“That’s something I’m kind of soul-searching about right now. How do I want to use this new power and platform I have that’s going to put my voice out there? That’s an important thing, no one in my position should just find themselves sitting pretty, I’m very privileged in so many ways, I have an amazing life and figuring out how I can be of service to others in my position is extremely important.”
Just one day after winning the Rising Star accolade at the James Beard Foundation Awards, it’s not future empire building that concerns Camille Cogswell. It’s not plotting her next career steps, “I’ve always followed my instinct for this stuff”, she says, “I don’t have a five year plan like some.” In fact, while her rental car zips through tunnels on route to Montreal, Cogswell and her boyfriend escaping America to take stock and celebrate a day after her win, the 27-year-old pastry chef is wrestling, no, “soul-searching” as she puts it, with what exactly it is she will stand for.
She is known right now for the deliciously caramelized, crunchy, soft, oh-so-sweet desserts she drops daily at the Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, alongside her long-standing boss, friend and mentor, Mike Solomonov. For those that know her well, she’s the North Carolina born, cookie-pie-and-custard loving bundle of energy who was into pastry long before she was strong enough to stir the flour in the bowl, “there was always a point when I would hand it off to my mum to finish it,” she says, reliving her earliest baking memory.
It was those early cookie baking sessions with mum and a quick step into culinary education that cemented Cogswell’s passion for pastry, and it was seven of her fellow family members who sat in the opulent Lyric Opera House of Chicago last Monday evening as their daughter, niece, girlfriend and cousin was catapulted to acclaim, chosen by America’s biggest culinary awards program as a person who is set to ‘significantly impact the restaurant industry in years to come’. No pressure!
For those that don’t know her. She’s in charge of pastry at one of Philadelphia’s best restaurants, Zahav, a modern Israeli kitchen that plays in the realm of opulence and hyper-delicious. Taking traditional techniques, ingredients, preparations and flavors, and delivering them with expert precision. She’s trained at the Culinary Institute of America, interned alongside Dan Barber at his Bluehill Stone Barns restaurant in upstate New York, “it was insane,” she says,”extremely challenging for the first few months.” And she’s spent a stint working with the pastry chef, Mark Welker, at The Nomad - an influential period of training that helped form her current approach to pastry.
“I found a really awesome connection to Mark Welker’s desserts… I learned something that now I really try to invoke in the pastries I make.” Welker’s food taught her about “emotional connection” in cooking, something that's an integral part of her own approach. “When I tasted his desserts I felt that emotional connection, the nostalgia, the familiarity where I could connect memories and feelings in my life to the dishes I was eating, it was amazing! It was mind blowing! I tasted this peach and rosemary dessert he had and I was like, ‘this makes me think about sitting on a porch in the South, eating peach pie in a rocking chair’. That was incredible. I worked there for a little over a year before I moved to Philadelphia and it was very influential for me.”
Bringing this emotional approach to Philadelphia was the only way for Cogswell, “it’s a really important factor is that there is a connection when someone eats one of my desserts. I think that is when food is most meaningful to people.” However, tapping into that philosophy at a restaurant cooking Israeli cuisine isn’t so easy. After all, what was her emotional connection to babka, to konafi or sachleb?
The pursuit for this connection to the pastries she cooks has led Cogswell to build a strong relationship with Solomonov, who promoted her from cook to pastry chef within two months of her starting work in his kitchen, and the strength of their bond is clear. “He has been an incredible influence and mentor,” she gushes.
But, still. How do you create an emotional connection for a diner when you’re cooking a pastry from a country you’ve never even been to before? “I try to learn about Mike’s traditions, about his life, what he grew up with and what he feels an emotional connection to. Then I try to find a familiar part of that in my life. We try to use ingredients, techniques and tastes that you find around Israel but we also use these American ingredients and techniques from our own heritage. It is an Israeli restaurant, we always use that as our base, but not everything is always traditional. I’m just looking for those bits that I get excited about, the piece I relate to and the piece that makes me interested. I find where that connection lies so I can try to make other people excited about it when they taste the food.”
This approach presents itself in many forms but perhaps Cogswell’s most famous dessert is Malabi custard, “that’s the one people seem to come away enjoying the most,” says the chef as she explains the connection the dish conjures for diners. “It’s an Israeli milk pudding, very similar to a panna cotta, but it’s just milk and cream with this exotic flair because we add rose water, orange blossom water and ground orchid root. Super floral but that really clean simple, dairy flavor which is super relatable. We all have a primal connection to that flavor, milk is the first thing we taste in the world.”
Another dish that shows off this smart connecting of cultures is Cogswell’s take on konafi, a shredded filo dough from Israel that is traditionally stuffed with cheese and doused in sticky syrup. Cogswell drops the cheese, sometimes replacing it with chocolate ganache, but for her smartest move, she replaces it with pastry cream. A sweet American hit that, as she says, “mimics the creaminess of the cheese but in a little bit of a different way.” This is often baked in the shape of a layered caked, a great visual anchor for those tasting their first sample of Israeli dessert.”
Zahav, and in turn Cogswell, have become leaders in presenting modern Israeli cuisine to American palates, and if there needed to be any convincing that Israeli food is now a big player in the American culinary landscape, this is the second year consecutively that a chef cooking Israeli cuisine has been picked for the Rising Star award, with Zachary Engel beating Cogswell to the prize in 2017.
This, and the responsibility that comes with it, is not lost on Cogswel as she drives towards Montreal. “Since this category is really focused on the future and potential and possibility, I think that says a lot about how popular this cuisine will be in the coming years.”
The theme of the JBF Awards for 2018 was ‘Rise’: chefs rising to the occasion, stepping out of the kitchen, off-the-plate, away from the cooker and into society. Impacting wherever they can. It’s a movement that’s been growing for years now, but this year saw it pushed to the very front of the queue. Chefs playing a larger role in society is no longer surprising, it’s the norm, it’s actually expected. And even a young chef like Cogswell, still learning her trade, still developing her distinct style, has to fly that flag. A role she welcomes, but one she wants to take some time working out.
“The most terrifying part is that this is based on what people think I will do in the future, and that they think I have the potential to do great things in the coming years and that is terrifying. I’m just trying to do some soul-searching right now and really kind of understand what this means to me, what I want to do with this inspiration and this momentum. To do something really meaningful with it, I’m not sure what that is right now but I don’t want to let anyone down. Every time I open up my backpack and I see the medal again I’m like, ‘wow, that really happened.’ I’m not the only person who deserves this award but I am the person that got it, and I won’t take that for granted.”