This is part two of our interview with Eugenia Theodosopoulos, owner and chef of Essence Bakery Cafe. Last month, she opened a second location of the popular Tempe eatery and yesterday we learned a little more about the building she and her husband and business partner, Gilles Combes, bought in Arcadia. Today, we're back to hear what she'll be cooking up next now that she has a larger baking space.
As far as the food goes, there are a few new items added to an updated menu available at both locations. Theodosopoulos says for the most part they're familiar dishes she's been doing as specials for years. With the new space she's able to serve them all the time.
All the baking will now be done in Arcadia since the bakery is so much bigger. And with the extra space, Theodosopoulos says she plans to expand the bakery's offerings.
The next thing on the horizon, she says, will be breads. Though Essence already produces the focaccia and rolls used for the sandwiches she serves, she'd like to be able to sell bread to the public as well. There may be tasty items like French baguettes in the future, in addition to specialty offerings like raisin walnut bread. Don't hold your breath, though. Knowing Theodosopoulos' reputation for perfection, she won't be selling them until she's completely satisfied.
She says you can also look forward to more "savory baked goods," like the sausage turnover she added to the breakfast menu and cakes.
If you haven't already heard Theodosopoulos' story, it might surprise you to know that it doesn't start with chefs whites and perfect petite pastries. On the contrary it started in Ohio at her family's Greek diner. By age 13, she started baking pies, and it was that humble experience that began her love for pastry.
At 26, she was living in Boston and not working in food when she decided to go back to what she did growing up. She left the East Coast for France, where she learned French at the Sorbonne and then pastry at the prestigious École Lenôtre.
While there, she met Gilles, they got married, and he convinced her to move back to the States, specifically to Arizona, after five years of living abroad. They opened a catering company together and have been partners in business and life ever since.
"My family had always worked together," she says of the prospect of working with her husband. "So it didn't scare me."
And it still must not since they've been making it work for the past two decades. Though if you ask Combes, he'll tell you it's really more like four decades because they're married and work together. "It counts double!" he says.
They both say a lot has changed since the couple first landed in the Valley, referring both to the city and the food environment. We asked the chef if she worries about the fact that changing palates have veered away from classic French cuisine -- but Theodosopoulos is confident in the future.
"Not pastry," she says. "People still love French pastries."
How have you adapted your food to please American palates? One of the ways was size. With the macarons, I used to make them at parties and people used to call them chocolate hamburgers. So I started to make them cookie-size. Also they're a bit sweeter here.
The biggest difference between French chefs and American chefs: I feel like French-trained chefs have it engrained more to respect products. That's something i really learned in France. It was drilled into me.
How has Phoenix changed since you've been here?: It's changed a lot. It's bigger; there's definitely lot more variety and definitely a lot more food. It's a lot for the better.
One thing you miss most about living in Paris: It's a lot more relaxed, and I miss walking in the city.
Name a culinary mentor and explain what you learned from this person: My mentor is Jean-Louis Clement and I have learned so much from him -- bread, macarons, croissants -- all of it. He has taught me so much, and he's still teaching me. My husband calls him a "bread god."
What do you think makes Essence so successful?: I think it's our dedication to what we are doing and to our customers, making it right for them.
Your favorite item on the menu at Essence and why: It depends on the day. But I can eat spanakopita for breakfast, lunch, or dinner -- cold.
What's next for Essence Bakery?: I'm not sure about that yet. But, I mean, we have a lot of ideas.
Your best advice for someone who might want to be a chef: Go work in a restaurant for six months. Be a server, be a bartender, be a dishwasher, anything before you spend a lot of money on culinary school. If you can wash dishes well, then you can do anything in a restaurant well.
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What should be written on your headstone?: Let's go, let's go, let's go! Because I say that all the time.
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