The new HBO Max reality food competition series, The Big Brunch, has quickly become one of this winter’s must-see TV shows. Helmed by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy, The Big Brunch highlights the stories of 10 chefs and their impact on their local communities as they compete to win a $300,000 prize. Among the contestants from around the country is the fan-fave chef/baker/scone queen Danielle Sepsy.
As the owner of New York City’s The Hungry Gnome Catering & Baked Goods, Sepsy is the mastermind of one-of-a-kind baked eats (rosemary and honey biscuit, anyone?). She immediately shines in the series by putting her distinct touch on a brunch staple: scones.
Sepsy’s passion for cooking began at 13 when she started her own scone business out of her parents’ home. Since then, she has continued to receive acclaim for her dishes, but she’s also managed several restaurants in some of NYC’s leading luxury hotels, including the Peninsula, the Plaza, and the Waldorf Astoria.
Exclusively for Thrillist, Sepsy shares her recipe for cacio e pepe, one of her signature dishes. In this grits-like twist on fundamental Italian flavors, Sepsy was inspired by the Cream of Wheat she’d regularly eaten as a child. “You’d normally think of it as a breakfast item that might be sweet. It’s something that I grew up eating in my house all the time.” Sepsy says. “So, I make a savoury version of Cream of Wheat. It’s a great base to put poached eggs on top. You can add some sautéed veggies and build a beautiful dish, or just have it on its own.”
Below, Sepsy tells Thrillist about the invaluable experience she gained on The Big Brunch, her experiences as a chef and baker for more than 10 years, and shares her must-try recipe.
With The Big Brunch, I appreciate that it’s more than just the food. The producers did a great job showcasing each chef’s personality, background story, and how you all shine in your communities. What are some things you learned from the other contestants and fellow chefs?
They always kept me challenging myself and wanting to do better, especially in the kitchen, but also as an individual and a human. Chef Roman, for example, is such a gifted chef. Vegan cuisine is one thing, but then he’s just a mad scientist in the kitchen creating these things that I have never even heard of-making chicken out of flour that he’s washing and creating the glutinous fibres that are turning into what looks exactly like a chicken thigh. It blows your mind. He owns a restaurant where you can still eat if you can’t afford to pay. It’s completely funded by the community. It’s such a beautiful thing. It made me realize how much more I want to do for my community.
Also, speaking of motivation, you had awesome judges. There’s Sohla El-Waylly, Will Guidara, and Dan Levy. What did you appreciate about them?
You watch Dan Levy, and he makes such incredible television, right? But you never know how they’re going to be in person. He wowed me every day. He is so genuine and so authentically and unapologetically him every single day. He’s selfless and was there for us and wanted to do whatever he could to make us successful during this whole experience and to make us comfortable. He would keep saying about the whole experience that it made him believe in humanity again.
My background is in fine dining in restaurants and five-star hotels, where I manage the restaurants. So, seeing somebody like Will, who was the general manager of [Eleven Madison Park], the best restaurant in the world in my very own city, New York City, and having him eat my food and critique me and be there with me every day was surreal. I value his opinion so much. He has such a critical eye and a knack for hospitality through and through.
Then, I knew Sohla from Bon Appetit and followed her on social media, but I didn’t know as much about her until I was on set. We kept saying she has this special gene some people carry where they have this magic tongue where they’re hypersensitive and can taste things that others can’t. I swear Sohla has that gene because she can describe food so beautifully. With every critique, I felt it was beneficial, taught me so much, and kept me striving to do more. It allowed us to really grow so much in a short amount of time.
Getting into brunch itself, what’s your favourite aspect of it?
I have a huge sweet tooth, but I love a savoury-sweet combination. Any meal with a cheeseburger with a fried runny egg on it and a stack of pancakes smothered in syrup and chocolate chips is everything to me, flavor-wise. I love going with a group of friends and family where we order a little bit of everything and share. It has this great sense of community around it, and it’s relaxed. I feel like you don’t have to feel too buttoned up when you’re at brunch. You’re just casual and enjoying yourself. Being a baker, too, I feel like it’s a meal period where I really shine because I can create a baked component in every dish that I make. These savoury-sweet combinations that are super playful, fun, and nostalgic for people allow my baking skills to shine during brunch.
You’ve been baking and cooking for more than 10 years and are now on TV. What have you learned the most from your career as a chef and baker?
I’ve met people and have people who work for me and with me every day from all different cultures all over the world and different age ranges, you name it. I’ve had the pleasure of learning about their cultures each day. Every Friday, we have a family meal. Usually, one or two people will come together and cook that meal. But, every week, it’s something different. I have some amazing Mexican employees and one woman, Martha, who makes chicken mole. It’s her mom’s recipe from Mexico. You see the love and nostalgia coming through in these dishes. That’s been such an incredible part of being a chef. These are things you can’t learn from a textbook.
Sepsy Made: Cacio e pepe farina
Makes two servings (side dish portion)
•3/4 cup beef stock
•1/4 cup half and half
•3 tablespoons Farina Cream of Wheat
•1 tablespoon grated Pecorino Romano cheese (plus more for garnish)
•Fresh cracked black pepper and pinch salt
•1 tablespoon of salted butter
•1 large egg yolk
1. Combine the beef stock and half and half in a pot. Bring to a boil on medium/low heat.
2. While whisking, add the Farina to ensure there are no lumps. Add a pinch of salt and lots of cracked black pepper to taste. Cook on low heat until the mixture thickens slightly.
3. Whisk in the butter until melted, followed by the Pecorino Romano cheese. While whisking, add in the egg yolk to avoid curdling. This will add some richness and flavour.
4. Ladle into serving bowls and top with a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil, a little pat of butter, a sprinkle of more Pecorino Romano, and fresh cracked black pepper.
5. Eat it on its own or as a side with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (my favourite), or customize it as the base of a beautiful entree. You can top it with sautéed greens and poached egg for an even more substantial meal.
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Gabrielle Pharms is a contributor to Thrillist.