In today’s episode, we speak with “The Queen of Scones” Danielle Sepsy, chef and owner behind The Hungry Gnome, and a finalist on HBO Max’s The Big Brunch.
In this interview, Danielle details her culinary journey, from starting her own scone business at the age of 13 to opening The Hungry Gnome based in NYC—where she and her team produce over 100,000 baked goods a month. She also discusses how she secured the opportunity to be on The Big Brunch and what the rigorous casting process entailed.
Listen as Danielle shares exclusive details about her secret cookbook project, what Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek is really like off-camera, and how to become fearless in the kitchen.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with the Queen of Scones, Danielle Sepsy, a finalist on HBO Max’s “The Big Brunch,” hosted by Dan Levy from “Schitt’s Creek.”
She’s also the chef and owner behind The Hungry Gnome Catering & Baked Goods in New York City—where she and her team produce over 100,000 baked goods a month, which include Danielle’s famous chocolate chip scones and flaky rosemary buttermilk biscuits.
Outside of owning her own business, Chef Danielle has managed several fine-dining restaurants in luxury hotels including – get ready for this list – The Peninsula Hotel, The Plaza Hotel, the iconic Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She’s also no stranger to TV, appearing on “Anderson Cooper Live!” where she was the winner of the “Chopped Challenge” moderated by Food Network’s Ted Allen.
So join me today as we speak, and we yell, and we cry, and we laugh with Danielle about starting her own business at 13, how she overcame her fears on “The Big Brunch,” and what’s in store for her next!
And there she is! Good morning! Good afternoon! How are you?
Danielle Sepsy: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here and to speak with you. Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, gosh, the honor is ours! The team told me this morning that you only have Thursdays off. I thought to myself, “Who only has Thursdays off?” But anyway. You’re choosing to spend your time, your free time, with me! I can’t even believe it.
I am so, so, so excited. Right away, the hotels I just mentioned. New York City. The best of the best. I would say the only thing missing is Gramercy Tavern, right?
Danielle Sepsy: Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: We’ll have brunch.
Danielle Sepsy: The iconic hotels in New York City. It’s such a great place to work in hospitality, but I was truly blessed to be a part of three incredible brands that taught me so much. It wasn’t easy! I’ll say that. But I learned a lot, especially working at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I got that job in December before I graduated from college. I did my undergrad at Penn State University in Hospitality Management and got the job in December before I graduated, and then moved right to the big city right after school ended. Was put in this very prestigious hotel in a very prestigious restaurant. It was called the Peacock Alley Restaurant. It was right in the middle of the hotel lobby. It had once hosted every president, every celebrity for decades and decades.
This was a lot of pressure on me. I was 22 years old. I don’t even know if I was 22! I might have been 21. I was right out of school, and now I’m managing this iconic restaurant with experience, but barely.
Kirk Bachmann: Enthusiasm, excitement, though.
Danielle Sepsy: Definitely.
Kirk Bachmann: Brought that.
Danielle Sepsy: Exactly, and a true passion for taking care of others in a hospitality setting for food. It was very challenging. I managed a whole team of service staff, cooks, chefs, etc., and a lot of them had worked there longer than I had been alive.
I learned quickly how to manage people effectively. I think the biggest takeaway for me there was you build the relationships first, and you don’t come on too strong, too fast. You really just build those relationships and learn from them first. Then, it just becomes a pleasant environment for everyone. You work together and you make it happen. I learned a lot. I feel like it was the Harvard education of hospitality, working in that hotel. It helped my career so much.
I always knew I wanted to come back to food and be somewhat on the culinary side, but I’m very grateful that I had parents that said to me, “You know what, Danielle? Go to school for hospitality management first, learn the ins and outs of the business side of things.” Then work for other people first and really get, again, a clear understanding of the ins and outs, whether it’s the financials, how to manage people, build relationships with different vendors that I’m going to come across. I think I owe my success to that and to all those experiences that I had prior. Because I don’t think I would have been as successful when starting my business as I was if I didn’t have those experiences.
Kirk Bachmann: Such good advice. I’m going to wrap that up as a lecture for our students. Honestly, this concept of hospitality, taking care of people. You said, “Taking care of others.” You said, “Learn from them first.” I absolutely love that.
Was John Doherty the chef there when you first got there?
Danielle Sepsy: I think he had recently left, so we never actually worked together, but I do know him.
Kirk Bachmann: He was one of those that was there for years.
Danielle Sepsy: He was.
Kirk Bachmann: And the nicest. In the lobby, when you come up those steps – I don’t know if it’s still there. I haven’t been there since my son was one. They had all these black and white photos in glass. Auguste Escoffier was on one of the pictures sitting in that glass. He had something to do with that in the early days. Absolutely love it.
Can I just say, too, that you’re in New York right now, right?
Danielle Sepsy: I am. I live on Long Island, which is where I grew up. I’m in a different town than where I grew up, but I actually live in the house where I learned how to cook initially. It’s my grandparents’ home. I had a grandmother, Rosemarie, who was an incredible baker. She taught me how to bake, and now I live in the house where I learned how to bake. So it comes full circle.
