Babbo’s Gina DePalma, Winner of the 2009 James Beard “Outstanding Pastry Chef” Award, A “Cowgirl” Until the Very End
“Cowgirl up: (verb) To draw upon the core of the human spirit in times of adversity. When faced with a hard chore, it is a shift in attitude from ‘can’t’ to a positive, confident, contagious ‘can do’ spirit.”
—Gina DePalma, who founded the Cowgirl Cure Foundation during her battle with ovarian cancer
“The finest pastry chef I’ve ever known.”
—Chef Mario Batali describing Gina DePalma when announcing her passing via Twitter this morning (12/30/15)
Long-time Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma‘s desserts were so delicious that you could eat them with your eyes. Take a good look at the slice of Honey and Pine Nut Tart on the cover of her 2007 cookbook Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. See what we mean? Yes, our mouths are watering, too.
We’ll never forget tasting a selection of her desserts at Babbo, early on into her 1998-2013 term as pastry chef of the restaurant.
We’d previously been lucky enough to have tasted our way through the desserts of some of the world’s best pastry chefs. Like Dieter Schorner [whom Mimi Sheraton once named in Time magazine as one of the two best pastry chefs in America]. And Emily Luchetti. And Francois Payard. And Nancy Silverton. And Jacques Torres. The extraordinary desserts our forks and spoons were prodding on the table in front of us at Babbo were on a par with all of theirs — that is, among the very best we’d ever tasted.
When a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman passed our table wearing a chef’s jacket eyeing our plates, Karen virtually leapt from her seat to grab the woman’s arm. “Are you the pastry chef?” Karen asked. “That’s me,” Gina replied. “Oh my God,” was all Karen could say, gesturing wildly at our almost-empty plates, as the three of us melted into laughter. Gina was so intuitive that she immediately understood the depth of the admiration we were trying to convey, and an instant bond was formed — even before we then introduced ourselves and discovered the admiration to be mutual, given that Gina turned out to be a fan of our books.
Interviewing her for the second edition of our book BECOMING A CHEF (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) gave us the opportunity to learn more about this smart and multitalented woman’s background, as she talked with us about her non-linear route to becoming one of America’s best pastry chefs:
“Since I’d grown up in a food-obsessed Italian-American family, I started cooking when I was eight. I worked in restaurants from the day I got out of college. Once the owner of a restaurant where I’d applied for a waitressing job found out I knew how to cook, he cut a deal with me: I would cook some lunch and brunch shifts in exchange for his giving me the most waitressing shifts on Friday and Saturday nights. So I did this while I was trying to decide between going to law school and earning a master’s degree. Despite my subsequent jobs in a law office, and even the mayor’s office, I always found an excuse to keep cooking. I eventually got to the fork in the road of having to decide between graduate school and cooking school, and after taking the LSAT [law school admissions test], I had applications to graduate schools, law schools and cooking schools on my desk! In the end, I went with my heart. While it enraged my family and made my mother cry, I ended up taking out every possible student loan, maxing out my credit cards, and going to Peter Kump’s [now known as the Institute of Culinary Education].”
—Gina DePalma, as quoted in our book BECOMING A CHEF
Gina graduated from Peter Kump’s / ICE in 1994, and worked in some of the best pastry kitchens in Manhattan, including Chanterelle and Gramercy Tavern. She was upfront about the sacrifices that her career choice entailed, telling us:
“Making it through the first few years [as a chef] is the toughest. You make more money than folding shirts at The Gap, but not much. I will tell cooks who want to come to New York and cook that, ‘You gotta have game’ because it’s tough and there’s so much you’re up against every day. Just living on the pay is really tough until you get a titled position. At one job, I grossed $425 a week and had to live in New York on that. Believe me, I ate a lot of Minute Rice and frozen peas!”
