The sun is setting in Paris for the evening. A door opens at a small pastry shop, and an elderly woman enters with her granddaughter in tow. The little girl peers into a glass bakery display case. She sees rubies, emeralds and gold.
Her grandmother buys what she calls a rocket ship but explains that it is a fruit tart. The little girl beholds it as the most precious thing. That little girl was Ashleigh Pearson, the owner of Petite Soeur, a specialty chocolate and confection shop based in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.
“We are a food family. We love to cook and eat and make sweets, but what I was seeing there in these patisseries and was not anything I had ever seen. I had never seen a tart before, and the fact that it was so shiny and glossy, everything was like a mystery. I was like, ‘What is this thing?’” she recalls as if it was yesterday.
Though she didn’t know it then, the 11-year-old girl who accompanied her grandmother to the City of Lights through their church would later return as an adult, following her dream of becoming a pastry chef and soon chocolatier.
Charting A Path
Following her father’s footsteps in science, the DMV native studied biology during undergrad at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 2010, the desire for a summer job during her last year of college led her into Marcel’s, a fine dining restaurant in Georgetown.
“They looked at me like I was crazy because I had no experience, but I told them I was willing to work and that I was interested in pastry,” Pearson shares. They gave her six months.
After a successful summer, they also gave her an ultimatum. “I just loved it,” she says about her initial time there. “They gave me an ultimatum and said it’s full-time or nothing and I decided to just go all in.”
She would later work in all 13 locations and become the head pastry chef within five years.
“I wasn’t sure I could be a chef. I didn’t think it was an option. You don’t see a lot of Black women chefs or even chocolatiers,” she says, initially studying to go into medicine like her dad.
But as fate would have it, science would still be a part of her future, just not in the form she studied.
Respect the Ratio
Making chocolate is a delicate balance of science and art. Pearson’s family shared a curiosity and lifelong learning of science.
“I love biology and science [overall], and I thought I would be working in the science or medical industry, but I think that’s why I like chocolate—it’s so precise and there is some opportunity to improvise but when it comes to baking, pastry and chocolate it is all ratios,” she says.
She shares that her first experiment with pastry was a batch of macaroons that was a complete disaster. This only furthered Pearson’s desire to master the French pastry technique. She considered culinary school but was uncertain, and the hefty price of tuition made the prospect dim.
“I had written off going to Le Cordon Bleu. I just knew I couldn’t afford it, but a woman from [Les Dames Escoffier] had taken notice and mentioned how much she enjoyed my desserts,” Pearson says.
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The first time she applied for a scholarship with the organization, her application went unnoticed. She applied again and was awarded a scholarship, which led to the opportunity she’d dreamt of.
Pearson studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris with the support from the $10,000 scholarship. To make up the rest of her tuition costs, she continued to work at Marcel’s and took on a second job.
The Big Return
It was 2015, and the little girl who stood in the patisserie with her grandmother as a child had now returned.
For six months, she measured, sifted and baked with precision. She was one of the only students in her cohort who attended school full-time and worked. This meant early mornings at a pastry shop and late nights in the classroom, but Pearson was committed.
“In a French kitchen, you learn very quickly,” she admits.
Even with the slight language barrier, the sexism she faced and doubt from those around her, Pearson held onto her dream. Although she had a translator in her classes, she still had to immerse herself in the language while working.
The budding pastry chef decided she couldn’t fail. She rose to the top of her class, earning the nickname “Washington” from her professors and peers, a nod toward her hometown.
“People sometimes romanticized the fact that I went to Paris and attended Le Cordon Bleu, but there were so many times I called my mother wanting to just quit,” she shares.
She was also among the first group of students the school would hire as teachers’ assistants. Being honest once again, she calls it a “very challenging experience.” She adds, “You’re adding another language on top of learning school. It’s the language, and it was such culture shock because they are such a traditional school and even in the parts of Paris I was living in before I ended up moving was very traditional.”
Determined again, Pearson graduated first in her class. A testament to hard work and a commitment to herself, knowing the best is yet to come.
Fresh from spending two years in Paris, Pearson shortly returned to her old stomping ground at Marcel’s before an opportunity she couldn’t pass by presented itself.
Having outgrown the nest at Marcel’s and wanting to put her skills to work with a new challenge, she applied for opportunities at other restaurants. She accepted an offer with Per Se, a restaurant in New York by Thomas Keller, only this time she was on the cake station. Shortly into her stint, she rose to a more senior position for desserts at the restaurant.
Pearson honed her skills working in pastry, but a key moment led her to become a chocolatier.
“When I started working at Per Se, it was very difficult—it’s a three-star Michelin restaurant. But about six months into the position, they asked me to move onto the chocolate station, which is a very senior position amongst the pastry team,” Pearson says.
Being a pastry chef was her sweet spot but working with chocolate took her out of her comfort zone. But it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.
“It took a lot of studying and training. When I found out that I could hand paint all the chocolates, it was a done deal. I knew I didn’t want to go back to pastry,” she recalls.