Kirk Bachmann: Am I going to get chills with everything you say? That is absolutely spectacular. My wife – my now wife – lived in Long Island when we met. She used to tell people that she lived in Brooklyn.
We were in the subway one day, and like New Yorkers, they’re all helpful, right? Some guy was looking at one of those tattered maps, and he couldn’t figure out where to go.
She says, “Can I help you?”
She says, “Oh, I’ll help you.” I thought she lived in Brooklyn. I had no idea! I’m thinking, “She lives in Brooklyn. I met her in the city.”
She’s like, “I live in Long Island, I can help you.”
I’m thinking, “I gotta get out of this. I gotta get out of this.”
Danielle Sepsy: I know that you’re not from Long Island because you said, “in Long Island.” It’s ON Long Island.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m totally going to edit that. My wife will have me for that.
What’s going on in New York today? What’s going on ON Long Island today? Good weather, bad weather?
Danielle Sepsy: It is. I am actually, today, I’ve been recipe testing, which is probably one of the things that I enjoy the most. I am going to tell you a secret that I haven’t really fully announced yet. I have gotten a cookbook deal, and I am writing my first cookbook, which is a dream come true. It’s a sweet-focused baking book. I’m giving away a lot of secrets. I’m also going to put in some of the family recipes that my grandma, Rosemarie taught me before she passed.
Kirk Bachmann: There it goes. Another chill. Oh my gosh!
Danielle Sepsy: It’s pretty special. I’ve been testing those recipes. That’s what my Thursdays are. I’m not really off; I’m doing all things that are not at the physical commercial bakery. I’ve been testing all my recipes and getting those going. I have about a year to write it, and then it will be printed. We have some time before it will be in print, but I promise you it will be worth the wait.
Kirk Bachmann: That is so great. Is it emotional to write a cookbook?
Danielle Sepsy: It is because my recipes are all coming from a memorable time in my life. Whether it is something that my grandma Rosemarie taught me – maybe it’s a cookie that we always made every year together for Christmastime. I get the whole family together to make them, that’s super special and nostalgic to me. Or maybe it’s a flavor from the ‘90s. I’m a ‘90s kid, so growing up in the ‘90s, there are certain flavors that are nostalgic for Millennials, so I’m bringing those to the table. Or things that I developed for my business, the Hungry Gnome, when I had a dark time.
The Hungry Gnome came about because I lost my job right before the pandemic. It actually had nothing to do with the pandemic. Some people think it was because of the pandemic. I actually lost my job because the company I worked for just started changing the organizational structure of the company. They ended up skimming from the top, and I lost my job really unexpectedly after I’d worked for them for about four and a half years. I was really feeling bad about it.
I started to develop these recipes, not only the scones I had from when I was young, but some of the muffin recipes that are my most popular wholesale items now, I developed during this dark time when I was so anxious. I hoped that the Hungry Gnome would become something, and I would be able to make a living off of it and hire more people and create what it is now. There was so much unknown.
Then the pandemic hit all simultaneously, and I really didn’t know what would come about. These recipes, a lot of them, were created in my apartment during the pandemic when I was just kind of living on a prayer. Thankfully, two and a half, almost three years later, now I sell – like you said – over 100,000 baked goods a month. I have a team of 18 people besides myself. It started with just me in my one bedroom apartment, at the time, in New York City. Pretty cool.
All these recipes, they trigger so much emotion in me. They follow me throughout my life journey.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. As you’re speaking, I’m thinking. All these things are flashing. “Julie and Julia.” Julia Child in the apartment. You said it at the onset of the show. You said, “But it hasn’t been easy.” You make it look easy. You’re on camera. That’s beautiful behind you, by the way.
Danielle Sepsy: It’s my wallpaper. I have an accent wall in my dining area.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. You make it look like it’s really easy, but the work is unbelievable. That’s a really good message to entrepreneurs, to students, to people who think that you just snap your fingers and all of a sudden 100,000 items are flying out. 18 employees becomes challenging, because now you have to care for them as well, and their families, and their livelihood.
I want to jump into…I want to talk about so much today. I want to talk about Dan Levy and “The Big Brunch,” and all of that. Can we talk a little bit about your culinary background, your experience on “The Big Brunch?” Like I said, we’ll come back to Dan. Again, making it easy. You’re on a show. There’s tons of editing. There are so many people involved, and when you’re on, it’s like magic. It’s like magic. But how hard is that? For example, there are cameras in front of you, and people. And during the pandemic, people had masks on. You can’t hear them, and you want to stay away from. I’ve talked to a few people that have been on television and such, but can you give us a little bit of an insight into – gosh! – is it emotional? Is it exciting? Is it stressful? Or is it all of the above?
Danielle Sepsy: It is truly all of the above. Just the casting process alone was about four and half months long. It’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” It’s, “okay, we’ve made it to the next round.” And now you don’t hear from someone for maybe three weeks. You think, “Okay. I guess I didn’t get it.” Then you get a call, and they’re like, “Okay. Can you do another interview tomorrow?” It’s like that for months.
