This was all supposed to be a test run, Tova du Plessis sincerely believes.
The za’atar challah that flies off the shelves, the cinnamon hazelnut babka and the bite-sized chocolate rugelach that du Plessis bakes at Essen Bakery on Passyunk Avenue were all part of an experiment. It was all a chance to see what she could do after her stint as the pastry chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
It wasn’t meant to make her a nationally known baker, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to result in her fourth straight nomination for Outstanding Baker at the national level in the James Beard Awards. But that’s what happened Feb. 26, and for du Plessis, the test run has become something just a little bit more permanent.
“That’s really the recognition that I needed to keep growing out of this tiny space,” she said.
When du Plessis opened Essen in 2016, her daughter had just been born, and she wasn’t sure about what she wanted the bakery to be, nor could she have known where it would take her. Now, her daughter weaves in and out of the line of customers and hustling bakers, and du Plessis is starting to think about a bigger space for Essen.
Du Plessis grew up in South Africa, where she inherited her high standards for culinary excellence from her mother. They’d bake challah and enjoyed the standard Ashkenazi fare, like potato kugel and gefilte fish. Though she was once content for cooking to remain a hobby while she steeled herself for medical school in the United States, she found that she was not meant for scalpel and stethoscope. Instead, at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, rolling pins and baking trays became the tools of her trade — and her devotion.
She worked in Napa Valley in California for a while, which she called a “phenomenal experience,” before moving to Philadelphia, where she worked at Citron & Rose, Le Bec-Fin and other well-known spots before landing at her biggest job yet, at the Rittenhouse Hotel.
After her daughter was born, she decided that the pace of the job at the Rittenhouse was too much for her. So, she did what anyone would do in that situation, and opened up her own business — one that requires constant physical labor and odd hours. The space she took over previously belonged to another bakery, Belle Cakery, which made the opening a bit easier.
It was obvious to du Plessis from the beginning that she would go with a Jewish bakery concept for the first place of her own. Like any chef who works with the food of their youth, she explained, she was driven by a desire to improve on the original.
“Whenever chefs talk about going back to their roots, and making things that they grew up with, they’re often not the versions that they grew up with,” du Plessis said. “They shouldn’t be the versions that they grew up with.”
Instead, du Plessis, like many of her peers, was determined to take the traditional food she was raised on and put her own spin on it.
Which is exactly what she’s done. Since opening in 2016, Essen has drawn raves for its chocolate halva babka. Here’s Eater, on Essen’s babka: “Baker Tova du Plessis makes desert island babka. Last rites babka. Stick-’em-up-give-me-the-babka-and-nobody-gets-hurt kind of babka.”
Success came early, and it has continued for du Plessis and Essen — as shown in those four nominations for Outstanding Baker. Though she hasn’t captured a win yet, she sees the nominations themselves as validation of the work she’s done. That, along with a product she’s proud of and the lines out the door. (If you’re thinking about orders for Passover or Rosh Hashanah, make sure to get those in sooner rather than later; at Essen’s current capacity, there comes a point where they simply have to turn orders away.)
No baker wants to send someone away empty-handed, which is why du Plessis would like to expand at some point. She can’t do everything she wants to do at her current scale, she explained, and if she’s going to pass the business off to her daughter one day, as she hopes to do, she’s got some work to do.
In the meantime, the test run continues.
[email protected]; 215-832-0740