Zoe Peckich, pastry sous chef at Downtown Pittsburgh restaurant Ritual House, won the inaugural season of the Food Network’s “Summer Baking Championship,” beating the competition with a Chocolate Chile Cake with Spicy Mango and Chocolate Buttercream inspired by her mom.
Peckich joined Ritual House in April, following a stint at the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto. A native of Canonsburg who now lives in Mt. Washington, Peckich holds a degree in baking and pastry arts from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
The cake that ultimately helped the chef seal the win is a recipe influenced by her Pittsburgh roots, Peckich told NEXTpittsburgh, as well as by her desire to demonstrate that chocolate desserts can be summery, even if it’s not the first flavor people might think of in the warm weather.
“My mom, every single time we have an event, she’s like, ‘Can you make your chocolate cake,'” Peckich says. “It doesn’t matter what time of the year it is or what kind of occasion. I wanted to show the judges that chocolate doesn’t just have to be a wintery or fall flavor and it can translate to summer. “
And while mango may not be the first flavor one might think of pairing with chocolate, Peckich says it makes total sense to her.
“Mango goes really well with chocolate,” she says. “My favorite mango thing ever is Rita’s Italian Ice, but they’re only open in the summertime in Pittsburgh, so I always associate it with summer and wanted to present it as my summer flavor.”
Peckich got more than national recognition from the show. She says the toughest of her nine competitors, Yohann Le Bescond, a pastry chef from France who now works in Florida, became one of her closest friends.
“We still talk every day,” she says. “He was someone who really pushed me and intimidated me, but in a way that really helped me, as well.”
She also hopes that her victory will help shine a spotlight on pastry chefs, who are often an overlooked part of the culinary world.
“Pittsburgh is really a city that celebrates culinary and whatnot, but we don’t really celebrate the pastry industry, which is a shame,” she says. Part of why she wanted to compete on the show was to represent Pittsburgh’s pastry industry. “We have our cookies and our ice cream spots but I really wanted to bring pastry to the forefront.”
Her favorite sweet treat from home? Sarris Candies.
“I tell everyone who comes through here that it’s the best chocolate in the city. I love their ice cream parlor. I would love to have something as iconic as that,” the Canonsburg native says. “You’re just like transported to a different time. Sarris is definitely one of those things where you can’t do better, right?”
She says she’s not sure yet what she’s going to do with the $25,000 prize money — possibly a vacation — but it’s tough for a chef at a new restaurant to take time off.
And she says while there’s nothing in the works at the moment, she’d love to appear on the Food Network again.
“I’ve always said my dream job would be to work for the Food Network, whether that be on TV in the forefront or doing something for them,” she says. “I love watching those shows where people go around and try different restaurants. That would be my ideal job in life.”