—Gina DePalma, as quoted in our book BECOMING A CHEF
But her talent propelled her quickly, and in 1998, Chef Mario Batali named her the pastry chef at Babbo, one of America’s hottest restaurants at the time, which led to wider acknowledgment of her gifts. In June 2005, the magazine Pastry Art & Design named her one of “America’s Ten Best Pastry Chefs.”
Gina continued to collect so many nominations for the coveted James Beard Foundation Award as “Outstanding Pastry Chef” that we started joking about her being the “Susan Lucci” of the Awards, and we looked forward to seeing her at the annual ceremony to wish her luck. In 2006, Gina confided how touched she was that Jean Georges’ Johnny Iuzzini had graciously sent her flowers on his win as Outstanding Pastry Chef, wishing her luck in the future.
Soon after, we interviewed her for our forthcoming book THE FLAVOR BIBLE, and worked together on photo shoots of her desserts at Babbo so we could feature them in the book. We loved learning more about Gina’s creative process during our interview:
“I wanted to come up with a panna cotta that was unlike anyone else’s. I was walking down the street thinking of Italian dishes and risotto Milanese [which is made with saffron] came to mind. This led me to think about saffron, and the idea of adding saffron to my panna cotta. After Ruth Reichl mentioned it in the New York Times review of Babbo, Mario [Batali] told me I could never take it off the menu!”
—Gina DePalma, as quoted in our book THE FLAVOR BIBLE
It turned out that our book WHAT TO DRINK WITH WHAT YOU EAT was not nominated for a 2007 James Beard Award. (As it had already been named the Georges Duboeuf “Wine Book of the Year“ and went on to be named the IACP “Cookbook of the Year,” we remember being shocked to read the words of one of the James Beard Book Award judges of the wine book category, which were simply not true — as indeed other critics had praised the book for its strength in providing an exacting level of detail.)
Regardless, having our labor of love passed over by the Beard Awards stung. So when we learned that Gina hadn’t been nominated for a 2007 James Beard Award, either, we offered her our condolences. But we ended up learning that Gina had been dealt an even more horrific blow: a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
None of us felt much like celebrating on May 7th, so instead of attending the 2007 James Beard Awards at Lincoln Center the three of us made plans to quietly hang out with each other that night. The evening involved burgers at Big Nick’s (which we’d written about in our 2001 book CHEF’S NIGHT OUT as having one of NYC’s best hamburgers) and it definitely involved a tasting of multiple flavors of gelato at the newly-opened Italian transplant Grom, which Gina had been raving to us about. Between the burgers and the gelato and the conversation, we managed to help each other find perspective that bittersweet night. We were bonded for life.
A year later, we were at the 2008 James Beard Awards to cheer Gina on, when she was again happy to find herself one of the five nominees for Outstanding Pastry Chef (though that year Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery took home the medal), and we toasted her being named Bon Appetit‘s 2008 Best Pastry Chef.
And after Gina’s sixth James Beard Award nomination, we were there to cheer each other on at the 2009 ceremony. Getting to celebrate Gina’s win as 2009 “Outstanding Pastry Chef” and THE FLAVOR BIBLE‘s win of a 2009 James Beard Book Award was all the sweeter because of the road we’d all traveled together to get to that moment. The photo of the three of us together with our medals around our necks that night is one all three of us cherished.
Ever a fighter, Gina founded the Cowgirl Cure Foundation to raise money for ovarian cancer research, which we wrote about in our May 2009 enewsletter and to which we donated copies of our books. And her fighting spirit was always on display via the explanation of the foundation’s name in the opening quote above.
Over the years, we’d had the pleasure of seeing Gina at events like Fleet Week’s annual “Best Chow” competition aboard The Intrepid, where we served as co-hosts and with Gina among the judges, as well as SHARE‘s annual “Second Helping of Life” event at Pier 60, a benefit for survivors of breast and ovarian cancer that featured dozens of NYC’s best chefs and pastry chefs. And we’d get together sporadically in between, including for our first-ever visits to Prune and Rouge Tomate.
