Lutèce Pastry Chef Isabel Coss shares why joy is her secret ingredient.
No day is the same for Isabel Coss. Recently named Best New Chef in America by Food & Wine, Coss currently splits her time between running the dessert and pastry program at the multiple award-winning Georgetown French bistro Lutèce and putting the finishing touches on her upcoming Mexican restaurant, Pascual (named after San Pascual, patron saint of cooks and kitchens).
On this particular Wednesday morning, Coss unlocks the door to a closed Lutèce, flips the lights on, disassembles the stacked chairs, sets the table and invites me to take a seat. She then makes a quick stop behind the bar to grab two bottles, asks if I would prefer still or sparkling water, pours us both still, then finally takes a seat herself.
While only 10 a.m., this is Coss’ second stop of the day. The pastry chef is currently taking an 8 a.m. morning class to learn Mixtec, an endangered language native to Oaxaca.
“I am inspired by the food of southern Mexico,” Coss says. “I use their ingredients. I admire their cuisine. I enjoy their mezcal. I think it’s respectable to learn the language and know where the food comes from and know where the words of the food come from.”
With this ethos, Coss is able to set herself apart in the culinary world. She excels because she fundamentally cares and is passionate about every aspect of understanding culture and community as it relates to food.
This is a pattern for Coss. Eight months ago, she finished an 11-month apprenticeship at The Creamery at Union Market, where she woke up at 4 a.m. to learn how to perfect making ice cream under owners Daniel and Jessica Burdge’s tutelage without missing a beat from her other work obligations. There are no cut corners for Coss, and she does this with a genuine enthusiasm and excitement to learn rather than a chore.
Her infectious and bubbly personality translates to every one of her dishes, which is matched with masterful technique from years of training at top restaurants like Pujol in Mexico under legendary Chef Enrique Olvera, and Cosme in New York.
Coss plans to make her way to Capitol Hill in the afternoon to see if today is the day they pass inspection so she can begin testing the wood fire oven at Pascual and start cooking. Thirty different corn varieties are stocked and waiting for Coss to incorporate into the upcoming menu that is inspired by her hometown in Mexico City. Sourced from four different states, the corn differs in size and color and she is particularly eager to work with the pink corn because of its depth in flavor that reminds her of cacao.
Before heading over to Pascual, Coss chatted with me about her upcoming restaurant, her latest dessert she is excited about and how joy is her driving factor in all ways of life.
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District Fray: Desserts on your menu are refined but still playful and whimsical, like the 18-month Comté cheese and honey semifreddo that is a play off a cheese plate. What is your approach when creating a dish?
Isabel Coss: First and foremost, I like desserts to be delicious. I like when desserts feel relatable, so when something is visually very different or abstract but the flavors are familiar — or vice versa. You know how it looks, but it tastes completely different than expected. Those are my two approaches. I like highlighting a good pastry or cooking technique. I like to introduce new ingredients to people’s palates by presenting them in a very common way. So it’s just a tart with creme anglaise but the flavor inside is tonka bean and Mexican chocolate.
On Lutèce’s website, your bio says you believe “food is the most humble and vulnerable way to give and find joy and connect as humans…” So what is giving you joy right now?
My team gives me a lot of joy. We went for Korean barbecue yesterday all together. It was the last day of one for our cooks, Pepe, who had been here for six months and he was incredible, so we were all celebrating his work. As soon as someone enters to work at this restaurant, they put a part of themselves here. It’s a stressful job that requires so much. When people put their soul and energy into this place, I’m very grateful to them. My team leads that part of my happiness. I see them grow, I see them learn and I see them become friends with each other and stay friends after leaving. I care about them.
Is there a current dish that brings you joy?
Yes, right now Parisian flan. I’m doing it with puff pastry because I like all the layers. Inside the crust, I make a custard and bake it slowly and low temperature to set it up. So when you cut it, it’s still soft and chewy inside, [but] a little burnt on the top and crunchy because of all the puff pastry on the outside. And it jiggles when you move it. That is bringing me a lot of joy. I’ve been recipe testing for a month and it is going live this upcoming Monday.
Tell me about your upcoming restaurant Pascual with your husband, and the executive chef of Lutèce, Matt Conroy.
I grew up in Mexico City, and it is Mexico City-inspired. I’m also very excited to dive into family recipes from my grandmother [who is from Michoacán]. It’s the food I grew up eating and it’s the food I miss the most. I’m just trying to cook the foods that I crave. Like chilaquiles for brunch and barbacoa on the weekends.
You’ve worked at some of the best fine dining restaurants, covering a range of different cuisines, including Mexican, Danish and French. When did you realize you wanted to open a restaurant that focuses on your hometown and upbringing?
I think every cook’s dream is to open a restaurant in some sort of way. I was living in New York City for 12 years before moving to D.C. And the more you’re in New York, the more you learn, the more you get attached to that life. But then you start realizing that opening a restaurant there is nearly impossible. The competition is really big. So my husband and I decided to slow down a little after the pandemic, and moved to D.C. I think the first day we stepped foot in D.C. we knew we wanted to open a Mexican restaurant here. Lutèce has been so gracious and so nice to us. In the back of our heads, it’s always been [our goal] to open a Mexican restaurant [though]. My husband and I met at a Mexican restaurant in New York working stations next to each other.
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What can guests expect at Pascual? Will you have influence beyond pastry?
I’m going to have a lot of input on the savory part of the food. I think you can expect a lot of flavor. What makes Mexican food special is the acidity, the warmth of the spice, the char and the sauces that take forever to do. I think we’re going to try to serve it as you should eat it. We are not going to try to Americanize it. People deserve to have dishes as they authentically taste. I think we have a new era of guests that are educated, that want to try. We hope people fall in love with the food.
Will you still oversee pastry?
Yes! [laughs]. I’m still going be doing the dessert menu here at Lutèce. I don’t think there will be a dessert program at Pascual as much as we’re going to focus on a bakery. The restaurant has a side window and we are going to have a little bakery called Volcan that will sell traditional Mexican pastries and Mexican drinks.
Why did you choose Capitol Hill as the neighborhood for Pascual?
You can see the Capitol next to Pascual. It means a lot for me to be able to open a place I want to make feel like home next to such an important building. Like I said, I think food is the most humble way to connect as humans. I really think we’re going to connect with many people there from all backgrounds. I think it’s a place where many good ideas are going to be born and I can’t wait.
Holiday dish you are looking forward to this holiday. Pecan pie. Place you go to unwind. Izakaya Seki or Queen’s English. Museum that inspires you. Hirshhorn Museum. Favorite flavor of ice cream. Lemon or lime. Night owl or early bird. Night owl. Coffee or tea. Tea, never coffee. Local dream culinary collaboration. I want to work with everyone. I would love to have a rotating guest chef at Pascual where I can invite every chef in D.C. and have them create a taco of their culture and what they like to do. The tortilla would just be a vehicle to show what they love.
Pascual is set to open at the end of this December or the beginning of 2024.
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