Costa Rican Ximena Pastor came to Barcelona with one love – cooking – and one idol – chef Albert Adrià. Working for him at Tickets only made her hungrier though. Her first solo project, Barcelona pastry school and shop L’Atelier, is one of the most outstanding in the city, and one that she built with true grit…and a newborn baby.
From Engineering to Croissants
Live in Barcelona long enough and you realize that life here is not about NIEs; it’s about pastries. To the newcomer, Barcelona is awash with bakeries. To the Barcelona pro though, there is only one pastry place in town: Hofmann. And one go-to pastry, the Hofmann mascarpone croissant – an iced horn of crispy flakiness offset by a cool dollop of silky mascarpone. The latest place to buy, devour, and even learn how to make Hofmann’s famous buttery-fingered treats is L’Atelier.
L’Atelier is not just any old bakery. The design-forward space, built to look as crisp as that croissant, tells you something different is cooking here. The names behind it are also like a cult fashion collaboration of the Barcelona cooking world – a Hofmann pastry master who’s won the award for creating the best croissant in Spain, plus a young female chef with a soft-spot for Michelin-starred kitchens. Combine the two and you get a delicious double-whammy: a pastry school staffed by Hofmann alumni, with courses for enthusiastic home-cooks and professional chefs, plus the ultimate baked-goods shop.
Alongside those irresistible croissants (please commit fully; you won’t want to share these), there are cakes so elegantly constructed that you’ll double-take if they actually are cakes – mousses shaped like lemon halves with pips and the sheen of just-cut fruit flesh; a cactus in a plant pot made of paper-fine chocolate; hunks of sponge topped with thick chocolate slabs. This is not mere shallow beauty though. The flavors and gooeyness are next-level, which isn’t a bad result for Ximena Pastor, co-owner of L’Atelier, who originally studied environmental engineering.
Luckily for the world, Ximena switched her career to cooking. In 2011, she left Costa Rica for Barcelona with a plan to study advanced culinary techniques and then head back home. But as with life’s best-laid plans, the opposite happened. “I studied classic and modern cuisine, then I was ready to go back to Costa Rica when my husband, Alex, said, ‘No, you should study pastry’,” the 32-year-old describes. “I replied, ‘Pastry? What pastry?!’ Alex loves to eat, so I suspected his interest was a personal one, but he explained that pastry was very technical, very difficult, and he thought I should try it.” Up for the challenge, Ximena enrolled at Hofmann school, where she fell in love with the craft because, “it really touched my mathematical, formulaic side.” It was also at the school where she serendipitously met Eric Ortuño, the acclaimed pastry master who would go on to be her partner in launching L’Atelier.
After completing her pastry training, Ximena started working at Hofmann’s restaurant and became enthralled by Catalunya’s food scene. “I met Mey Hofmann, founder of the Hofmann cooking school, and I was so inspired by her elegance. There were all these amazing women: Carme Ruscalleda at Moments, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, Fina Puigdevall at Les Cols d’Olot near Girona, which also has two stars. Of course, Albert Adrià, my idol. I said to myself, I have to work in these places.” So, she persisted. Over a chance dinner with an industry friend in Pakta, another restaurant overseen by Albert Adrià’s elBarri group, Ximena was tipped off that David Gil, the chief of creative pastry at Tickets, was looking for someone. “My friend set up a meeting with David, I got the job, and I completely fell in love with the place,” she smiles.
…you have to learn when to say that you don’t know how to do something.
Given that Tickets is the epitome of Barcelona’s restaurant scene –iconic, glittering with accolades, and with the sector’s most famous name at the helm – it’s unsurprising that Ximena enthusiastically describes working with the brains that ran elBulli, five-time winner of the world’s best restaurant, as “Amazing. I was obsessed: I’ve watched all the documentaries about the Adriàs, I have all of their books. So, working there, what’s that expression? Fake it until you make it,” she laughs. “Luckily, when I’m put on the spot, I forget my anxieties and just concentrate on the job. But you have to learn when to say that you don’t know how to do something. Albert Adrià is a genius and he’s intense – he has a lot of pressure himself, so he expects the best from you.”