But then as her cancer challenges reared their ugly head, we tended to be in closer touch via email and social media, including both Facebook and Twitter. It was via the latter that she messaged us on May 31, 2015:
But we didn’t hear from her again over the summer, so we checked in again right after Labor Day to see if there was anything we could do for her or bring her, and she got back to us on September 9, 2015:
Gina: LOVE YOU BOTH soooo much. I promise to get better so we can make that happen. xoxo
We wished Gina a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook on September 16th, and then checked in again on November 6, 2015, and she wrote back immediately, going into details (deleted below) about the medical challenges she was facing:
Gina: Hello my loves. I’m still in the middle of a slow and brutal recovery at my mom’s….I’m still bed-bound, weak and on painkillers; I sleep a lot. But they got it all and I am thankful for that. Will probably start chemo again in a week or so. This is the toughest thing I’ve been through for sure.
We’d last messaged her via Facebook on December 23, 2015, posting the photo of the three of us together at the 2009 James Beard Awards, and writing:
Late this morning — just one week later — Gina’s sister Maria DePalma-Cocozza posted on Facebook:
Gina DePalma’s beautiful soul will soar high forever.
“Shine on you crazy diamonds!”
—Gina DePalma, signing off her last blog post (9/27/15)
Gina DePalma (1966-2015) was the Executive Pastry Chef at Babbo (1998-2013) and the author of Dolce Italiano.
You can know an important part of her through her recipes, e.g., her Almond, Anise and Orange Biscotti, her Aunt Jean’s Lasagna, her Blueberry Coconut Tart, her Cookie Cannoli with Coffee Cream, her Creamy, Dreamy Ricotta Cheesecake, her Fonduta, her Mocha Cinnamon Bonet, her Port-Soaked Dried Fruit Compote with Cheese, her Red-Wine Spaghetti with Walnuts and Parsley, her Toasted Almond Cake with Mascarpone Cream and Amarena Cherries, her Upside-Down Quince and Honey Spice Cake, her Very Good For You Muffins, her Walnut Tart with Port Zabaglione Cream, her Zucchini Olive Oil Cake, and more.
Her website: ginadepalma.net
“We’re deeply saddened by the loss, to ovarian cancer, of Gina DePalma, a participating chef in our annual A Second Helping of Life event. In her honor, we’ve established the Gina DePalma Ovarian Cancer Support Fund. Gina meant so much to us and to the community of women chefs who gather annually to support SHARE.”
Gina was devoted to the work of SHARE and its support for women facing breast and ovarian cancer. It’s possible to dedicate your tax-deductible donation to the “Gina DePalma Ovarian Cancer Support Fund” via the link and drop-down menu here.
Other Remembrances of Gina DePalma
Gina DePalma was an opinionated gal. Please treat yourself to her cookbook Dolce Italiano to enjoy the headnotes as much as the extraordinary recipes, and check out her other writing, including her November 2013 op-ed “Pastry Chefs Rule Their Realm Without Adulation” in The New York Times and her April 2015 first-person essay “Searching for Mozzarella in the Land of Processed Cheese” for the series “What It Means To Be An American” sponsored by the Smithsonian on Zocalo Public Square.
Gina DePalma was also an accomplished and popular gal. We’re happy to share links to other tributes to her, including these:
James Brock, Paper City (12/30/15)
Heather Carlucci, Mountains Pigs and Food (12/30/15)
William Grimes, The New York Times (1/1/16)
Ed Levine, Serious Eats (12/31/15)
Karen Lo, The Daily Meal (12/30/15)
Shuna Lydon, Medium (7/17/13)
Greg Morabito, Eater (12/30/15)
Nicole Lyn Pesce, NY Daily News (12/30/15)
Adam Reiner, Viaggio (2010 profile)
Siera Tishgart, Grub Street (12/30/15)
James Beard Foundation (12/30/15)
“Today many of us in the NYC restaurant industry bid a sad farewell to one of its greatest talents — Gina DePalma, who lost her long battle with cancer last night. Gina created the dessert program at Babbo Ristorante & Enoteca and went on to win the James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef in 2009. An exceptional chef, daughter, employee and friend, Gina will be greatly missed.”
