, and she will offer catering services for events from a brunch to a bris.
“I don't want to undertake anything that I don't believe I can execute well,” she said. “I would rather have a really focused menu and know I can execute it really well, and there are particular items I love so much that I really want to pay attention to those items. Everything I serve is something I really love to make and to eat.”
She is excited for Essen, which she chose as the name because she liked the idea of having a Yiddish name and “it has a nice ring to it,” to open in the spring because that’s a time when people are always outside and enjoying the weather.
There will be a few tables outside and six seats inside for dining; it will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
As she continues finalizing plans and checking things off a seemingly neverending to-do list, she is looking forward to the day it’s finally done.
"I kind of have ants in my pants, and I want to get this place open,” she laughed.
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