Chef Jessica Préalpato on How to Make the Perfect Pastry

"I was born into pastry because my mother and my father have a bakery in the south of France. I ate a lot of cake," Jessica Préalpato tells Observer.

Jessica Préalpato. Vincent Lappartient

Being a pastry chef in the age of Instagram fame isn’t easy, but Jessica Préalpato is far more interested in how something tastes than how it looks on social media. Préalpato started her career at the Plaza Athénée in 2015 alongside chef Alain Ducasse, and became the first woman to be named the world’s best pastry chef by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019. The following year, she was named pastry chef of the year by Gault & Millau. Since leaving the Plaza Athénée in Paris, Préalpato has spent two years at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in London and is now chef pâtissière at the Hôtel San Régis in Paris. It’s there that she’s taken her next creative step by designing an innovative, three-course experience called “Le Goûter du San Régis,” which is essentially a dessert-led tasting menu served during afternoon teatime. 

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I didn’t want to work in a big hotel like the Plaza Athénée again,” Préalpato tells Observer. “I wanted to work in a little hotel. When I met [owners] Sarah and Zeina [Georges], we were really in sync. They wanted to develop something new. They’re open-minded. They wanted a ‘goûter,’ but like a family goûter with a lot of pastries to share. I liked that because that’s how we eat in the South of France.”

Jessica Préalpato.

The “goûter,” which means “to taste” in French, is an unusual offering in France, where something like an afternoon tea isn’t typically served. But Préalpato’s immersive tasting, which features a signature tea infusion and, of course, champagne, is a way of showcasing French produce and style in a fashionable new way in the hotel’s intimate Les Confidences restaurant. 

Préalpato spoke with Observer about her career trajectory, how she keeps her pastries from getting too sweet and what’s next.

What first inspired you to become a pastry chef?

At the beginning, I didn’t want to be a pastry chef. My dream was to be a child psychologist, which is still a real passion. But I was born into pastry because my mother and my father have a bakery in the south of France, and so I ate a lot of cake. But it’s a really difficult job. So I said, “I don’t want to be [a chef] because you don’t see your child. When it’s Christmas, you work. When it’s Easter, you work. I don’t want to do that.” But I changed my mind.

In the beginning, I worked not with pastry, but cooked in the kitchen. But I prefer to work with strawberries rather than fish at 7 a.m. I prefer pastry. I like to create something; to mix flavors or have flavors that you don’t know. So for me, it’s not really the pastry, it’s the creative process. 

Le Goûter du San Régis.

How would you describe your “Goûter du San Régis”?

I worked with Alain Ducasse in his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Plaza Athénée. So for me, dessert is something you prepare à la minute. I did an afternoon tea in London for two years and it wasn’t like that—you took all the desserts, and you put them on the trolley, and you gave it to the guests. I wanted to adapt it to a restaurant style with different [courses]. To do the desserts à la minute with the sauces and sorbets, etc. 

When I was in London, I made a pastry bar so my pastry chef could do the desserts in front of the guests. It worked very well in London, so I thought we could do it in France. But in London, I saw that a lot of the guests ate the salty, savory parts, and when the sugary parts arrived, they didn’t want to eat. So I decided to skip the savory parts and do a service with different styles of desserts. It’s not an afternoon tea. 

It was important to me to work with all of my small producers. I have a lot, so at the beginning it was difficult for the hotel because they needed to call all the producers every day. Just for honey, we have four suppliers. It’s really important to work with them because it [means] really beautiful, fresh products. Working with the seasonality is really important. We work only with the products of France. 

How do you ensure your pastries have a balanced sweetness?

When you get fruit that is really in season, you have a lot of sugar inside the produce. When I was in the Plaza Athénée, I developed a process to take the sugar out of the fruit. I do something like a compote, but for a long, long time, and at the end you have all the sugar. You take all of it and dry it out and make a caramel. We use this as the base of the desserts. And then we have seasonal fruits. When I need to add sugar, I like to use honey, because it has a lot of taste in it. I don’t use a lot of sugar because the fruit has a lot already.  

Alain Ducasse came in two months ago, and he tasted the chocolate cake and he said, “It’s too much sugar!” So I took out some sugar, but I couldn’t take out all of it. We need to have a little. He’s a good taster. He’s helped me a lot, because I don’t have time to go to all the restaurants in Paris and to see what they do. He eats in all the restaurants all the time, so he can tell me if it’s something new or if it’s something you can see in all the restaurants.  

At the San Régis.

Is your goal to be creating something new?

No, but I want to be doing something different. I like to take the guests something they don’t know. My strawberry tart, for instance, has a pesto with nettles, and you can taste it. It’s important to show guests new products or something you don’t see all the time. 

What does success mean to you at this point in your career?

That is difficult. In France, you have a lot of people who are big and successful on Instagram and they do a lot, but the pastry is not good. So I don’t always understand what people want. I just want to propose something new, but I don’t have time for [social media]. I have someone who does my communications for me and she told me, “You need to do this, you need to do that.” But I have just two hands and I work in two places and I have a little girl, so it’s difficult for me to think about success [that way]. But I think success comes with the pastry you do. 

Do you have a favorite place to eat pastries in Paris? 

I have a lot! I like a pastry chef named Claire Heitzler. I like her style and her pastries because she’s really a perfectionist. All of the things she does are really beautiful. I like her spirit. She’s a really good chef. She has a shop in Levallois-Perret, just next to Paris. I like Yann Couvreur. He’s a chef a little like me, because he comes from restaurants and then he opened a shop. His desserts are really different. A lot of flavor. He has three or four shops in Paris and one in Japan.

Le Goûter du San Régis.

Do you want to open your own shop? 

Yes, but not in Paris. I don’t like the spirit. I’m tired of the pressure in Paris; of “you need to do this, you need to do that.” I don’t want that. I’m looking in a little town near Lille or Bordeaux, or somewhere like that. But not in Paris. Here you work, and you have a pastry shop and you work in the pastry shop. It’s difficult to have something new in Paris. I think it’s like that in London, too. And the [pastry shops here] do all the same things. You have a lemon tart, you have a strawberry tart. Do something different! I’m looking for a new experience. But I want to keep the San Régis, because I like this hotel and I like the spirit, but I don’t want to open a shop here. 

What is the last great meal you had? 

There is a restaurant in Lille, in the north of France, called Rozo. They do a starter with mushrooms, watercress and caviar lemon, and it’s crazy. Every time I go I eat it. I could eat it every day. I think it’s their signature dish.

Chef Jessica Préalpato on How to Make the Perfect Pastry