The remaking of a historic home into a 21st century baking empire

May 22, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC
Camille Cogswell (pictured) and Drew DiTomo are a team of two, a longtime couple who met in culinary school.
Adam Erace

People pass down heirlooms: wedding dresses, jewelry, baseball, and recipe cards. In the western North Carolina community of Walnut, in the town of Marshall, they pass down ovens.

Here in the shaggy evergreen embrace of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 30 minutes and a world away from Asheville’s cosmopolitan bubble, Alan Scott built two ovens on the northwest side of a two-bedroom house at the end of a dirt-and-gravel driveway. The one built in 2002 yawns open into a standalone kitchen, connected to the house by a path blanketed in wild mint. The original, from 1998, is just outside, a shallow dome encased in layers of ash-dulled bricks and cinderblocks.

Scott is a BFD in bread-baking circles. “[His] blacksmith’s skill in using radiant heat led to a revival of the ancient craft of building brick ovens, allowing bakers to turn out bread with luxuriously moist interiors and crisp crusts,” according to his obituary in the New York Times. Thousands of ovens have been constructed from his plans, but the two in Walnut he built himself for Jennifer Lapidus, his former apprentice, and her Natural Bread Bakery.

When Lapidus shifted her focus from baking to milling, she left the ovens in the care of another Scott mentee, Dave Bauer, who later the ovens in the care of employee Tara Jensen, who earned notoriety for ravishing fruit-filled pies under her Smoke Signals banner. “Tara Jensen doesn’t have a book deal or a TV show or even a store,” Bon Appetit wrote in 2016. “And that’s all the more reason baking enthusiasts seek her out.” She closed in 2018 (after publishing a book), and the ovens passed to Brennan Johnson, who ran Walnut Schoolhouse, a bakery and classroom, right into the pandemic.

“So it was really been passed down from trusted friend to friend, or mentor to mentee, kind of a handoff,” explains chef Camille Cogswell, who in December, with her partner and fiancée, chef Andrew DiTomo, became the newest caretakers of these distinguished ovens. Amongst bakers, this is hollowed ground.

A wooden pavilion shields the outdoor oven and its handler, bundled in washed denim overalls and a fleece whose shades of amethyst and aqua mimic the Jazz Solo cup, from the unseasonably chilly wind. Cogswell peers into the oven’s heart, where the crimson fire she started early this morning is making a leisurely brunch of split oak logs and assorted trimmings from the encroaching woods. She pokes and prods the wood, encouraging its transformation it into glowing coals that will cook the day’s test bakes: a pair of crostatas (strawberry-raspberry, apple-fennel on ramp-greened fromage blanc), sourdough dinner rolls, crispy mocha chip cookies, banana bread sweetened with date molasses, a nod to her last five years as pastry chef at Zahav and executive chef at K’Far in Philadelphia.

The main difference between Cogswell and DiTomo and the oven’s last decade of stewards: They own it, buying it from Lapidus, who rented it out to her other successors. “I remember thinking, ‘What a dream for someone who ends up buying this place,’” Cogswell says, recalling the day last October when, on a lark, she toured the house and bakery while visiting her parents in Asheville.

“She sent me a picture of this beautiful property with this amazing, life-altering kitchen on the premises,” DiTomo says. “Normally, I’m the dreamer, and Camille is like, ‘We gotta slow down, we should think about it.’ But with this, I couldn’t contain her. We put in an offer and stared running towards it.”

Later this year, this team of two will open Walnut Family Bakery, a retail bakery rooted in the from-scratch, local-first overlap of their Southern and Italian sensibilities. It’s the first time either chef will wholly own their own place and the first time they will officially work together day-to-day. “I’m nervous to be quite honest,” DiTomo says. “But excited at the same time.”

Cogswell and DiTomo are taking the legacy of this property seriously, and are just beginning the process of creating their own flour-covered eden with a retail bakery, classes, rooms to rent, and more.
Adam Erace

“For Cogswell and DiTomo, working together isn’t part of the plan,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last February in story on couples in the restaurant industry. “‘We’re not interested in risking our personal relationship over business,’ Cogswell explains. She says that their independent interests and careers help keep their personal relationship interesting.”