It’s not just interviews. We did timed cooking challenges via Zoom because the casting people were in L.A. and I was in New York. We did psych analyses and interviews with the psychiatrist to make sure we were mentally able to do something like this, to take on something like this. So it’s quite the process even leading up to it.
I filmed this in California, so I left my business for about five weeks, which I never thought I could do.
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
Danielle Sepsy: That was also a really pivotal moment in the growth of my business because I had to really delegate for the first time, and put trust in my employees, empower them. They did phenomenally when I was gone. I think it really took my business to the next level because it wasn’t all resting on me anymore. That was huge.
I moved across the country for five weeks. I lived in a hotel. I had to quarantine for about five or so days – actually, it was close to six days – before we started filming. I couldn’t leave. I was in my hotel room for that amount of time. Never been alone for that long in my life.
Then we started filming. If you watch “The Big Brunch,” you may have heard me discuss my anxiety. It is something people are sometimes surprised to hear because I like to do television things. I am a people person. My anxiety comes from a feeling of lack of control. As a child, I suffered with really bad panic attacks and anxiety so often, especially in elementary school, that my sister has many memories of putting my head between my legs on the school bus and coaching me through it, saying, “You’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be great.” Distracting me and getting me to school. That was a lot of my life growing up.
It sometimes pops up every so often, especially in stressful situations. When I got to the set of “The Big Brunch,” it was a dream come true, but I also had this really overwhelming feeling of anxiety coming over me. It was partly because I didn’t know anyone at that point. I didn’t know what I was going to cook because we didn’t know the challenges. We had about twenty-something cameras on us at one time. You’re in this huge Hollywood studio. It’s just a very uncomfortable but also beautiful situation all in one.
The first couple of days, I will be honest, there were a couple of times I said to myself, “I don’t think I can do this.” I debated leaving. People are shocked to hear that. It doesn’t come across on TV. I’m pretty good at hiding it, but what was going on in my head was not really shown on my face, thankfully, but I was really having an anxious time.
I just kept reminding myself, “This is what you love to do. Just forget about the cameras. Do what you do best, which is cook, talk about food, and tell your story. Hopefully, you’ll be able to inspire some other people along the way.”
Kirk Bachmann: First and foremost, thank you for sharing your vulnerability and your emotions. Right before that, you mentioned your team and how you empowered them. I’m always so touched. Regardless of the success or the notoriety and the followers and the influencing, superstars have the ability to stop and recognize and acknowledge how important the team is behind them. So to fast forward, you left for five weeks. Has that empowerment remained with this core team of yours?
Danielle Sepsy: Definitely. Especially, I have a right-hand woman, Angelina. A lot of weight was on her when I left. She was so terrific in just saying to me, “You need to do this. Just go. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll only contact you if I need you.” But of course, I’m always pestering them. “Okay, what can I do for you?”
It means a lot when someone’s baby, like the Hungry Gnome is to me, is in your hands and that person’s trusting you with that. They’re such hard workers. I really try to acknowledge constantly that I truly couldn’t do it without them. It’s not an easy job. I say it’s not Easy-Bake Oven, because it truly isn’t. It’s baking on steroids. Every single ingredient you touch is 25-50 pounds. Everything is heavy duty. It’s not easy. It’s high volume, and you’re on your feet. It’s long hours. It gets hot. But everyone does it with a smile. I think it’s just because of this wonderful camaraderie that we have, this trust that I have in them. I don’t micromanage, either. Even though I very well could because these are my recipes that I care so much about.
Kirk Bachmann: This is you!
Danielle Sepsy: I’m present and I’m there and I’m assisting, but I’m also trusting. I think that’s so important. I acknowledge, again, how hard this job is. If mistakes are made, I could yell and scream, but I don’t. I think because there’s so much buy-in, sometimes they approach me crying, saying, “The muffins got messed up. We have to throw out 200 muffins.”
What am I going to do? It has happened, and what I do is I say, “Do we know what happened?” We figure out what mistake was made, and let’s try not to do that again. I say, “At the end of the day, it’s just muffins.” It is what it is. We allot ourselves one big mistake a month.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s the quota.
Danielle Sepsy: Right. One mistake a month. Again, you just have to know that these are people. Without them, this business wouldn’t be successful. I think happy people translate into happy, delicious, wonderful food that people enjoy eating. When people are stressed and not happy to be there and don’t care, and there’s no buy-in, you can really feel that in the food. I really care so much about the people.
As I get busier and I’m coming and going constantly: I’ve got a meeting here and we’re building a new kitchen, actually, so I’m dealing with that construction project. I’m going on TV to do this news thing. I’m coming and going now, so I now hired another person that’s just going to be focused very much on the people and managing the people. Making sure they are okay and they’re needs are met, and that they’re heard. That’s just so important to me.
