Camille Cogswell has not let the pandemic stop her. Named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2020, the North Carolina native had been the executive chef at K’Far, an all-day Israeli cafe and bakery by the team behind Zahav in Philadelphia (prior to that she has been the pastry chef at Zahav). While there, she became known for combining her Southern flair with Israeli ingredients and techniques. In 2018, the then 27-year-old was named “Rising Star Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation — only the second pastry chef in the 28-year history of the awards to do so (the other was Christina Tosi in 2012). Cogswell was also, in late 2019, named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the Food & Drink category.
After baking and selling her own pies and pastries via Instagram during much of the Covid-19 epidemic (her restaurant had been on pandemic hiatus), she’s since moved back to North Carolina to, as she notes on her Instagram, “follow dreams of wood-fired food and mountain life.” She and her fiancée, fellow chef Drew DiTomo, have purchased a property in Marshall, complete with two wood-fire ovens dating to 1998 and 2002 which they plan to turn into a retail bakery. We stole a few minutes away from the kitchen to chat with Chef Cogswell about her career, her passion and, of course, pies.
When and how did your passion for baking begin?
Growing up I loved helping my mom cook and bake, and food seemed to be at the front-and-center of my mind from an early age. My public school has a strong culinary arts program, so that’s where I got my first training and I really honed in on cooking as a possible career path. I was taking chemistry classes at the same time and I was really interested in the connection to the science of cooking.
What was it like winning the James Beard Award?
It was absolutely surreal! I still pinch myself that it happened. What was most meaningful and encouraging wasn’t the award itself, but that all of these people had issued a literal vote of confidence. It was an overwhelming feeling to have people believe in me in that way, to affirm that what I was doing was reaching people and being enjoyed.
What’s one tip you have for the amateur baker?
Don’t be discouraged by mishaps and mistakes. As chefs, we sometimes make recipes a dozen times before it comes out how we want it to. It can be disappointing when you’re really excited to make something and it doesn’t come out how you envisioned it. But know that it happens to the professionals all the time, too. Try it at least one more time. It will almost always come out a little better. All worthwhile skills take practice and each perceived failure is actually adding to your knowledge and learning in so many ways. And sometimes, those mistakes turn into new textures, flavors or variations that are super interesting!
Everything you make looks beyond delicious. Do you have one favorite thing to make?
Variety is the spice of life…and work! I don’t have one favorite thing to make. But I can say that no matter where I am in life, making and eating pies has always been a source of comfort and joy for me.
What is the most challenging part of being a pastry chef?
There are numerous challenges to working in the food/restaurant/hospitality industry, and one of the big ones that I’ve set a goal to improve for myself is work/life balance. The life part can be almost nonexistent if you’re a chef. It’s a pretty all-consuming job. And most people do it because they are passionate about it, but it shouldn’t have to be at the expense of a balanced life.
Is there anyone you’d dream of baking for? And what would you make?
My grandmother (mom’s mom) passed away when I was in middle school. She was an exceptionally unique and creative woman who I had a lot of respect for and fun with. I’ve always been very into food but I really started cooking constantly in high school and that’s when I began to think of it as a possible career path. I never got to share that with Grandma Kitty. If she were still here I’d make a simple pie with raspberries, blackberries and blueberries picked from her bushes, and we’d sit on her porch in the mountains and drink Jack Daniels and laugh and eat.
Other than baked goods, what’s your very favorite thing to eat?
I love food! New cuisines, old classics, home cooking, fancy restaurants, I’ll take it all. Any time I get to taste something someone else has cooked for me, that’s what I love.
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