—Joe Bastianich, via Facebook
“Goodbye dearest Gina, you were much loved by us all, Love Lidia. Gina DePalma, @BabboRistorante’s
great pastry chef.”
—Lidia Bastianich, via Twitter
“My heart is heavy with the passing of a beautiful friend and exceptional talent. Gina DePalma lost her long and brave battle with ovarian cancer last night. Gina was a supremely talented pastry chef who created the dessert program at Babbo, a beautiful writer and author, constant learner, loving daughter and loyal friend. Her passion for Italian culture, cuisine and pastry was unmatched. Gina taught us all and never stopped learning and caring, even in the face of cancer and chemo.Rest in peace, Gina. You will be missed. xxxx”
—Mario Batali, via Facebook
“I loved her and admired her work. So very sad.”
—Rose Levy Beranbaum, via Facebook
“So so sad to hear the passing of Gina DePalma. She fought so hard for so long. Rest in peace sweet lady X.”
—April Bloomfield, via Twitter
“Farewell, you fine and gifted person.”
—James Brock, via Facebook
“My heart goes out to all of the friends and family of Babbo Pastry Chef Gina DePalma. She’s a great chef and was always so kind to me.”
—Joe Campanale, via Twitter
“A lot of people on my Facebook feed are writing about our friend Gina DePalma. Gina was the pastry chef at Babbo for 15 years. More importantly she was an inspiration to so many and outspoken on the loss of quality of our craft…. I’ve felt her passing more than I thought I would. Someone is gone who was also witness to a very special time in a very important world of mine.”
—Heather Carlucci, via Mountains Pigs and Food
“Seems like yesterday Gina, we rocked out at Trash Bar yet again……. #rip Gina DePalma”
—Andrew Carmellini, via Twitter
“Deeply saddened by Gina DePalma‘s death. Her pastry was unforgettable as was her tenacity in fighting cancer. RIP.”
—Dana Cowin, via Twitter
“Remember the recipes. Remember the fight. Only one other person I knew fought cancer as hard as James Beard award-winning Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma, as she tried valiantly to stay on this Earth right to the end. Rest now #GinaDee — you have more than earned it. ‘I’m a misanthrope, Deb. I can’t help it. And no one loves a misanthrope…’ Well, a lot of people sure loved you.”
—Deborah DiClementi, via Facebook
“Gina was a warrior. I was proud to call her my friend and colleague…I will hold you in my heart, forever.”
—Claudia Fleming, via Facebook
“Shine forever, Gina. We have only begun to miss you. You are, as you always were, loved.”
—Seanan Forbes, via Facebook
“Rest in peace @ginadee you were an inspiration to us all. Gina DePalma”
—Amanda Freitag, via Twitter
“Very saddened to read about Gina DePalma. We didn’t cross paths too often. The first encounter was when I was jealous of her gelato spoons and cups at Otto and she helped me to her source. That was before my career at the time was interrupted by the Big C. Our next encounter was helping her to communicate about the Cowgirl Cure Foundation after she unfortunately relapsed. I wish I had something poetic to say, but it just sucks. You can read her blog posts here: ginadepalma.net. They are beautiful.”
—Will Goldfarb, via Facebook
“…A very brave and talented woman, who ruled with a lot of (extremely well-deserved) adulation. May flights of Angels lead you on your way, Gina DePalma.”
—Patti Jackson, via Facebook
“2nd-to-last, very characteristic tweet from warm and witty pastry maestro Gina DePalma. RIP. Gina: I am looped on painkillers still, but have chosen today to re-appear with this statement: Macaroni and cheese does not need pumpkin.”
