Ashleigh Pearson had never worked in a restaurant kitchen before she walked into Marcel’s and asked for a summer job as a pastry chef at the fine-dining stalwart.
“I just got an A in organic chemistry so I’m pretty sure I can make anything if you give me a recipe,” Pearson, then a biology student at University Maryland Baltimore County, remembers thinking. “I got my butt kicked. It was an opportunity and a lesson that this [career] was going to be a long haul—nothing is going to happen overnight.”
Twelve years later—five of which Pearson climbed the ranks at Marcel’s and in chef Robert Wiedmaier’s hospitality group—she’s ready to open her own brick-and-mortar business. Petite Soeur, an elegant chocolate and confectionary shop, will debut in Georgetown on Tuesday, October 26. At the Wisconsin Avenue boutique, Pearson will showcase a mix of classic and contemporary sweets, which she describes as “French sensibility with a modern twist”—everything from buttery sablé cookies to pastries and chocolate bars alongside her gorgeous hand-painted bonbons.
“I was grateful to start in Marcel’s in a classic kitchen, that ‘oui chef’ foundation,” says Pearson, now 32. “There’s something about me that loves the spirit of tradition. I’m able to think outside of that box, but I’m grateful to have been in it.”
The same determination that landed Pearson in Marcel’s kitchen has shaped the rising star’s career and business model for Petite Soeur (which means “little sister” in French, a nod to Pearson’s nickname among her three brothers). She spent two years earning a diploma from the prestigious Cordon Bleu in Paris after winning a scholarship to study abroad from the DC chapter of Les Dames Escoffier. Once back in the states, she jumped from Marcel’s to Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star Manhattan restaurant, Per Se. Pearson was hired to make specialty French cakes for the tasting room, but within a few months, Keller promoted her to head chocolatier—even though she’d never mastered chocolate-making.
“Everyone assumes as a pastry chef you can do all the things,” says Pearson. “But when Thomas Keller tells you you’ll be the head chocolatier, it’s one of those ‘oui chef’ moments.
Pearson’s time to shine came at the very end of Per Se’s multi-course experience, when her box of eight bonbons would land on the white-clothed tables—or for VIPs and celebrating diners, a bonus tray of mignardise (little sweets). It was here she learned to make a big flavor impression with a little bite. It also planted the seed for Petite Soeur, where chocolate comes first. She launched the company in 2019 and sold sweets online and in pop-ups at Glen’s Garden Market (now Dawson’s).
“I want chocolate service to be more accessible, and take hand-painted bonbons out of the Michelin fine-dining walls,” says Pearson. At Petite Soeur, Pearson plans to offer beautiful boxes of hand-painted bonbons in flavors like hazelnut, passionfruit, creamy caramel, and her favorite, s’mores, where a house-made graham cracker sablé cookie is stacked with a fresh vanilla marshmallow, salted chocolate ganache, and covered in dark chocolate. Elaborate gift boxes of 16 bonbons can run upwards of $50. But she’ll also offer small, less expensive luxuries: four-piece chocolate sets for $15, gold-flecked salted caramel almond bars at $12, and individual bonbons for $3.75 that diners can eat on the spot or gift in a pretty little box.
“For me, one of the most important things is the idea of treating yourself. I struggle with using the word ‘accessibility’ because this is not a cheap product,” says Pearson. “When I was living in France I was a broke student. I was struggling hard. I would save up Euros to treat myself at a high-end bakery where I could get one macaron. I want to allow people to buy one piece of chocolate—if that allows that them to have a nice day out in Georgetown and transport them, that’s important.”
Petite Soeur, 1332 Wisconsin Ave., NW
Correction: The article was originally published crediting photography to Petite Soeur. Two photographs are by For Better Days Photography.