Culinary Careers: Jessica Perkiss, Pastry Sous Chef at Gramercy Tavern

My first week working at ICE, I was invited to join other new staff members for dinner at Gramercy Tavern. Never having been in this legendary New York restaurant, I was thrilled by the attention to detail and the quality of the dishes I tasted—not least of all, by the dessert. Needless to say, I was impressed to learn that an ICE graduate, Jessica Perkiss was one of the pastry sous chefs at the restaurant, and I'm thrilled to share her story.   

Jessica, hard at work at Gramercy Tavern
Jessica, hard at work at Gramercy Tavern

What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE?  

Before I enrolled at ICE, I received my Bachelor’s Degree from Boston University in Communication and worked in fundraising and development for a non-profit organization in Boston. It took me about a year to realize that a desk job wasn't for me.   I quit the non-profit and worked a few jobs for a while. I met a woman who made dessert sauces – hot fudge, salted caramel, etc. – and ended up working for her for a summer, selling her sauces at farmers’ markets and doing tastings in specialty food stores.

At one of the markets, I met the Pastry Chef of Sonsie, who is also an ICE alum. We chatted every time we would see each other at the market, and I picked her brain about working in a kitchen. Her job seemed fun, challenging and exciting. She inspired me to start baking and experimenting at home. After that summer, I knew that I wanted to do something in the food industry. I moved to Philadelphia, worked the counter at a bakery, and enrolled in some cooking classes at a local restaurant school. Less than a year later, I decided to jump in — to go to culinary school in New York and give this new career a real shot.  

What was it specifically that attracted you to pastry?  

Pastry is this wonderful conglomeration of creativity and organization. There’s a specific type of person who makes a good pastry chef. I love working with my hands and making people happy. And really, who can frown when faced with a cookie or some ice cream? 

Jessica, preparing chocolates at Gramercy Tavern
Hand-crafting chocolates at Gramercy Tavern

Where was your externship? And where did you work between graduation and now?  

I did my externship at Park Avenue (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) under Chef Richard Leach. It was my first experience working in a real kitchen. I then accepted a position as a pastry cook on the opening team at Maialino, where I met Gramercy Tavern’s pastry chef Nancy Olson. I ended up at Gramercy a year later, worked as a pastry cook for a year and a half and have been the pastry sous chef for a little over a year.  

Briefly describe a day in your (working) life.  

I don’t really have typical days anymore. I get to the restaurant around 7 AM and check in with the team. If my cooks have a lot to do, sometimes I’ll give them a hand. I usually do some chocolate work for petits fours and anything extra that pops up. I manage quality control, payroll and ordering for the pastry kitchen. (I share those responsibilities with the other pastry sous chef). I spend a little bit of time with the cook working lunch service. Once 2 PM hits, the kitchen can get pretty crowded. I try to find a project that doesn’t take up a lot of space. I also head up the cheese program with another sous chef, so a few times a week I portion cheese, have cheese tastings or update menus and information to educate the staff. 

Hard at work in Gramercy Tavern's pastry kitchen
Unmolding chocolates in Gramercy Tavern's pastry kitchen

What might people be surprised to learn about your job?

It’s a lot more about organizing a team and delegating responsibility than cooking at this point. Also, my ability to be thinking of 17 different things at once has improved ten-fold.  

When you were a student, did you ever think you’d be doing what you’re doing now?  

Never. When I was in culinary school, I thought I’d be working at a bakery and finalizing a business plan to open my own shop. I never imagined myself working in a restaurant. But when you find a teacher and mentor as brilliant and gracious as Nancy Olson, you just kind of go with it. She has taught me (and probably 100 other cooks) how to be a better cook, manager and overall human being.  

Where would you like to be in five years?  

In five years, I would love to own a little shop or be on my way to owning my own place. I want something small and manageable. I’ve seen what a career in the restaurant industry in New York can do to your life and your body.

I’d really like to find myself in a position where I can have a family and still be able to maintain a career. In ten years, I’d like to imagine that I’ll wake up, take my kids to school, walk to my shop in the late morning, do some paperwork, help some guests, meet with my baker and store manager, go to a yoga class, pick up my kids from school, make dinner and spend time with my family. That’s the dream.  

Want to know more about pastry at Gramercy Tavern? Join Jessica's boss, Chef Nancy Olson at ICE on Wednesday, June 5th, as she presents the noteworthy desserts of this legendary restaurant.

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