Ximena wasn’t about to slow down with one Adrià-run restaurant under her chef’s hat. In 2016, whispers circulated around the Tickets kitchen that something new was coming. “It was very secretive. There were tests in this crazy kitchen that looked like a lab. Only the bosses knew what was going on and I was very intrigued.” The project was to become Enigma – the 40 course tasting extravaganza served in a space guarded by a secret security coded entryway and months long waitlist. After accosting lead chef, Oliver Peña, in a store cupboard and swearing her allegiance to the project, Ximena was in. “I had to push myself to reach an even higher level because Oliver is very organised and very strict. It was a lot of pressure: Albert’s friends were there all the time, Ferran (Adrià) was there, the newspapers were there, and we were also filming a documentary.” After eight months in this “super-crazy, flawless, beautiful place,” Ximena was called back to Tickets to cover a vacant section-head position – and it’s during this time that she started dreaming about starting her own project.
I found Eric there and quietly said, look, I know you want to do something. I want to do something. Let’s talk.
But she wanted a partner to do it with. One day, David Gil – her pastry boss at Tickets – told her that Eric Ortuño from Hofmann also had a dream to do something solo. “A lightbulb came on and I had to speak to him,” she explains. “He’d been my teacher at Hofmann and my boss – a wonderful pastry chef who people respected like a father.” Getting him onboard required another clandestine approach to networking: David told Ximena to gate-crash a party that he knew Eric was attending. “I found Eric there and quietly said, look, I know you want to do something. I want to do something. Let’s talk.” From there, they both shared a dream of starting a school and a pastry shop: Eric as the pastry school teacher and Ximena focusing on business and the interiors.
In the year it took to get L’Atelier up and running, from venue-hunting to securing Madrid-based design team Ideo Arquitectura, Ximena suddenly found herself part of a team of three – not two. “While all these things were happening, I was also looking to have a family,” she admits. “I didn’t tell anybody until I started to show, because I had an experience before that didn’t go well, but I was able to successfully become pregnant. So, from December 2018, I was director of the construction site, super-pregnant, and here every day, pushing people.”
The cooking school opened in April 2019, followed by the pastry shop in May. “I stopped working two days before I had my baby, Stella, on 24 May,” Ximena laughs. “I call her my silent partner, because she came to work with me every day, and she still comes to work with me sometimes. If I have a meeting with a purveyor and I need to push them, I sit Stella on my lap and I’m like, ‘Listen, you sent me something that I said we didn’t want and now you’re trying to charge me’. The baby’s face is so serious that the purveyor looks at me and says, ‘Ximena, I can’t say no to you when I see the baby’.”
For Ximena, it’s so important not to try to hide motherhood – especially when living abroad. “All of mine and my husband’s family live abroad. We don’t have relatives to help us raise a family, so we have to divide ourselves the best we can,” she shares.
There’s so much still to normalise about parenthood: that falling pregnant isn’t easy, that post-pregnancy it’s not like it never happened, and that as a working parent sometimes the baby will come with us, sometimes family comes first, sometimes we need help.
This idea of helping people is a core value of L’Atelier – beyond simply helping us satisfy a croissant craving. “My real dream with L’Atelier is to see the people who study here be successful,” Ximena concludes, thinking about the future. “When I see them take their dreams forward, and do cool projects, and open cool things, that’s when I’m really satisfied.” And can you think of a better role model to have than her?
Ximena’s Quick-fire Barcelona Guide
Where’s the best place to buy baking ingredients?
Parami for top-quality ingredients in small quantities. Carrer de la Diputació, 202
Jarpega for moulds and rings. Carrer de Pallars, 74
Casa Gay to buy machines and trinkets. Carrer de Roger de Llúria, 12
Imagine it’s your last night in Barcelona. Where do you eat?
Tickets. No matter if I worked there, it’s still my favourite restaurant in the city.
Where do you find peace in the city?
What’s the most underrated tourist attraction?
Parc del Fòrum. A lot of people don’t move beyond Barceloneta, but Parc del Fòrum is so impressive, so big, it’s amazing to skate and ride a bicycle there.
What part of Catalan life are you still getting used to?
The work pace. It’s very hectic for three months of the year, then the rest is very chilled. Knowing how to pace yourself in the quiet months can be tough.
And your favorite thing about Barcelona?
The people. They are very particular, very bohemian, very respectful, very smart.