On the Rise
by Emily Kovach
Since the spring of 2016, residents of South Philly have enjoyed the many sweets, treats and baked goods created by Chef Tova du Plessis at her “little Jewish bakery.” At Essen Bakery on Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson Street, signature loaves of fluffy challah bread, sticky-sweet chocolate halva babka and flaky pastries, as well as simple sandwiches and toasts, have become an indispensable part of the thriving food scene in the Passyunk Square neighborhood. As one customer enthuses on Yelp, “The fact that I can walk 20 seconds to get to Essen helps me get out of bed in the morning.”
Locals aren’t the only ones who’ve taken note of du Plessis’ way with butter and dough. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the 2017 Outstanding Baker Award by the James Beard Foundation. Though she didn’t win the award (she did make it to the semifinalist round), the nod was still a huge recognition of Essen’s quality and creativity, and counts as one more feather in Philadelphia’s cap as a rising food city in America.
Daniel Gutter, aka @Pizza_Gutt, runs “Instagram’s first pizza shop.” Confused? Here’s how it works: Every few weeks, Gutter posts a menu for an upcoming pop-up appearance at a friend’s café or restaurant—say Win/Win Coffee Bar or Martha—to sell a limited number of his signature, nostalgia-laden pan pizzas. Philadelphians can lay claim to one of these 10-inch square pies by following a link in his profile to a time-slot reservation website. On the day of the pop-up, they pick up their pizza at the specified location, perhaps a simple tomato pie with greens and roasted garlic vinaigrette, or maybe the decadent Uncle Gutt topped with mozzarella, sauce, pepperoni and fried onions.
Gutter began making pizza at age 14 in a mom-and-pop shop. After graduating from college in 2012, he started working at Kensington's beloved Pizza Brain. In the summer of 2016, Gutter was making pizzas in his parents’ new backyard wood-fired oven and posting photos of the finished pies on Instagram. “I sold a few as a quasijoke, but the next week I had more people asking!” Gutter says. “Soon, the weather got chilly and I couldn’t cook outside anymore, but I was kind of obsessed with IG followers and didn’t want to stop!” That’s when he decided to pursue the square pie format, because they can be made in any oven. “I like to cook all styles of pizza,” he notes, “but right now people really seem to like the fried cheese and spongy dough of these squares.” Gutter is taking off the month of July to go on a solo tour of some national parks, but he’ll be back in August! Just keep an eye on the ’gram.
If you’ve ever had a pillowy and perfectly chewy Philly muffin from Philly Bread, you’ve already experienced the results of founder Pete Merzbacher and his team’s exceptional sourcing and dedication to their craft. Their grains come directly from farmers and they coax the most flavor possible out of them with methods like fresh milling and the addition of ingredients such as mild sourdough and roasted barley. From its headquarters in Olney, Philly Bread produces those lovely muffins, as well as bagels, baguettes, burger buns, Pullman loaves and a line of heritage breads.
Though it’s not hard to find Philly Bread products on local grocers’ shelves, aspiring home bakers can also sign up for “breaducation” classes to absorb some professional wisdom. Some of the classes coming up in August (and later in the fall) include a sourdough class, where participants will learn the steps to develop their own sourdough starter; a homemaker workshop covering some of the most common missteps in home-baking adventures; a home-baking equipment class that will explore how to use common kitchen items to bake bread; and a milling 101 session that will uncover the magic of using a hand-cranked mill. They’ll also do a masterclass for intermediate bakers; students are encouraged to bring their own bread project. Find class dates at phillybread.com in late July.