I think the most successful entrepreneurs – I always tell this to people – are the ones that don’t think about the money first. In fact, I never think about the money at all. That’s sometimes bad, maybe. That’s secondary. I first know that my passion in life is feeding others and watching my food bring people joy. If I make a living doing that and other people on my team make a living doing that, even better. The focus is not on money. I think that’s also why the business has been successful. People sense that, and they enjoy the products because of it.
Kirk Bachmann: True humility. Gosh, another amazing lesson for entrepreneurs, for students, for anyone who just wants to better understand the hardships and the reality of running a big business. True hospitality.
Speaking of true hospitality, you went to one of the best, Penn State. I love your path. It’s one similarity. I went to a university and then culinary school. You did the same. You went to what I always refer to as the French Culinary Institute. They changed their name to International Culinary Center, one of the finest institutions for years and years. I was blessed to know the owner back in the day, Dorothy. Great reputation, great location. Tell me about how important the way you did it was? Did it all make sense? You went to Penn State first. You understood business. Then, you went to one of the premier culinary schools in the world that had a lot of recognition: Bobby Flay, so on and so forth. The beautiful restaurant in Manhattan. Did it all make sense: “Gosh, I’m glad I did it this way,” versus the other way?
Danielle Sepsy: At first I said, right out of high school, “Do I just go right to culinary school?” I’m so blessed that I had parents that said, “Learn the business side first. Then you can always go to culinary school later.” Many food businesses fail because they don’t understand the business side, so I’m really glad that I had that foundation first.
Then, I worked in hotels, and when it comes to hotels, you’re working a lot. You’re working what feels like 24/7, especially as a low man on the totem pole, as a young person. They’re like, “You’re going to work until two o’clock in the morning, but we have an event tomorrow that starts at six. Can you be here at 5:30 a.m.?” You’re getting very little sleep. It’s a lot of hours.
Then I started to think, “Will I ever be able to go to culinary school?” I had to remember my mom’s words of advice that she always gives me. It is, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” So, I opened my mouth. When I worked at the Plaza Hotel, which was my second job out of college, I went to the director of food and beverage for the hotel, and I said, “I have always dreamt of going to culinary school. Whether that is, in all honesty, to do my own business or have my own bakery or catering company, or just if I end up staying in hotels and doing food and beverage and catering in hotels for the rest of my life, I want to have an even stronger knowledge of the food side of things. I think it will really give me a leg up.”
He was really kind to let me go to school at night. It’s great that a lot of these programs now either allow you to do it online, like your program, or do a night program. I went, I think, it was three times a week. Each night, it was about five and half hours. That’s a lot when you’re working on your feet in a hotel in high heels, running around, running a restaurant all day. Then getting on a subway, going downtown, throwing on my chef’s whites and getting into the hot kitchen and working for five hours. But I loved every second of it.
I think the biggest takeaway for me was I learned time management. I had a really strong culinary foundation going into school, but I was really humbled right when I started. I realized how much I didn’t know. I knew flavor; I think that’s something you’re born with. I knew flavors, but I didn’t have as much finesse. I didn’t have the time management skills in the kitchen. I also was put in a room with about 22 people in my class. They were all so unique and so different. One was 17 years old from the Bronx, and someone was nearing 70 years old and was from Nova Scotia. We had a really wide range of individuals in that room. That, too, was such a unique and special environment to be in. I learned a lot about other cuisines and about working, again, in a team with people that had all different skill levels, all different personalities, all different ways of learning and working. Again, that helped me in my job now, running a food business.
I think it was really important. I always say I wish I could go back, because there were so many things. Even just the leftovers they were offering to take home! I was not taking it home, leftovers.
Kirk Bachmann: Want to go back and get those leftovers.
Danielle Sepsy: There was some duck breasts that I left behind, I remember that.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the time management lesson. I wonder, you mention foundation. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning and see where that time management came from. You were born into a large Italian family that, obviously, loved to cook. At a very young age, 13, you started your own scone business out of your parents’ home. They’ve been referenced as the best scones in the universe, or on the universe, if you’re on Long Island. Was this your idea? How did you land on scones in an Italian family?
Danielle Sepsy: I know, kind of weird, right? I really think I came out of the womb cooking, in a way, and always had an interest in restaurants and food. My parents will tell you that when I was really young, even just able to walk and barely speaking, my favorite game was restaurant. We had a Little Tykes plastic kitchen set. I would pretend to make food with Play-Doh and try to force my parents to eat the Play-Doh. That was my favorite game. I would go around with the pad and pen once I was able to talk and write, and take orders.
Same thing in my grandparents’ house, where I now live today. I would go around, take everybody’s orders, and then go back to the kitchen and make something, and try to feed it to everybody, and serve everyone. That was always my path, and I feel lucky that I knew from a young age. That was just what I loved to do most.
Going back to the anxiety thing, I also found so much comfort in baking especially. When I started to get into my preteen years, my anxiety was really high. My grandmother gave me a Kitchen-Aid mixer and a Martha Stewart magazine subscription when I was eight or nine years old. Started really experimenting in the kitchen.