Things change.

The couple, who met at the Culinary Institute of America, worked in separate orbits in Philly—Cogswell for the Cook N Solo restaurant group, DiTomo for Marc Vetri—and never in the same kitchen until Cogswell opened K’Far, an all-day Israeli-inspired café (and logistical juggernaut), in July 2019, and DiTomo had to pitch in on the line and the dishwashing station. Their personalities and work styles are very different. Cogswell embodies contradictions: She’s incredibly organized—to wit: all the ingredients for her test bakes lined up neatly on the wood-topped table in the bakery kitchen—but not high-strung. She moves and talks thoughtfully, her words weighted with intention, but comes across light-hearted and never self-serious. DiTomo, on the other hand, you can read from a mile away. He speaks quickly and laughs often, his eyes disappearing when he grins, with a pinball energy that balance’s Cogswell’s methodical nature.

DiTomo’s future plans derailed shortly before the pandemic. Since leaving Amis, the trattoria opened by Vetri and taken over by URBN during the company’s acquisition of Vetri’s restaurant portfolio, DiTomo had been consulting for the AppleTV series, Servant—the main character is a chef—while trying to get his own restaurant, Romeo, up and running. “I had the most perfect space, an LOI signed, and all of a sudden my funding backed out, and I was rocked to the core,” he says. “But I’m the luckiest guy sometimes. I was about to sign a 15-year lease, and three weeks later, one of the biggest things in modern history hit this world.”

With K’Far on pandemic hiatus and DiTomo’s restaurant deal scuttled, the couple found themselves unshackled from insane work schedules for the first time in years. “We had this time to connect and understand what really our priorities were,” DiTomo says. Then in June, the Inquirer announced CookNSolo had let go of Cogswell, a 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef and the 2018 James Beard Rising Star.

“My ego is not to so high as to think I’m indispensable, but it was very shocking to literally everyone, including me,” Cogswell says. (Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov, owners of CookNSolo, declined to comment on the separation, but said, “We’re very happy for her. [The new bakery] sounds like a perfect fit.”) Over time, relief softened the edges of the shock. “My career was moving forward at a really rapid pace, and it was exciting but also made me nervous. I wasn’t sure where that trajectory was going and I felt like I was going to spin out of control if I wasn’t careful.” In the space created by compulsory slow-down, she could see opportunity. Seriously reprioritizing her and DiTimo’s life went from a thought exercise to a concrete possibility.

“This was in our ten-year plan: moving down to Asheville, where Camille’s from, and having a family after doing what we wanted to get done professionally in Philadelphia, but instead of doing it in ten years, we’re just going to do it now,” DiTomo says.

DiTomo’s reasoning is something you’ve heard and read a hundred times during the pandemic, the quality-of-life incentive to relocate from the city to the country or the mountains or the beach as remote work went mainstream. For restaurant professionals, COVID-19 exacerbated the existing trend of chefs returning to their hometowns, second and third cities, and rural redoubts after making their names in culinary capitals. DiTomo and Cogswell were ready to join that club, but it meant reevaluating their position on working together.

“There are a lot of examples of businesses and relationships going under in romantic partnerships, but also people who make it work,” Cogswell says. “We’re just very interested in our relationship outliving our careers.”

She thought back to the run-up to K’Far’s opening and those first crazy months, when she’d be baking from four and five in the morning and working straight through dinner service. “It was…a lot. If I hadn’t had Andrew by my side, I don’t know how I would have functioned because he helped me so much during that opening.”

For DiTomo it was about being available without overstepping. “I wanted to help her out in any way I can, but also it wasn’t my place or my business [to offer unsolicited opinions], so it was a learning lesson for me, too. I just needed to be a good partner, and I think at the end of the day, having a partner that’s also in this industry is probably the biggest stress relief because they get it. I can cook. I can wash dishes. I can scrub the floors, whatever you need when you’re in a tight bind.”

