A professional baker's guide to embracing your culinary "superpowers"

Danielle Sepsy of HBO's "The Big Brunch" talks about finding confidence in the kitchen

By Maggie Hennessy


Published March 8, 2023 3:15PM (EST)

Blueberry white chocolate scone
 (The Hungry Gnome )
Blueberry white chocolate scone (The Hungry Gnome )

Cooks and bakers like to separate ourselves into camps, largely for ego safeguarding. For instance, when my cake inevitably comes out sunken or my pie crust doesn't flake, I like to say, "Well, I'm more of a cook than a baker, you know. I don't like exact measurements." 

Of course, it's rare that I bake at all given my insecurity about it. But I became emboldened while watching Danielle Sepsy compete and reach the finals as the sole baker in a pack of savory chefs on the recent HBO cooking competition series, "The Big Brunch."

Sepsy, founder and chef of the Hungry Gnome bakery in New York City, is a baker with a capital B. Her wholesale and online shop churns out some 100,000 baked goods each month, including flaky rosemary honey biscuits, nutella-swirled banana bread and confoundingly fluffy cheddar chive scones. She went to culinary school, which offered a small pastry program, but taught herself to bake much earlier — at age 13, when she started her first scone business out of her parents' home. 

"I'm a very good savory chef, but the way I like to cook and eat is much more rustic and casual," Sepsy told me. "My roots are in Italian and American cuisine and very homey dishes and things my grandma made. My comfort zone is pastry because that's my livelihood — as a wholesale baker making thousands of pastries a day."

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On screen she made no secret of her nerves when it came to tackling savory cooking on "The Big Brunch," the eight-episode competition show on HBO Max in which she and nine other chefs competed for $300,000 to put toward making their food business dreams a reality. The show, presented in the gentler vein of "The Great British Bake-Off," was fairly unique for featuring pastry and savory chefs competing against one another as opposed to siloing them.

"Just in that first episode, I hear the people around me saying 'Where is the sous vide machine?' 'Where is the smoker?' They're looking for high-tech tools; meanwhile, I just need a pastry cutter or a fork. The Kitchenaid mixer is the most extravagant thing," Sepsy said. "I started to feel so anxious and vulnerable and maybe in over my head, like, the people here are representing these super high-end dishes with fine techniques and so much finesse. That wasn't my vibe, and I didn't know how the judges would perceive it." 

"I started to feel so anxious and vulnerable and maybe in over my head, like, the people here are representing these super high-end dishes with fine techniques and so much finesse. That wasn't my vibe, and I didn't know how the judges would perceive it.""

In fact, Sepsy didn't hear the judges' deliberations until she watched the first episode with the rest of us when it aired in November. So she had no idea that she'd almost won by serving up sweet (chocolate chip) and savory (cheddar chive) versions of her famous scones followed by an everything-seasoned buttermilk biscuit sandwich with baked eggs and rosemary-candied bacon. 

As judge Will Guidara, restaurateur formerly of Eleven Madison Park, told her just before gushing over her biscuit sandwich: "One of the most important things someone can do to succeed is to know their own superpowers."

Indeed, in many ways it mirrored her own real-life work as a wholesale and ecommerce baker, far from view of the end consumer (and their reactions to her products). 

"The business is successful, so obviously somebody likes it, but I never hear it come out of people's mouths or see their reactions," she said. "So having that validation and seeing this caliber of individuals in front of me, someone like Will Guidara, saying to me, 'You can bake!' It wasn't that I needed my ego fed; I needed that confidence."

It took her a few more episodes, judgings and ups and (harrowing) downs to stop trying so hard to prove that she wasn't a one-trick pony. Frequent on-camera interviews with the producers helped her process her insecurities in real time. 

"Over time, I started to accept that it was OK for me to bake and feel less insecure."

"You get interviewed quite a bit, sometimes two to three hours a day," she said. "You're interviewing before you hear the challenges. The producer says, 'How do you feel today? How about yesterday? What do you think the challenge will be?' Then after the challenge: 'How do you think you did?' It's like having hours of therapy; the producers are watching you from behind the scenes, and they're seeing those tough moments or vulnerable times or moments of insecurity as you're cooking and asking yourself, do I need to pivot? Over time, I started to accept that it was OK for me to bake and feel less insecure."

Focusing on her strengths rather than fixating on her perceived shortcoming helped give her confidence to decide she'd incorporate some baked element into every dish. 

By starting from her comfort zone, she liberated herself to play more on the savory side, combining baked and cooked elements in ways that surprised even her. One of her proudest moments arrived in the fine-dining focused fifth episode, in which she dreamt up an amuse bouche comprising a mini black currant and black pepper scone with mushroom pâte topped with black currant liqueur and red wine reduction and pickled mustard seed "caviar." 

"I had never made three-quarters of this dish in my life," she said with a laugh. "I was truly just hoping for the best, but I I was also trusting my knowledge, instincts and my tongue. I have a knack for flavor. I was tasting along the way, and making sure that it was, yes going to amuse the mouth, but also that when it was presented, they'd know this was Danielle's. That it still had a rustic way about it."

Sepsy may not have won the ultimate season one prize, but the Hungry Gnome's online sales have increased almost 5,000% since the show aired, a ringing endorsement for her baking superpower — and a reminder to the rest of us that it's OK to focus on our own kitchen superpowers, too. 

"Those numbers tell you that the food resonated with the average person watching, too; they want to try it," Sepsy says. "It gave me confidence knowing what I was doing was great and that it's enough."

By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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Baking Cooking Danielle Sepsy Hbo Interview The Big Brunch