Then, when I was almost 13, I started to develop my own recipes. My family, we’re from Long Island, and we used to spend a lot of weekends in the summer in the Hamptons. There were some really beautiful farmers’ markets and farm stands. Some of them don’t exist anymore. There was one in particular that, at the time, made these incredible chocolate chip scones that I would die for. I just had to go. On the way, we would make sure we went there first. Sometimes they’d run out, so we made sure we’d get there really early just for that. It was so simple, but it was so delicious. It was just such a nostalgic, special thing for me.
So when I was creating my own recipes, I said, “Let me try to make my own scone recipe.” I started to think about the things I didn’t like about the scones that I had from other places, and what I would change to make it better. I created my recipe, and I presented my family with eight or ten different flavors of scones that I had made on one sheet tray at my kitchen table. We ate them, and we talked about it, and my family – they’re very tough critics – so they were eating it, and they’d close their eyes like they’re on a food show. Very serious. They still do this to me now. It’s very stressful.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Danielle Sepsy: We went through the scones, and everyone said, “These are the best scones I’ve ever had. You have to sell them.”
Kirk Bachmann: On the universe.
Danielle Sepsy: Yes, on the universe. Not in the universe.
I started making them. Again, having so much anxiety, it gave me this feeling of control and purpose. It just relaxed me and distracted my mind. I found myself in the kitchen during my summers, when everybody else was at summer camp or playing outside, I wanted to bake and cook. I started the business. I ended up making a bunch of scones.
I made a business card on Microsoft Paint, because we didn’t have too many programs that I knew how to use. So I was using Microsoft Paint. I made my logo. At the time, the business was called something else, actually. Then somebody had the rights to, so I had to change the name over time. It was called something else, and I made business cards. I put the scones in a basket. My aunt, Christine I’m really close with – she was off from work because she was on maternity leave because my cousin had been born. She said, “I’ll take you.” She loved to bake, too. She said, “I’ll help you. We’ll do this.”
I led the way; I just couldn’t drive, so she drove me around. We went to different farm stands. We went to coffee shops, bagel shops, and we brought samples. No one really had a cell phone then, so I had on the business card my parents’ landline number. By the time I got home that day, I already had several voicemails from people saying that they loved the scones. They wanted to sell them. So I was in business!
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
Danielle Sepsy: So I started to order ingredients, get stuff from Costco and grocery stores. I had my mom take me to Michael’s craft store. We got receipt paper. I was hand-writing receipts. I had a notebook – which we still have the notebook, thankfully. I’m glad my mom saved everything. A notebook that had people’s orders that I was writing down in my very bad handwriting. Fun fact about me: terrible handwriting.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s got to go in the book! I love that.
Danielle Sepsy: We have some of those orders in there. I used to make the scones super early in the morning – four o’clock in the morning before these places opened. I’d bake them fresh, and then my parents would deliver them on their way to work since I couldn’t drive. That’s how I really started my entrepreneurial journey and really knew that’s where my heart was. I knew I’d always come back to it.
Then I went to college, and I kind of put it on the back burner, but I always knew I hoped to come back to it. You go through your career, and you get in this position where you’re growing in your career. You’re working for other companies. I lived in New York City. I lived in an apartment. It’s so expensive to live in New York City. Then I was afraid to take a risk and leave my job and do it full time, even though I really longed to do that. I just didn’t know when the right time would be, or if there would be a right time. There was risk in that. “What if I can’t pay my rent?” You have to sell a lot of scones to pay New York City rent.
My parents are very practical. My dad would be like, “You need volume in order to really make this successful.” That just seemed so overwhelming to me. I just didn’t know if I could do it.
Like I said, I lost my job unexpectedly. It’s just one of those things that it happened 100 percent for a reason.
Kirk Bachmann: Serendipitous.
Danielle Sepsy: I needed that push. It allowed me to really just make this happen. The night that I lost my job, I emailed coffee shops that I loved in New York City and told them about my products. Meanwhile, I had no employees, no kitchen, nothing. Just me and recipes.
Kirk Bachmann: And a great idea. And recipes.
Danielle Sepsy: And an idea.
Kirk Bachmann: But it goes back to the whole, “Here I am now. I make it look easy. But there’s a backstory.” It goes all the way back to when you were 13 years old. There’s a ton of advice here, a lot of information, a lot of literacy. For those who might be interested in following the path, are there one or two things to keep in mind that you would offer as advice?
Danielle Sepsy: Going back to what I said previously, building relationships. That’s with your employees, but that’s also with all the vendors and the clients, and everybody that you come across in your career. That really helped me start my business. I wasn’t completely clueless when it came to ordering ingredients, or ordering paper supplies and boxes and things like that. I had resources. I had a Rolodex of people that I could turn to and say, “Hey! Who do you get this from?” Or maybe I already had a relationship with them, and I’m like, “I’m on my own now. I need help getting my kitchen fitted with all the right equipment.” It’s all about relationships. Don’t burn bridges. Know that these people may come in handy later on. That was crucial to the success of my business, especially starting out.
