The Golden Palate
How a Southern pastry chef ended up making Israeli dessertsGabriella Gershenson
December 13, 2018
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, Gabriella Gershenson explores James Beard Award winner Camille Cogswell’s lifelong devotion to dessert, and how it took her from baking in high school to becoming one of the nation’s leading pastry chefs.
Pastry chef Camille Cogswell, the 27-year-old winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Rising Star Chef award, has worked in some impressive kitchens during her career. But it wasn’t her time at Blue Hill Stone Barns, at Nomad, or even at Zahav, where she currently oversees the pastry program, that figures most prominently in her origin story. It was her high school.
Cogswell grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, in a food-loving family. Though she frequently cooked at home with her mother, it was Cogswell’s high school that provided her first meaningful foray into professional food. A culinary arts program, run by an instructor named Joe Lilly, changed her life. “He noticed how passionate I was and fanned the flame,” she says of her first mentor.
From then on, food was at the center of her world, and Cogswell noticed herself gravitating toward desserts. She proposed an independent study during her senior year that let her intern at a local bakery in exchange for school credit. A chemistry project involved a demonstration of pâte à choux. For English class, Cogswell recreated pastry and chocolates from the book Chocolat. “I was really aware of my interests and tried to incorporate them into my life as much as possible.”
Despite her enthusiasm, Cogswell decided against going to culinary school after graduation, instead pursuing a bachelor’s degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. “When you’re a teenager, you think you have to choose a path and do it for the rest of your life,” she says. But when it came time to pick a major, Cogswell still hadn’t found a subject as engrossing to her as baking. With her parents’ blessing, she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York to focus on pastry. It was there that she met her fiancé, Andrew DiTomo, and the CIA proved to be her springboard into fine dining. Cogswell was still a student when she landed at Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York—one of the country’s best restaurants—for a four-month externship.
“I didn't know anything about the place beforehand, and I was totally blown away,” says Cogswell. The restaurant’s farm setting was a revelation. Sometimes, she would help in the greenhouse or visit the newborn baby lambs before her shift. “It was just such an idyllic place.” It was also extremely challenging. Cogswell had worked in bakeries, but never at a restaurant of this caliber. She was deeply motivated by the professionals in her midst and rose to the occasion, pushing through the difficulty, keeping her head down, and learning. “It's inspiring to have all of these super-talented, hardworking cooks around you,” says Cogswell. “I was like ‘wow, this is what it can be.’”
After culinary school, Cogswell lived briefly in New York City, where she worked at the restaurant Nomad with pastry chef Mark Welker. She related to his rural Midwestern roots, and was stunned by what he accomplished with his desserts. “They're so nostalgic and elevated, but simple, and they connected with me in an emotional way that I hadn't experienced before,” says Cogswell. “That influenced how I think about making dessert. When people eat something and have an emotional connection with it—that’s the goal.”
About a year in, she and DiTomo, who had been in a long-distance relationship after culinary school, decided to move to Philadelphia, his hometown. DiTomo happened to be friends with chef Yehuda Sichel of Abe Fisher, a restaurant owned by James Beard Award winners chef Michael Solomonov and restaurateur Steven Cook. It just so happened that they were looking for fresh talent in the pastry kitchen at Zahav, their renowned Israeli restaurant. Sichel suggested that Cogswell contact them. She did, and after staging at several restaurants in Philly, Zahav captured Cogswell’s affections. “I love the energy of the restaurant, I love the food,” she says. “This vibrant Middle Eastern cuisine was something that was totally unfamiliar to me, but really delicious and exciting.”
Cogswell joined Zahav, and had a crash course in Israeli cuisine. Beyond a high school job at Bruegger’s Bagels, her exposure to Jewish food of any kind was limited. Soon enough, she became fluent in Israeli specialties such as malabi, a milk custard thickened with salep, a floral orchid root powder. Other desserts—such as kanafeh, a shredded-wheat pastry typically filled with soft cheese, which Cogswell replaces with blueberries, and an exquisite pistachio–quince upside-down cake—show her flair for hitting an American comfort note while utilizing Eastern Mediterranean flavors and seasonal ingredients. “At Zahav, you can conceivably try 20 different things before you get to dessert,” says Solomonov, who says he has big plans for the Rising Star Chef. “To have the diner list a dessert as one of the memorable dishes they had when they leave, after having so many different emotions and experiences, is amazing.”
This winter, Cogswell will make her inaugural trip to Israel with her Zahav coworkers. When asked what she wants to taste first, Cogswell didn’t hesitate. “I want to eat the traditional kanafeh because I've never had one. There are some places around here that do make the traditional cheese versions but I want to have it in Israel—just that beautifully gooey syrup-soaked pastry.”
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.