The best way to describe the drive, work ethic and personality of celebrity chef Penny Davidi, who has appeared on countless Food Network shows, is a Business Development Manager for US Foods and is the Executive Chef of Pump Restaurant, might just come from infamous businessman and controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump.
When first trying to break into the genre of television, Davidi spent a week with Trump auditioning for The Apprentice. The season’s theme was “putting America back to work,” focusing on helping discouraged and undermotivated people to get back in the workforce.
“(Trump) told me: ‘No one in America would believe you would stay unemployed for five seconds. That’s not you’,“ Davidi said. “So basically, I didn’t make it on the show.”
Davidi left Iran at the age of five with her parents to live in Israel. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a businesswoman, who she credits with her business sense.
In 1979, she moved with her family to Los Angeles. She lived in Beverly Hills and attended Beverly Hills High School. At that point, she knew food was a passion, through learning to cook from her grandmother, but didn’t realize it would become a career.
Before going on to become a Middle Eastern cultural icon in the culinary world, Davidi spent 12 years as a professional acupuncturist and ran a very successful practice and treated many celebrities, becoming an ‘acupuncturist of the stars’. The ancient medicine even has a connection to her passion for cooking.
“I just love the art of healing, using my hands, using energy and spirituality,” Davidi expressed. “At the same time, it has to do with food and what you put in your body that helps. I’ve always had a connection with eating a certain way to feel good.”
Her journey into the world of food started in 2002 as the then recently divorced Davidi took a trip to the Sunshine State, where she says discovered Pizza Rustica in Miami.
“Like every single woman should, I took a trip to South Beach. During the trip, I fell in love with Pizza Rustica and their concept; it’s like 31 flavors of ice cream, but with pizza toppings and it tasted incredible. L.A. had nothing like this. I wanted to bring this back to Los Angeles.”
Davidi approached owner PinoPiroso, who didn’t take her seriously at first.
“He told me: You’re a pretty young girl, run along,” she said laughing.
But being her ever-persistent self, she made multiple trips to Miami, eventually agreeing to take on franchising rights to Pizza Rustica in Beverly Hills and the West Coast.
Davidi opened her first Pizza Rustica location on Beverly Drive close to the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) office. Naturally, this location, which she rented from Georges Marciano of the Guess family, became packed with celebrities and agents. The success of the first franchise was a huge surprise to Davidi.
“I had no idea that location would be like that. “(Marciano) gave us the opportunity to kill it. People would wait in line for 20 minutes for a slice of pizza. We got to be known real fast as the place to go in Hollywood for pizza.”
Paris Hilton became a regular at Pizza Rustica and was a huge fan of the Nutella pizza. Hilton even had Pizza Rustica on her mind after completing her brief jail sentence in 2007.
“The first thing Paris wanted after being released was a slice of sausage pizza from Pizza Rustica. That was a big deal for us.”
Davidi sold pizza Rustica, which now has 16 locations, in 2008. With that, Davidi was ready to take on another venture.
“I was really busy at the time with other things. I was thinking maybe I wanted to do real estate. Because, I just can’t stand still.”
Of course, she undertook the world of real estate, becoming committed full-time in successfully building executive suites. But after having to constantly rush home from a boardroom to the kitchen to cook for her family, Davidi began to pursue another passion.
“I always wanted to be on television,” Davidi said. “There was no Middle Eastern or Iranian people on the Food Network. It never happened before.”
While Davidi searched for a talent agent to take her on, she was told: ‘You didn’t go to culinary school… You have no T.V. credibility… You’re Iranian… You’re Jewish, You’re a woman…’
“When you tell me stuff like that and build that up against me, I guarantee you it will just make me try harder,” Davidi said.
Eventually, Davidi auditioned for Next Food Network Star season seven. She was asked to cook a dish on the spot that represents who she is as a person. Davidi prepared a roasted chicken seasoned with cumin and turmeric, along with dried fruit, which the judges fell in love with. But she did much more than blow away their taste buds.
“It wasn’t as much my cooking as it was my talking and personality,” Davidi said. “I sold it. At one point they asked the contestants to name the parts on an image of a cow. I had no idea and made a joke out of it. But I did with charisma, kept eye contact and didn’t fumble.”
After being officially cast for Next Food Network Star, producers came to her home and went through her wardrobe.