—David Kamp, via Twitter
“She was one of the most outspoken, opinionated and passionate people I have ever met in the NYC food scene . Her honesty was raw and unedited, always . She courageously fought and struggled with her illness till the very end . This is what I love about Gina. She never gave up. Admirable. Nowhere was this persistence more evident than in her outstanding vision and the exacting standards she held for her craft, she strove for that perfection, always. What a phenomenal chef. Sad that your gifts cannot continue to be shared. At least now, though, you are at peace, freed from the pain of living, dear Gina DePalma. RIP my friend. You will be missed.”
—James Lahey, via Facebook
“So so sad. An amazing chef, and in my brief time with her, an incredibly open, generous soul. Rest in peace, Gina.”
—Francis Lam, via Twitter
“RIP to my courageous friend and extraordinary pastry chef, writer, and human being Gina DePalma. Your talent and your spirit inspired many.”
—Ed Levine, via Twitter
“Eternally grateful I nudged you lovingly into letting me interview, write about and celebrate you, Gina DePalma. Thank you for all the gifts you gave us all — funny & fantastic & wry & witty & sarcastic & serious & badass & bitter & remarkable & realistic & humble & harrowing. Thank you for always telling it like it is — no matter who was or was not listening. xoxo”
—Shuna Lydon, via Facebook
“Here’s a picture of a Bonet from Gina DePalma‘s Dolce Italiano. This is a Piedmontese specialty, which, like so many Italian recipes, has a convoluted origin story/methodology that likely varies from household to household. Untangling and interpreting this stuff is what Gina lived for, and she did so with unparalleled tenacity and intelligence. I’m so glad she got to live in Italy for a while — she so deserved it, and I could see how enriched she was by the experience. I guess my point here, other to express my sorrow at her passing, is to profess my admiration for Gina and how she lived her life — with passion, a commitment to craft, a dogged work ethic and a hunger for fellowship. She deserved a longer life.”
—David Lynch, via Facebook
“Sweet @ginadee, the friendliest, talented, mentoring, wonderful human being I have ever known. RIP. You will be missed.”
—Georges Mendes, via Twitter
“Mayes & I were heartbroken to hear the news last eve. We will miss you. @ginadee you are 1 of a kind.”
—Jeremy Noye, via Twitter
“Gina DePalma — a GREAT pastry chef, wonderful writer and all around terrific person is gone. A great loss to us all. RIP.”
—Ruth Reichl, via Twitter
“I love you so fucking much. Always.”
—Allison Robicelli, via Facebook
“The most talented, lovely, funny and fierce. I’ll miss you Gina. Rest In Peace.”
—Phil Rosenthal, via Twitter
“Rest in peace dear Gina. You were one of a kind from the first day I taught you at Peter Kump’s you stood out more than a good student, a super person. I was so proud of your achievements but to me you remained sweet Gina- kind loving and with that wry sense of humor. Will miss you so much.”
—Rosa Ross, via Facebook
“Gina inspired us all to be great, and pushed on one more in that direction than herself. She also pushed us all to be good to others while striving for greatness. I will forever miss her and will forever continue to follow her mantra.”
—Colum Sheehan, via Facebook
“Gina was the coolest person and I am so heartbroken to hear this, I really thought she would crush the cancer — all the more reason to support SHARE.”
—Ivy Stark, via Facebook
“Rest well @ginadee. You fought so hard. You will be missed very much.”
—Bill Telepan, via Twitter
“Chef Gina inspired everyone who met her with her extraordinary culinary talent and generous heart. Watching her deal so bravely and candidly with ovarian cancer these past seven years was inspiring and heartbreaking to all who knew and loved her. Our food world is a better place because of her contributions.”
—Susan Ungaro, James Beard Foundation President
Wake: Sunday, January 3, 2016, 4 pm – 8 pm, Ruggiero and Sons Funeral Home, 732 Yonkers Avenue, Yonkers, NY. Additional details on website: RuggieroAndSonsFH.com/tribute
Mass: Monday, January 4, 2016, 9:30 am, St. Joseph’s Church, 15 Cedar Street, Bronxville, NY