And also, don’t be afraid of the failures and those tough times. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, it’s a roller coaster. When you’re down, just know you’re going to come back up. Just stick with it. Stay positive, and work hard, and have faith in your product, and have confidence in what you’re doing. Know that there are going to be a lot of nos, a lot of dark times, a lot of tough times, stressful times. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I think social media makes my life and a lot of people’s lives seem like everything is perfect and great and easy. But it’s not. There are so many days where I wake up and I say, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” I talk to other entrepreneurs, and they say the same thing. There are so many days where you just really don’t know what you’re doing. That means that you might fail, and then figure it out from the failure. Or you just have to, again, go through your Rolodex of people that you know and try to ask for help.
And also, hire people that have a different skill set than you, that have other strengths that you don’t have. I know, for example, myself, I appear to be organized; I’m not organized. I’m not an organized person. I’m organized chaos. For myself, I’m organized. I find things. I know what I’m doing, but to an outsider, they would never be able to understand my madness.
Kirk Bachmann: You have a system.
Danielle Sepsy: There are certain strengths that I just don’t have, and I hired other people that had those strengths. It has helped my business grow. Yes, I have a clear understanding of the financial side of my business, and I was originally trying to do it all. I was trying to manage the operations, do the recipes, manage the employees, do the payroll, do all the accounting, reconcile the books every month.
I’m not an accountant. I have a knowledge of that, and that’s where school came into play, and also my experience working in hotels and for other businesses. I learned that side, and I had an understanding. I can look and P&L statement and understand what that means. But it wasn’t what I enjoyed. It wasn’t what I did best. I said, “Okay. I’m going to spend more money on a bookkeeper and an accountant to help me do these things, but in the long run, it’s going to be done well. It’s going to be organized. There’s not going to be confusion, and it’s going to be for the best.” And it truly was.
Again, don’t be afraid to spend money to make money, as they always say. To delegate things to other people that have strengths that are different than your own. Because I really couldn’t have done it without these people.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the idea of self awareness. You said that it’s not what you do best, but you knew it had to be done. That, in many ways, it’s brilliant. When we’re talking about organization.
I have to come back to “The Big Brunch.” The thing that’s fascinating to me [is] there are so many hardships: being away from your family, the stress of cameras, and not knowing. What I’m always curious about is when the pressure’s on and it’s show time, and the lights come on: have you prepared recipes in advance? Do you kind of know, “Here are the ten things I could do depending on what I’m presented with? Or is everything spontaneous and in the moment?
Danielle Sepsy: It’s a mix. I did prepare in advance the best I could. Obviously, I don’t know what the challenges would be, but I knew it was a brunch show. So I started to create new brunch dishes in all different categories: this is baked, this is savory, this is a take on a classic, this is eggs Benedict with a different take. I did that. I spent about two days – I took off of work – and just cooked from morning until night. All different recipes, just so I had some things in the back of my mind to make me feel a little bit more comfortable that I had some plans in place. Some of those things I did make on the show. Some of them I didn’t.
I had a lot of anxiety at the beginning, too, because I looked around the room at the other chefs and said, “Okay. Am I in over my head?” I heard everybody around me saying things like, “Where is the sous vide machine? Do you have a smoker? Who’s doing molecular gastronomy?” I’m like, “Oh my God! This is so not my side of cooking. Am I going to look like Susie Homemaker baker that’s so in over her head? I didn’t know how I would be perceived.
But when I really just leaned into my super power and said, “These are my strengths. I do savory cooking. I do sweet. I do everything, but my superpower is baking.” Everybody else in the room, they were not bakers. The fact that I had that as a strength, and I was making things that people know and love, but innovative takes on the classics, or the best version of that classic that you’ve ever had. These are recipes I’ve perfected for so many years and do them every day in high volumes at the bakery. Not many people can say that. Baking is a science.
I was starting to realize there was more risk in what I was doing than in what other people were doing, because I had to put something in the oven, say a prayer and hope it came out right. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have time to restart. Once I leaned into that and understood that what I was doing was enough, and it was appreciated and they enjoyed it, I was less focused on doing things that were fancy and impressive from a plating perspective. I was worried about the flavors and the textures, which is really how I cook. I appreciate Michelin star restaurants and all that they do for the production of it, the artistry. It is truly an art form. But it’s not the way I like to cook, and it’s not the way I like to eat.
So I just started to go back to my rustic roots and just make things that I thought may trigger an emotion in someone when they’re eating it. Maybe it’s a nostalgic flavor, like from the ‘90s when I made the peanut butter and jelly and fluff cinnamon buns on the show. The judges, they probably had a peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich when they were a kid. Those things resonate with people, and I think those things speak volumes. I didn’t need to go crazy with the fancy equipment and techniques. I could just do what I loved, and that would translate into the food. And it did.
Kirk Bachmann: Food is community. Food is memories. Food is love. I’m exhausted just listening to a little rhetoric around the short part of your life that you were involved in this. It feels like a career to do a show. People have no idea. You have to tell us a little bit. I’m not ashamed to say, my ten- and twelve-year-olds watch “Schitt’s Creek” with us. Don’t judge me. It’s their favorite show in the world. It’s pure laughter.