“They picked out a lot of my luxurious items to wear, like Prada shoes, expensive watches and wanted me to wear lots of jewelry,” Davidi said. “ I realized by the fourth day of filming that they were building me as a “Kardashian” stereotype image for the Food Network, but I played along. It made for good television.”
Along with the Kardashian-like image, crafty editing, and Hollywood magic, Davidi was portrayed as the villain of the show.
“At first, it was hard to accept, because that’s not who I am,” Davidi said. “I can be a tough business woman, but I have great friends and friendships in the business.”
Despite the negative persona she had on the show, it ended up being the springboard into the world of television she desired.
“It worked out for me,” Davidi said. “I have done so much after that. People remembered me.”
Davidi has gone on to appear on several television shows including Chopped All-Stars, Cut Throat Kitchen, Kitchen Inferno, Bar Rescue, Man vs. Child and Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Davidi considers it an absolute honor to be a representative of the Iranian culture on the Food Network.
“It’s beyond any honor to be the first and only Iranian on the Food Network,” Davidi said. “My goal is to be able to represent without insulting anyone, especially our culture and food. They can make me look however they want, but if they are disrespectful to the food, we will have a problem.”
She also went on to become the Executive Chef of Pump Restaurant, of Vanderpump Rules fame. Davidi helped shape the menu and took the helm in the Pump kitchen for six months until the rest of the staff was able to handle everything.
“I was thrilled when Lisa Vanderpump asked that we work together on curating the menu,” David said.
Davidi praises LisaVanderpump and her husband Ken Todd for their amazing work ethic.
“These two people are the two of the hardest working individuals I know,” Davidi said. “Lisa leads by example and would not ask you to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Ken is phenomenal, an amazing person, the brains of the operation and Lisa is the face.”
Davidi has also made sure to work in subtle undertones of Middle Eastern and Iranian influences into Pump’s menu. Examples include her use of pomegranate seeds in the Ahi Tuna Tartar, turmeric in the ketchup of The Pinky Pump Burger and searing dates in cumin for the Kales on a Date Salad.
“Middle Eastern cuisine is big now,” Davidi said. “People are eating more food from the other side of the Mediterranean. You have hummus, quinoa, tabouli and people are eating more of it.”
Food Network producer Bob Tuschman says Davidi could bridge the gap and be the ambassador between cultures.
There is no better example of that than her home life. Davidihas been happily married for four years along with her two daughters and three stepchildren. Her husband is American and hasan Israeli mother and his children are half French. This caused a little chaos in her preparation for family dinners.
“When I first got together with my wonderful husband, I had to come up with these meals,” Davidi said. “I would cry. It was hard to satisfy the pallets of five kids between the ages of 19 and eight.”
This inspired Davidi to come up with the concept of something she calls a Mood Board, which is a giant serving tray with small amounts of a lot of different items and actually encourages her children to eat lighter and healthier.
“Just eat whatever you are in the mood for, was the idea,” Davidi said. “It turned out great and each day, the kids were coming home excited for dinner.”
There is no sign of letting up for Davidi professionally. Some of her current ventures include being at US Foods for almost three years, in which she consults restaurants in L.A. County that need help with anything from menus, staffing, and marketing. She is also working on several television projects including one called My Ethnic Eats.She is also writing two cookbooks and is in the processes of creating a product line of Mediterranean-spiced beef jerky.
You can also join Davidi on two trips. She has a partnership with the Villa Group in Mexico to create a food and wine festival in April (link: http://cuisineofthesun.villagroupresorts.com/) and a culinary cruise with Oceania Cruises set to sail in July (link: https://www.oceaniacruises.com/).
Davidi shared her favorite Persian Musicians:
“I love old-school Daruish and Gagoosh. I might not understand everything they say with the big words they use, but their songs make me cry. As for the new stuff, I love Benyamin, he’s fresh and he’s young.”
As for her favorite Persian dish:
“Ghormehsabzi. The stinky green stew.I love the sour lemons and the fact you can make it with tofu because the key is not the meat, it’s the vegetables.”
Overall Davidi wants to bring different cultures together with the power of food, especially Middle Eastern food.
“I’m excited I can have a leadership role in Middle Eastern cuisine. I want to demystify the Middle East.”