Pastry chef Tova du Plessis has kept a secret for more than two years.
At the end of 2019, du Plessis, owner of the South Philadelphia Jewish bakery Essen and four-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee, traveled to New York and spent a day taping interviews, cooking and competing on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay,” a competition series where chefs around the country go head-to-head with the former “Iron Chef.”
Since taping the episode — its airdate delayed due to the pandemic — du Plessis could neither confirm nor deny whether she bested Flay in the competition, but finally du Plessis’ secret is out.
On Nov. 23, “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 only showing off her culinary chops but having a great time doing so.
“I would totally do something like that again,” du Plessis said.
In the show’s tight 21-minute format, du Plessis first bested California-based chef Holden Jagger, crafting a superior dish in 20 minutes with the secret ingredient raspberries. She then faced off against Flay — who boasted 23andMe results indicating his 25% Jewish ancestry. Her apple cake with buttermilk sherbet and rum caramel was deemed victorious over Flay’s iteration topped with chopped apples, walnuts and a pomegranate creme fraiche.
Du Plessis grew up in South Africa, where she cooked alongside her mother in the kitchen, baking challah almost every Shabbat. She loves cooking Ashkenazi favorites, such as brisket, and her bakery sells spins on these classics, such as her cinnamon hazelnuts and chocolate halvah babka.
But all of those dishes have one thing in common: They all take a long time to prepare.
“All my favorite things take hours to make,” du Plessis said. “I’m a patient chef.”
And though all dishes she finds joy in making, their long braising, proofing and baking times made them impossible options with which to challenge Bobby Flay in a 45-minute competition.
In the months leading to the competition, du Plessis memorized ratios for ingredients in simple bakes like shortbread and prepared simpler, stripped-down versions of recipes that provided a blueprint and could easily incorporate a mystery ingredient. It’s how she was able to throw together a dish of raspberry mascarpone-filled blintzes with a raspberry pomegranate gastrique in just 20 minutes.
“I figured, ‘What could be the foundation of my dish, and it wouldn’t matter like what the secret ingredient was?’” du Plessis said of how she prepared for the competition. “So I started to think, ‘What if it was a fruit? What about nuts? What if it was chocolate?’ And I just kind of played through my mind how I would use it.”
And despite the show’s kitschy antics (hosts Damaris Phillips and Ace of Cakes’ Duff Goldman really, really want to see Flay’s defeat), the format of “Beat Bobby Flay” really requires contestants to be nimble, working under steep time constraints with unknown ingredients.
“It really is real,” du Plessis said. “You see the secret ingredient, and then you have to go into the kitchen and make a dish. I cannot believe what I made in 20 minutes, and that’s so gratifying; it feels so good. It really brings out your competitive spirit.”
But beyond bragging rights and the intrinsic reward of surviving a competition show, du Plessis’ presence on a national cooking show — and one that du Plessis used to watch in its earlier seasons — is something she hopes to use to Essen’s advantage.
“I knew I wanted to be ready to ship nationwide, and that was a big motivator to get nationwide shipping set up,” du Plessis said.
Last year around Thanksgiving, du Plessis began shipping Essen favorites around the country through Goldbelly, an online artisanal food marketplace, expanding her business beyond her petite storefront on East Passyunk Avenue.
Though du Plessis has received national recognition in the past several years as a James Beard nominee and semifinalist, her stint on a Food Network show can impact business more, she said.
“Going on at Bobby Flay’s show reaches a wider audience,” du Plessis said. “Not many people know about the James Beard Foundation … Bobby Flay’s show has such a large audience across the country that I felt was a really big deal — amazing exposure.”
And while du Plessis works on growing businesses across state lines, she has a community at home where she is thoroughly supported.
When du Plessis announced she would be competing on “Beat Bobby Flay,” customers and community members assumed du Plessis’ victory before they had even seen the episode.
“The response I got most was, ‘Oh, you’re totally gonna beat him,’” du Plessis said. “That was the overall sentiment, and it’s a big compliment.”
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