Camille Cogswell, Pastry Chef At Zahav

The 27-year-old North Carolina native chats pies, future plans and the power of positivity

In the press room at this year's James Beard Awards, Zahav pastry chef Camille Cogswell is surrounded by cameras and microphones—and she is exuberant. "I'm flabbergasted, I'm baffled—I'm all of the things," she says.

She's the very first winner of the night, bringing home a medal for the Rising Star Chef category—and is the second pastry chef in the 28-year history of the awards to do so (the other being Christina Tosi in 2012). Cogswell is being recognized for her work at Philadelphia's Zahav, where she melds Israeli ingredients and techniques with her own Southern flair, resulting in nostalgia-inducing comfort food desserts with an international twist (as evidenced by dishes like coconut cream konafi with rhubarb and pistachio or malabi custard with mandarin and sesame).

Below, we catch up with Cogswell to talk about what this win means for her, the future of the pastry world and the dessert she's bringing to any potluck.  

What went through your head when you discovered you were nominated?

"It was an incredible feeling. Last year, when I was nominated for the first time, I was in complete shock. I didn't know the nominations were coming out that day, and Mike [Solomonov] called me to tell me. The fact that they voted and took me all the way this year feels amazing."

What does it mean to win in this category, in particular?

"For me, it means that people believe in me. It's affirmation that what I've been doing is meaningful for other people and that they think I'm going to do great things in the future.

This is just the second time a pastry chef has won in this category. What do you make of that?

"I think included in the breadth of diversity that is becoming recognized in the industry—so many people are getting credit for their work that haven't in the past—are the pastry chefs. In a lot of other cultures, pastries and bread are such a staple to life and are extremely respected, but in the States, the industry has always been like, 'If you can't cook, you do pastry, and it's really simple, and you can just follow a recipe and get something done, and it'll be acceptable.' But it's an equal art form, and I'm happy to be seeing more recognition of that. I think it'll only increase in coming years." 

A nominee for this category is described as "a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come." What kind of impact do you hope to have on others?

"It's really cool that there are all of these people who believe in me and my future, because the reason I believe in myself is based on the support and love I get from my own community. José Andrés gave a powerful speech tonight about the responsibilities we have in our communities. I'm not quite sure yet how that will look for me, but I do feel the weight of that responsibility and don't want to let down the people who have believed in me thus far." 

How would you describe your culinary style?

"I'm definitely influenced by my Southern roots—if I have to make a dish for a potluck, it's generally pie. That simplicity is something that I love, and I think that most people do. People enjoy things that they haven't tried before, but on a daily basis, I think we're all just looking for something familiar and delicious. That's what I strive to offer—something that feels that way but with a twist." 

What piece of advice would you share with chefs starting out in the industry today?

"The best thing you can do is be eager, be humble and be hardworking. If you love it, you put your head down and dedicate yourself to it. Experience and schooling is great, but it isn't everything. A positive attitude and the ability to take advice and be respectful is what everyone is looking for in an employee."

Nicole Schnitzler is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers travel, food and drink. Follow her on Twitter at @write_to_eat.