Why This Baker's Challah is the Toast of Philadelphia
How Tova du Plessis, a South African Jewish woman, became South Philadelphia's favorite bakerSarah Maiellano
May 30, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Sarah Maiellano unpacks the story behind the perenially popular Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, and how its owner, Tova du Plessis, drew on her South African Jewish roots to become a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Baker.
As a young girl growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tova du Plessis always thought she would become a doctor. Her mother envisioned her daughter in a more creative field. Du Plessis did end up with a biology degree, but you can’t deny a mother’s intuition: today, the three-time Beard Award nominee owns Essen, a Jewish bakery in South Philadelphia, a historically Italian Catholic neighborhood.
Food was an important tradition in her tight-knit community, particularly in du Plessis’s household. “My mom prepared elaborate meals,” she recalled. “Every week [for Shabbat], she made challah, chicken soup, and gefilte fish.” Du Plessis remembers being very involved in the kitchen as a child.
She came to the U.S. for college, but after deciding against a career in medicine, du Plessis had to ask herself what was next. “My instinctive response was: I’ve got to cook,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything else that I loved to do as much.” With her now-husband, Brad (a fellow South African pre-med student–turned–wine representative), she moved to Napa, California and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.
After graduating, she landed as a pastry cook at the Restaurant at Meadowood. It was there—ironically at the celebrated restaurant’s annual Twelve Days of Christmas series—that she met Michael Solomonov, the multiple James Beard award–winning chef behind Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant (and a fellow Jew).
“I didn’t know about Michael before that, so I was surprised and curious about this chef in Philly that had an Israeli restaurant that [was] taking off in the mainstream community,” du Plessis remembered.
She came east to stage at Zahav, and Solomonov put her on the al ha’esh station, where she learned to break down proteins and cook them over coals. “It was exactly the experience I was craving at the time.” she recalled.
Soon du Plessis had officially moved to Philadelphia and become a sous chef in Solomonov’s restaurant group. She followed that up with a gig as the pastry chef at the tony Rittenhouse Hotel.
It was at the Rittenhouse that she first felt the spark of entrepreneurship. She was “responsible for a whole team of cooks, different menus, working with other departments, purchasing, costing, inventory.” Gaining that management experience made her consider opening her own business. But that would be down the road, when the time was right.
Then, she and Brad decided to start a family.
“I had my daughter and realized I can’t go back to the hotel,” du Plessis said. “I used to work 12 to 14 hours days. I started thinking about what else I could do. I was at a crossroads.”
In a moment of serendipity, she heard that fellow pastry chef Jessie Prawlucki, a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist, was looking for someone to sublease her bakery. The cherry on top? It was located in du Plessis’s East Passyunk neighborhood. “This was an amazing opportunity,” she thought. “I had to just do it.”
Essen Bakery opened in 2016, with a menu inspired by the meals of du Plessis’s childhood. Her flagship chocolate halva babka sells out early each day. Her rugelach, black and white cookies, and sandwiches are favorites, too. She makes challah just like her mother used to, although her version is sweeter and softer. And while du Plessis says her father may prefer his wife’s take, there are a few little old ladies in the neighborhood who love Essen’s challah (and they don’t even complain about how much bread costs these days).
Du Plessis now owns the bakery space, and recently announced plans to open an outpost on the opposite side of town—in Northern Liberties’ new Piazza Pod Park.
She credits her family with giving her the confidence to manage a team and run a business. Every Shabbat, they’d have two- to three-hour meals together as a family. “There was a lot of discourse at our table. We pushed for our opinions to be heard and I developed a lot of confidence.”
At just 4 feet 11 inches tall, Du Plessis is the exact same height as her mom, an entrepreneur who she describes as smart, capable, and confident. Likewise, du Plessis says that “anyone who meets me can tell that I’m not self-conscious about my size or being a woman.” She hopes to pass that strong spirit and work ethic on to her daughter, Lily.
“It seems a little bit crazy that I opened my business when I had a six-month-old,” du Plessis said. Though it’s still hard to balance motherhood with running the bakery, she believes that Lily, who is now almost four years old, will benefit from seeing her mom follow her dream.
Before becoming a parent, du Plessis always thought opening her own place would be years down the road. “You can keep thinking that your whole life,” she said. “It’s time when it works out. This was the opportunity.”