As a 17-year-old high school senior in Seoul, the acclaimed pastry chef Eunji Lee dreamt of cakes and culinary school but had a hard time convincing her parents that it was a viable career path. Lee recalls drawing up a detailed, 10-year pastry career plan in a last-ditch effort to change their minds. It started with studying French or Japanese and ended with a promise. “I wrote, ‘In 10 years, I will be a great pastry chef,’” Lee says. “I put it on my wall in my room.” After her parents saw the writing on her wall, they changed their minds.
This plan took her on an extraordinary, Michelin-starred journey through the top French and New York pastry programs, including eight years at Southeast Asian-leaning Ze Kitchen Galerie and Alain Ducasse’s Le Meurice in Paris, and a celebrated five-year run at modern Korean knockout Jungsik in New York, where she created the famed banana dessert that became a calling card of the restaurant. Years later, Lee is checking off one more goal on that career plan: She is debuting her own pastry shop Lysée on June 28 at 44 East 21 Street, between Park Avenue South and Broadway, in Flatiron.
Pronounced “lee-zay,” — a play on the French word for museum and Lee’s surname — the upscale pastry “boutique,” as she calls it, is a synthesis of Lee’s culinary heritage. Inside the shop, she blends her native Korean roots with exacting French training and a fascination with American food culture. “In Paris, I learned a lot about classical techniques and traditional French pastries, but the whole time I was drawing, imagining new desserts with flavors I grew up with,” Lee says, sharing pages and pages of colorful sketches she drew on her iPhone.
At Jungsik, Lee honed her playful yet highly technical style, developing her well-known baby banana dessert — a wildly ambitious banana-on-banana topped with banana creation — along with other courses that showcased her nuanced take on incorporating Korean flavors such as yuja (known as yuzu in Japan) and buckwheat into Western desserts. Lysée continues that philosophy of refinement and whimsy, only on a much larger scale. “Jungsik really encouraged me to bring these flavors in, and the customers were very supportive,” Lee says. “Lysée for me is the next step.”
The 20 or so items on Lysée’s seasonally rotating menu are divided between three themes: patisseries including cakes and tarts, viennoiserie or sweet breads, and gateaux de voyage, which means “pastries that travel well” in French. Some are Lee and chef and husband Matthieu Lobry’s take on classic French pastries, like Lysée’s airy take on kouign amann — the result of over five hundred trials. Other items are wholly original creations, like the fiendishly intricate but simply titled “Corn” confection. Lee fills corn-infused mousse around thin layers of caramel, corn cremeux, and corn kernel biscuit, all resting on top of a blonde chocolate corn sable base. The dessert is finished with a delicately piped shell of grilled corn cream resembling a life-like ear of corn. All in, the dessert takes three days to make. It’s Lysée’s homage to the Jungsik baby banana hit, Lee says.
Like the faux corn, every item on the menu is personal for Lee. “I created the menu from what I want to eat every day,” Lee says. “These pastries represent who I am, Korean, with French experience, and at the same time, a New Yorker.”
She points to the namesake “Lysée” mousse cake as an example of this philosophy. The complex dessert, shaped like Lysée’s wooden tile logo, is built on a foundation of toasted Korean brown rice mousse. The flower-shaped treat takes multiple days to make and is assembled from seven components, including toasted cornmeal hidden in the Southern-inspired pecan sable crumble base and a sliver of gold leaf jelly painted over one of the cake’s six petals in a nod to Lysée’s wooden tile logo.
Lee’s palpable sense of play is also conveyed through more whimsical items on the menu. The most lighthearted is the “Very Important Chocolate Cake,” with chocolate mousse, dark chocolate sponge cake, and requisite Lysée twist, a caramel seasoned with a subtle Nepalese black pepper called Timut. “I love steakhouses,” Lee says. “And no matter how full I am, I always have room for chocolate cake.”
The boutique space itself — sparse, light, and refined — reflects a similar attention to detail and cultural influences that Lee brings to Lysée’s menu. Divided into two levels, the ground floor is designed to be a dine-in cafe with a demonstration table and a private dining nook. Upstairs, the second floor houses Lee’s dessert “gallery,” where her edible art is on full display and customers check out. Throughout the spaces, there are touches from home, like a Korean welcome bell affixed near the window of the cafe, and an exposed, floor-to-ceiling vintage wooden beam that Lee sourced from an old house in the Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul.
With its marriage of Western technique and Korean food traditions, Lysée joins Patisserie Fouet and Lady Wong in the vanguard of innovative, women-led pastry establishments reimagining classic pastries and dessert forms through the lens of their immigrant cultures. “When people come here, I want them to taste and feel something different,” Lee says. “Something special.”
Lysée is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
View Lysée’s menu below:
John Tsung is a cultural writer and multidisciplinary artist whose work explores immigrant narratives and the Asian American experience, among other themes. You can find his work here.