Tova du Plessis grew up in South Africa in a Jewish household with a mother who could cook “absolutely everything” with the eye and hand of a perfectionist.
“She just never thought anything was ever good enough, when in reality everything was great,” says du Plessis, now a mother herself, who puts that same stickler’s level of purism into Essen Bakery (1437 E. Passyunk Ave.), her just-opened sweets-and-savory baked goods salon in South Philly.
“My mom celebrated Shabbat every week. Every holiday was a big event, and it all centered around her food,” says du Plessis, rattling off a list of hearty soups, breads (challahs) and sweets from halvah to rugelach.
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Essen means “food” and “to eat” in Yiddish but the 30-year-old didn’t think she would ever wind up a chef. Du Plessis went to the University of Houston to become a physician.
But after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in biology, she ditched medicine and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America’s in California’s Napa Valley, where she focused on baking.
“It’s just something I felt an instinct for: baking,” she laughs. When interning at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa she made Israeli desserts with Philly’s Michael Solomonov who came in as a guest chef.
“Michael said that if I ever wanted to eat at his Zahav, to come visit; he was deeply genuine, not just making lip service.”
Du Plessis not only took Solomonov up, but ended up interning at his restaurant — a move that became a full-time gig.
“I came during 2012 Restaurant Week, so it was crazy,” she recalls. “Michael’s meticulous. We put out so much food. I learned a lot there.” She continued to learn at Solomonov’s Rose + Citron as well as Le Bec Fin, Avance and as executive pastry chef at Rittenhouse Hotel’s Lacroix before having a baby girl, Lily, and moving to South Philadelphia.
“I learned to taste everything — to poke, feel, touch — and to not follow what’s on paper.”
When du Plessis found a potential spot at the East Passyunk address that formally held Belle Cakery (from Jessie Prawlucki who owns Fond with husband Lee Styer and Tory Keomanivong), she decided that she would bring her takes on the traditions of her Jewish mother as well as those of her dad’s family.
“A lot of Jews in South Africa came from Russia and Lithuania, so there’s the traditions of smoked fish, chopped liver and pickled herring,” she says of the ingredients that figure into Essen’s sandwiches, which change daily.
Then there is the divinely sweet side of Essen’s baked goods — everything from chocolate chip cookies to apple and honey cakes — rich in tradition and experimentation.
“Even though I love the recipes of the past, I get bored of them and wish to put my own exciting spin on things,” she says.
For instance, du Plessis adds halvah (a sweet, dense tahini-infused treat) to her soft, doughy babka, “something I’ve never seen or tasted before,” for a truly glorious taste sensation.
“We’ve only been opened a few days and everyone is embracing that babka,” she says, “which is really nice because it is all ours.”