Navigating power structure is a challenge for any relationship, but partners working in the same field, especially one as ego-driven as the restaurant industry, amplifies it. Some couples make it work, others don’t. Cogswell has been the recipient of major national acclaim, while DiTomo’s talent is not widely known outside Philly. While it fortunately has not been an issue for them— “I’m so fired up for the spotlight that shines on Camille,” DiTomo told the Inquirer in that same February story—Walnut Family Bakery provides an opportunity where they can succeed together.

“It’s a new thing for both of us,” Cogswell says. “We’re contributing equal ideas and investment. We’re starting on equal ground.”

Cogswell and DiTomo recently purchased the Blue Ridge Mountain farmhouse and bakery, formerly owned (most famously) by baker Tara Jensen. The estate came equipped with two Allan Scott hand-built ovens, of which the new team is making the most.
Adam Erace

With filming about to wrap on Servant, DiTomo will move down to Walnut to join Cogswell next month. For a guy as Philly as cherry water ice stains on a fresh pair of white Reebok Classics, leaving the city for the rural South doesn’t faze DiTomo as much as you might think. His nagging regret is not getting to open Romeo in the town where his family goes back four generations. “I was born and raised in Philly, and it was a dream for me to open a restaurant there,” he says. “But at the same time, once we finally signed the deal [for the bakery], I had this overwhelming feeling of relief that I don’t have to carry that burden anymore.”

In North Carolina, the pressure is way down. Once he and Cogswell have Walnut Family Bakery up and running, the plan is for DiTomo to open his own trattoria, maybe in downtown Marshall. “There’s not much Italian food going on here,” he says, the exact opposite situation from Philly, where his cappellacci and paccheri would have fought for attention in the saturated pasta scene. Here, they can shine, but until then, it’ll be Cogswell and him tag-teaming the ovens.

The first thing they’re doing plays to DiTomo’s strength: reinstating the bakery’s Community Pizza Night, a sacred monthly event on the Walnut calendar under the previous oven owners. “The community down here kind of demands us to have a pizza night, which is just so cool and will be a lot of fun for us,” DiTomo says. You can picture the picnic blankets thrown open across the scraggly sloping lawn; hear the tunes on somebody’s Bluetooth speaker; smell the charred, long-fermented, sourdough pies picking up their leopard spots in the oven.

Right now, though, roasting strawberries are what’s perfuming the cold air as Cogswell slides her crostata out of the oven. Wreathed in a thick, tawny, pleated crust, the shingled berries are like mosaic tiles against magenta layer of raspberry jam. After it cools slightly, Cogswell cuts it in half, then cuts one half into slices. The other half she’ll wrap up and deliver to one of the neighbors she’s been getting to know: the potter next door, or the cheesemaker she just met at the farmers’ market. “Obviously this new venture needs to be [financially] sustainable, we really just want to be able to live our passion in this new, beautiful place and have a really positive relationship with the community.” A year ago, she couldn’t have imagined this would be her life: back in North Carolina, close to her parents, tending this ancestral hearth. “I would have seen the property go up for sale on Brennan’s Instagram and just been like, ‘Oh, well, that’s really cool.’ I would never have acted on it because I wouldn’t have been able to leave my restaurant job.”

For Cogswell and DiTomo, the opportunities for this tiny lot are manifold: walk-up retail, farmers’ markets, wholesaling to the natural foods co-op in Marshall, the pizza nights, classes. “Above the bakery it’s three little rooms we’re going to turn it into an apartment with a kitchenette and a bathroom so we can have our friends and family stay and then potentially Airbnb it,” she says, her voice quickening. “We’ll hand deliver pastries to your door of your Airbnb!”

For a moment, the excitement of these possibilities has replaced the careful, methodical planner with someone who sounds more like her energetic, about to burst, other half. “I can’t wait for Andrew to get down here.”

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