Danielle Sepsy: It is.
Kirk Bachmann: Did you get to spend some quality time with Dan? Is he hilarious, period?
Danielle Sepsy: Most of the time I spent with him during that time was on set. You’re talking about 12-hour days. These are really long days.
Kirk Bachmann: Even for him?
Danielle Sepsy: Even for him. What you don’t know is that when we’re doing the judging, for example, especially the first few episodes, that takes hours.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I imagine.
Danielle Sepsy: We’re sitting there on set with a camera on you, just smiling and nodding, as someone else is presenting their food. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes per person for their critique. You’re only seeing seconds of it. It’s a very long day. Again, it’s emotional. We’re all sharing our life stories. There are certain things that we’re sharing that are really triggering sometimes, or just emotional for us.
Emotions are high, and you’re also tired because you had a 5 a.m. or sometimes 4 a.m. call time, so you’re up very early. Then you’re also cooking. The cooking time, let’s say, is 45 minutes for whatever the challenge was. Your adrenaline is so hard during that time that right after you just want to crash. You need a bed. You want to sleep, but there are so many more hours of filming to go. You still have to do confessional-style interviews with a producer about how you thought you did. Then you have the judging portion, which is emotional. Then after that, you interview again about how you felt about the judging, and what you think the next day will bring. It’s very long days.
But Dan just made us feel so comfortable. He’s just so normal, in a way. I feel like even though he came from a famous family – his dad is Eugene Levy – but they raised them well. I think they raised them, at least when they were young, fairly disconnected from Hollywood. They lived in Toronto, and he had a fairly normal upbringing, all things considered. He is really down-to-earth, and cared so much about us. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling, he would check in. “How are you doing? How can I help you?” If someone was really not clear on the way something was happening, or was upset about something, he would say, “Let’s talk about this. Let’s work through it.” Also, it was the first season. They were learning with us. Some things weren’t working the way it was done. He was really good about doing personal check-ins with us.
Since then, he’s been so great to me. He has ordered baked goods from me for the holidays and said, “Oh, I need the biscuits for Christmas.” Every time, I have questions about the industry as far as television. I’m writing the book, and I needed some advice on things, and he’s always been there to answer those questions. Same with Will [Guidara] and Sohla [El-Waylly]. Will – I don’t know how much you know about him, but when it comes to hospitality, he’s like a Danny Meyer. He came out with his book, “Unreasonable Hospitality,” which I highly recommend reading. His whole outlook on hospitality and how you approach it is just really inspiring. Being able to feed him and get advice from him has been tremendous.
And Sohla just has a magical tongue with magical taste buds. She really is just so talented when it comes to the food. We really appreciated her opinion, because she doesn’t sugar-coat anything – pun intended.
Kirk Bachmann: Acknowledged.
Danielle Sepsy: People were like, “Oh, she’s so tough.” I’m like, “But we appreciated that. We are professionals, and we want to be able to learn from this experience.” She really helped us do that. She really is incredible. I was just so grateful to be in the room with all of them.
Back to Dan: he’s super funny. He’s super fashionable. He’s super lovely. He smells nice, too, I always tell people. He smells so good.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s a first for our show! I love it. I have to be honest. We haven’t scripted any of this, but look at this.
Danielle Sepsy: Oh, great.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m sending it to everyone, Danielle. “The Remarkable Power of Giving People More than they Expect.” Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Danielle Sepsy: Reading that book, I was brought back many times in my hotel career, especially. I realized how much that impacted my business now, too. I think back to when I was managing restaurants, especially at the Peninsula Hotel. It was a beautiful, high-end restaurant. People were traveling from all over the world. They would be sitting there, having their breakfast, and I would overhear that they came from somewhere in Europe. They were looking to really have a great experience in New York. I would just take it upon myself to write a list of all my favorite restaurants and hot spots in New York, and different things that they couldn’t miss, and just kind of slip it to them on the table. People would come back and say, “Wow! You really made my experience. I went to some of the places you said. I had an amazing dining experience, and I went on that street. I shopped on that street.” It really made people’s trip. It’s little details that make all the difference. I think, again, that it’s something that you can learn, but I think you’re kind of born with that.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s in the DNA. You can learn it, but you had it at a young age, from Grandma Rosemarie.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, “Got Room for More.” I have to ask: are you a photographer as well? The website? So somebody does that all for you?
Danielle Sepsy: I am a photographer in that I did take most of those photos, yes.
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. GotRoomForMore.com Everyone needs to look at it.
Danielle Sepsy: Also at ChefDanielleSepsy.com, it also comes up. But it’s my food blog. I wish I posted more. It’s a full time job to do all the social media stuff, so a lot of content is moving to TikTok and Instagram. But I do have a lot of recipes on that website. That was almost a journal for me. I didn’t even care sometimes if people were reading it; it was more for me, that I had these recipes documented in a place where I could revisit them. It’s been nice, too, when I’m writing my cookbook to go back and look at what I created in the past and look at and revamp and better.
