How a DC woman went from aspiring film director to award-winning pastry chef

Georgetown pastry chef Isabel Coss wasn’t expecting to learn of national recognition when Food & Wine recently called her and said they wanted to ask her about Jello.

She wanted to ensure she’d be prepared the way she always had for similar conversations: equipped with answers to any potential questions that could arise.

So, the night before the interview, she made sure she knew everything there is to know about Jello — what temperature it comes in and what year it was invented, among other things.

Despite the preparation, the organization wasn’t calling to interview her about gelatin, but instead to tell her she’d been selected as one of Food & Wine’s best new chef’s in America this year, a list that includes 11 people from 10 restaurants across the country.

“I’m so humbled,” Coss said. “I still can’t believe it. It’s an incredible award.”

Nominees are collected from food critics, authors and previous award winners, Coss said, and then the restaurant editor travels around the country blindly tasting the work of various chefs, with little to no advance notice for the restaurant.

Lutèce pastry chef Isabel Coss shows WTOP around the basement under the restaurant, where she is creating her award-winning desserts with her staff. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

Coss, who was born and raised in Mexico City, attributes the success of Lutèce to her staff. She and her husband started the restaurant off Wisconsin Avenue after a stint in New York.

Coss knew she wanted to cook professionally since she was 15, after originally aspiring to be a film director, which required her to learn ballet. After changing career goals, she sought to work with the best pastry chef in New York.

She describes Lutèce as a neo-bistro, which uses the techniques of French classic cuisine.

“We got rid of the tablecloth, we brought good, incredible wine,” Coss said. “And we serve high quality French cuisine in a very casual dining set in a neighborhood space.”

Coss was versatile when the restaurant was just opening, but hoped to eventually focus on dessert. She considers dessert to be about “pleasure over experience.”

“You can do so much to a piece of meat,” Coss said. “You can cook it good, you can cook it bad. But, for strawberry, you can purée it, make it a gel, make it a Panna Cotta, make it ice cream.”

Coss has spent the last year focusing on ice cream, even spending time at The Creamery at Union Market to determine how to approach different recipes or techniques. She also participated in an ice cream course at Penn State.

The pastry staff at Lutèce working on one of the creations Isabel Coss serves at the neo-bistro. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

At Lutèce, meanwhile, Coss said she tries to change the menu often, “either my desserts have a specific technique that I want to explore that is the highlight of that dessert, or a French classic technique and something that is in season right now.”

In Baltimore and Pennsylvania, Coss praised the quality of honey, which led to a customer favorite: honeycomb semifreddo.

Most people, Coss said, don’t order dessert because they’re hungry but because “you want to talk longer with your friends. You want to fill another part in your stomach that goes directly to the heart.”

And now, Coss’s repertoire is expanding. She and her husband are planning to soon open a Mexican restaurant in Capitol Hill that will be in a town house.

In addition to overseeing pastries for the restaurant, she will also oversee some of the menu items for a side window that will serve coffee and other items.

“We’re calling it a home away from home,” Coss said.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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