After Seeing the World, This Chef Returned to Rural NJ Hometown to Make Pizza and Bread

Her baking business, Emily’s Hearth, provides farmers' markets with handcrafted pizzas and breads—and soon, she'll open a permanent shop in Sussex.

Emily Downs of Emily's Hearth

Emily Downs of Emily’s Hearth sells her pizzas and breads to farmers’ markets. Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Pottheiser

At not quite 40, Emily Downs has worn a dizzying wardrobe of hats. She’s been a painter, sculptor and textile artist; a dancer; a scholar of art history and Italian; a documentary filmmaker; a pizza maker and artisanal bread baker. She has lived in Florence, San Francisco and New York City.

Downs’ colorful, cultured journey has led her back to New Jersey, specifically to Sussex, the village in northern Sussex County where she grew up. Her baking business, Emily’s Hearth, provides farmers’ markets—in Sparta and in Warwick, New York—with handcrafted, micro-seasonal pizzas and bread. And Emily’s Hearth has more local buzz than a swarm of bees.

Her affinity for dough runs deep. Her grandmama Olga Delvey gave her the lifelong gift of pizza, she says, adding that at every holiday, her extended family gathered at her house in Dover. Her grandmother would corral the kids, seat them around her kitchen table and give each a round pizza pan. The kids would make pizza from scratch, including the dough, and top them themselves. “It was heaven,” Downs recalls. “Pizza is part of my psyche.”

After Smith College in Massachusetts and an Italian immersion in Florence, “where art and food are the stuff of life,” Downs settled in San Francisco. An encounter with a legendary New Jersey-raised chef changed her life, she recounts.

The production company where she worked was making a documentary about Alice Waters. (The Chatham-born chef’s Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, is widely regarded as America’s first farm-to-table restaurant.) Downs went to interview her: “She was so passionate and sensible,” she says.

Waters had started the Edible Schoolyard, a national project that plants vegetable gardens in schools within poor neighborhoods that have no access to fresh food. The Edible Schoolyard got kids to improve their nutrition, their health and their lives. Michelle Obama championed the program as first lady.


Downs describes her pizzas as “a cross between Kesté’s classic approach and a more avant-garde California style, with nontraditional toppings.” Photo: Courtesy of Emily Downs

“It absolutely works,” says Downs. “My revelation was that there is no equality without healthy food.” So, she resolved “to use food to boost people’s health and hopes. And from my childhood and time in Italy, the food closest to me was pizza.”

The next day, she traipsed all over San Francisco, walking into pizzerias, slice joints, trattorias and asked, always men, if they needed a pizza cook. Their answer was invariably “no, but you can deliver pies for us.”

“It was infuriating, but I kept on,” Downs says. “At the end of the day, I figured I had nothing to lose. I walked into Pizzeria Delfina, at the time the hottest pizza place in town. I asked the manager if he needed help. He responded with, ‘Can you make pizza?’”

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Downs recalls that one of her first diners was Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa. When he left, she asked her manager if Chef Keller had liked his pizza. He smiled and said, “He finished it.”

A few years later, Downs says she grew tired of San Francisco’s one-season climate, and she missed her family, so she moved back to Jersey and got a job as farm manager for Bobolink Dairy, a regenerative farm in Hunterdon County, and learned about agriculture from the soil biome up.

Next, she moved to Jersey City and delved into bread-making as an apprentice to Jim Lahey at the acclaimed Sullivan Street Bakery in downtown Manhattan. Both Downs and her new boss had been aspiring sculptors who’d studied art in Italy. “We both saw breadmaking as creating something beautiful from nature,” she says. Soon, she was baking bread for Daniel Boulud’s New York restaurants “and for Thomas Keller’s Per Se, a nice twist.”

Next, she undertook wood-fired Neapolitan pizza making at Kesté Pizza, also downtown. “I was the only non-Italian-born pizzaiolo there,” she says. “I learned so much I homed in on my own style, a cross between Kesté’s classic approach and a more avant-garde California style, with nontraditional toppings.”

Then, in 2016, her marriage ended. Downs returned to Sussex County with her baby son, Donovan, and moved four houses down from her parents. She started up a food truck, hauling a pizza oven to weekly farmers’ markets.

“It took off and I added bread to my menu a few years later,” she notes. “I’m known for my sesame-coated ‘community loaf,’ an eight-to-ten-pounder baked in a turkey pan. I sell it by the chunk, like bakers do in Italy.”

Downs also caters private events, “especially pizza parties, with a Nutella pizza for dessert.”

Downs is ready to set up a permanent shop soon, name still undecided. She’s currently settling into a colorful, funky former diner in Sussex. First, she’ll open on weekends, she says. She plans to have live music and local artists’ work and serve coffees, several breads, pastries, sandwiches, flatbreads and, of course, pizza. And she’s developing her own doughnuts.

“I thrive on feeding people,” says Downs. “It’s a good deed. It brings me back in touch with my roots, my hometown, my purpose.”

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