I highly suggest that. If people are looking to get into this side of the industry, too, blogging and writing recipes and social media is also really important now. Even when you’re writing a book, one of the first things that they look for is what’s your social media following. Sometimes I think that’s a little sad, but it’s how we market things now. It’s where we’re going to reach the most amount of people in a short amount of time. If you have a following,a loyal following, and a community around you, those are the people that are going to support you and buy that product or that book, or visit that restaurant.
Kirk Bachmann: And you bring them joy. You bring them joy, too. I love this idea of a journal. It’s kind of a digital journal. I’ve been writing things down. I always think that chefs are the only ones that do that, right? Here’s my recipe chef journal. I absolutely love [that].
The other thing that I watched – I’ve really prepared for our chat –
Danielle Sepsy: Thank you. You know more about me than me.
Kirk Bachmann: Can I just tell you, I’m so intimidated. Just the other morning, I’m like, “How much stuff is she doing?” I was on the Food Network kitchen app, and I watched the whole Port Wine Balsamic Filet Mignon. Very French, I had to go French. It’s easy in a way to accept it, to watch it. “I think I can do this.”
No, really, how do you manage to keep up with the demand? So to your point, if people want information, Danielle, they want it fast. It’s got to move them. You’ve got the team, you’ve got the ideas, you’re busy, but what is it that gets you up in the morning? That says, “here is what I’m going to post today. Here’s how I’m going to get 10,000 more followers?”
Danielle Sepsy: Sometimes I don’t know if it’s going to work that way.
Kirk Bachmann: If it’s a big secret, save it for me later. Just tell me later. Don’t tell everyone!
Danielle Sepsy: Sometimes I’m still figuring that out. I think you have to find what works. When I hired someone last year to help me with my social media because, even though I was filming everything myself and I still have to do that, I needed someone to help me with the editing and the posting. It’s just not my skill set, necessarily, and also just takes a lot of time that I don’t have.
So I hired someone to help me. What he helped me figure out was what worked. So we made several different styles of videos with different topics and different styles. We figured out what worked. In the end, it was the things that were most authentic to me that really worked. The Italian-American content, especially, which for so many years I was trying to fight that. I didn’t want to be known as the Long Island Italian meatball-making woman. I don’t know why. I just always said, “I’m not just that. I don’t want to be known as that.” But truly that’s where my roots are, and that’s who I am. It’s not necessarily what I cook every single day in the bakery. It’s not; I’m not making Italian things every day, but it’s where I came from. I realized that there’s such a strong community behind the Italian-Americans that content resonated with so many people.
Even if it wasn’t Italian-Americans, it’s other people that learned from their grandmother. Whatever it was, there were so many cultures that still overlapped in some way. That material really resonated with so many people, and it worked. So now I’m not doing a lot more Italian-American things, both recipes and then also just funny things that we said in Italian households, some slang terms that we say all the time. It just sparks conversation and builds community. You have to find what those things are. If it’s authentic to you, people believe in it and they want to watch it. It can’t be forced. It just can’t be forced. It has to be just natural.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Authenticity, being genuine: people do love that. It makes them comfortable. It relaxes them right away.
Danielle, I’ve kept you way too long. This is so fun. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. This is the pressure cooker. This is worse than reality TV. What is the ultimate dish?
Danielle Sepsy: For me, it is a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. If you watch “The Big Brunch, Episode 1,” I make a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a biscuit. For me, that is just the ultimate dish because I love baked goods. It’s more than that. I can have all my favorite things in one. Especially if it’s on a biscuit, I have an amazing, fresh, buttery, arm biscuit. I have bacon, and sometimes I make it candied bacon, so there’s a sweet component to that. I love cheese. If you put cheese on anything, I am there. So there is melty cheese. Maybe it’s just American. Honestly, it’s just Kraft American cheese. It’s melty and it’s gooey, and it’s nostalgic. Then there’s egg, and it’s a runny egg, because I could eat a runny yolk three meals a day until the day I die. It’s all the things that I love, and all the textures that I love in one thing. It’s also special to me because growing up on Long Island, bacon, egg, and cheese is one of our main food groups.
Kirk Bachmann: The bacon, egg, and cheese food group. I love it.
Danielle Sepsy: It is. You go to the deli, and you get a bacon, egg, and cheese, salt, pepper, ketchup on a roll. That’s what we always had, growing up, and still to this day have it once a week, at least. It’s just special to me. It’s flavors and textures that I love and crave, and also nostalgic, because it defines where I came from.
Kirk Bachmann: Definitely on the podium as one of the best responses. The runny yolk. I’ve never heard the runny yolk, or anyone admit it. I love it.
Danielle, thank you so much. Congratulations on all the success. You’re absolutely amazing. Such a great conversation. Thank you for spending some time with us today.
Danielle Sepsy: I appreciate it so much. I hope somebody out there learned something and was inspired from this conversation.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, indeed they are.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. If you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take their next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.