Chocolate became the perfect vessel to tell a story in just one bite for Pearson. Through experimenting, she created a black walnut bonbon with maple jam and crystalized walnut in honor of her grandfather’s favorite dessert.
“It’s a mix of technical skill and that feeling of the cake he enjoyed,” she says. Each bonbon has its own opportunity to connect with customers through flavor notes and layering. The same bite and experience you’d get on a whole plate.
After two years at Per Se and a desire to move on and eventually start a business of her own, she made a quick career stop in California to stage at Thomas Kelly’s other highly acclaimed restaurant, French Laundry. There she decided to add information about produce to her knowledge bank by working on the restaurant’s farm.
From there, the next stop was back home “to start the dream.”
Having learned about pastry and chocolate from the best and with a mission to bring her talents back to her community in D.C., she went out on her own and launched a pop-up for her new specialty chocolate and confections business she called Petite Soeur at Glen’s Garden Market (now Dawson’s) nestled between the Adams Morgan and Dupont neighborhoods in 2019. The partnership with Glen’s Garden Market was a great opportunity as it helps bring customers to small businesses. And if it’s one thing D.C. loves is small businesses and shopping locally.
The pop-up venture was an opportunity to test what would evolve into the core offerings for Petite Soeur. Keeping her French technique background with American tradition is what you’ll find both online and at the location.
Translating to little sister in English, when asked about the business name, she laughs as she explains it is about embracing a sibling reference of affection that she can’t seem to get away from.
“It used to really frustrate me that my brothers would always refer to me as their little sister and even into our adult years, I used to really get upset over it. So I decided to just embrace it,” says the 32-year-old entrepreneur. She says the French name Petite Soeur is the perspective she is bringing to the business, inspired by her family as well as her French schooling.
The Big Move
Despite launching the pop-up with an unexpected pandemic looming in 2020, Petite Soeur continued to thrive.
“The response to the product was so positive, and it gave me what I felt was a really safe place to say, ‘Oh and today we have this new flavor or we’re going to offer boxes in four, nine and 16 pieces, what do you think about those sizes?’ It was such a controlled and safe place to try things get feedback,” she says.
The pop-up was just part of Pearson’s original plan to market Petite Soeur as a business-to-business operation in the long run versus direct to consumer. However, the pandemic changed her business model. With restaurants and offices closed, she had to rethink how she would get the product to anybody, let alone these businesses.
Not shipping at the time, like many businesses having to pivot in 2020, Pearson learned how to do so fast. In addition to carefully hand-crafted chocolates, she added a surprising addition, Sable cookies. “I am sitting at home myself during the pandemic, and I am eating butter cookies like crazy. That was my go-to. And then I decided like, ‘Why don’t I sell these cookies that I am making?’ So I set up a Shopify site and started shipping butter Sable cookies, and to this day I would say the sampler box that we sell is our most popular SKU on our website.”
First the cookies, and then shipping of the chocolates followed next, which needed a little more time to figure out. Meanwhile, Petite Soeur was still operating inside Glen’s Market, and opportunities continued to come Pearson's way through both customer and commissioned requests. However, limited by space, Pearson faced another decision.
“People wanted things and there wasn’t enough space to create it. So then I said to myself, ‘Wow, there’s money to be made that we can’t make because we have a space constraint.’”
This reality and some number crunching to project potential additional revenue were the impetus for starting the latest chapter of the growing D.C. business.
Petite Soeur's Full Circle Moment
In late summer of last year, Pearson secured a brick-and-mortar location that now houses Petite Soeur. The previous business owner who occupied the space decided to relocate from the area and emailed the owner of Glen’s Market, who Pearson worked closely with. The connection to the space was immediate.
With a new location to prepare for opening, customer demand for Petite Soeur continued. Being absent from the market to focus on the new location gave Pearson the push to finish construction and open as soon as possible.
The soft opening at 1332 Wisconsin Ave NW took place last October just in time for the holiday season.
“It’s been a very exciting journey, and I’m truly looking forward to sharing how Petite Soeur is making a mark in the chocolate world,” Pearson shares about the new location that sells glossy bonbons and French butter cookies.
The white brick location opened its doors to customers wanting the petite, hand-painted bonbons in flavors like butter caramel, s’mores, passion fruit. Guests can customize their own box of flavors by selecting four, nine or 16 pieces or grab a pre-wrapped option if they’re in need of a last-minute gift. Fudge and nougat confections will be available in bit-size morsels.
“My tradition and my story always come first, and in order to tell my story and tell it well, there needs to be technique involved,” she says. For example, the food memory of opening her lunchbox to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is mimicked in the almond butter and jelly bonbon.
Pearson also hopes to surprise guests on the weekends with fresh brioche, cinnamon rolls, and other delicious treats you’d find in a patisserie.
“To think that fruit tart with all its colors and shininess was so foreign to me. The curiosity of that moment stuck with me and pushed my career. It’s definitely a full-circle moment.”