When Parc Rittenhouse Executive Pastry Chef Abby Dahan won an episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped Sweets,” friends and co-workers clamored for details about filming the hit cooking competition show.
“I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Is everything real-time?’ And it absolutely is. They don’t give you any more time than what you’re shown,” she said.
The dessert-themed spinoff of “Chopped” features three timed rounds in which contestants must cook restaurant-worthy dishes out of mystery ingredients and avoid being eliminated, or “chopped.” The last chef standing wins $10,000.
Dahan faced off against chefs Heather Smith, Padua Player and Phillip Caramello in episode 5, “Fresh ’n’ Fruity,” of season 2. Each round featured fruit and fruit-flavored ingredients. The episode was judged by British celebrity baker Matt Adlard, famed Jewish wedding cake baker and cookbook author Sylvia Weinstock and longtime “Chopped” judge Scott Conant.
Dahan caught the judges’ attention during the first round, when she made madeleines out of halo-halo, strawberry fruit ribbon, kiwi and chocolate-covered cherries. In addition to using the basket ingredients, she included caramelized phyllo dough, an unconventional cooking technique she chose on the spot.
Out of the three desserts she prepared, she was most proud of her charlotte from the second round. The custard-filled cake, which usually takes hours to make and set, had to incorporate pavlova, almond paste, pomegranate and fruit punch.
“It would be something I would absolutely serve in the restaurant, no question,” she said.
The judges agreed.
“If she can make a charlotte in 45 minutes, I’m playing lotto tonight because that is just winning,” Conant said.
Adlard was lost for words after his first bite.
“It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” he said.
Dahan prepared for the competition by watching as many episodes of “Chopped Sweets” as possible. Her experience working in Parc’s fast-paced kitchen for seven years and competing in two previous cooking contests also helped.
“You’ve got to have your game plan,” she said. “I feel like working in that kind of environment really set me up to formulate very very quick game plans at the beginning of each round because obviously, you see what you have and then you start basically immediately.”
The one thing she didn’t anticipate? The heat.
“I work in a hot kitchen. It’s hot every day at Parc,” she said. “This was next-level hot. There’s all these lights on you, so it just feels intense, like the sun in your face.”
Scorching temperatures proved to be a problem in the final round, when Dahan and Caramello were assigned to make desserts with fruitcake, tiny fruit candies, finger limes and blackberry pie filling. Dahan made choux buns filled with semifreddo, a frozen dessert similar to ice cream. She piped it onto the plate too early and it melted into a puddle.
The judges noted the error.
“You made a mistake when you started piping it out on the plate, and you know that,” Conant said. “But you understand how to develop flavors and how to make those flavors work together.”
Weinstock was impressed.
“I really could lick the plate, but I won’t be able to walk home,” she said.
Dahan channeled her background in French pastry during the competition. She was born in Paris to a Moroccan Jewish father and French Jewish mother, and her family moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when she was young. She returned to Paris later in life for culinary school and worked in several American cities before returning to the Philadelphia area. In 2014, she earned a place on Zagat’s “30 under 30” list for Philadelphia.
Dahan was furloughed at the start of the pandemic and returned to Parc part-time early in the summer. She baked and sold her own pastries from her Instagram account during her time at home. Now, she is working on starting her own virtual baking school.
She won “Chopped Sweets” in early March, just before pandemic shutdowns began, but had to wait until the episode aired on Sept. 1 to reveal the news. Her co-workers were thrilled.
“They were so supportive,” she said. “I still have people at work say, ‘Oh my God, I watched your episode, it was amazing, congrats!’”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729