In May of this year, Dominique Ansel and his Dominique Ansel Bakery (189 Spring Street, 212-219-2773) quietly unleashed the Cronut upon Manhattan, and within three days, the mania had begun. Lines formed down the block in the early morning before the shop opened, celebrities tweeted photos, and knock-offs proliferated so quickly that Ansel had to trademark the name of his treat. And Ansel was propelled to instant food stardom, cementing his place in the annals of culinary history as the creative thinker behind big ideas in the sweet realm.
It’s hard to believe, but Ansel’s bakery has only been on the scene for two years, and before he had the Cronut, he had a fervent local following for his other treats, including his kouign amann, a flaky caramelized pastry with roots in Brittany.
The French-born chef rose through apprenticeships at bakeries in his home country, which he started fresh out of high school. “After school in France, you have to choose whether to go to college or to start working,” he explains. “My parents didn’t have any money — they had four kids — so I decided to start working.”
After a three-year stint in the military in French Guyana — during which he cooked for the troops — he spent all of his savings to move to Paris, where he landed at the famous French bakery Fauchon. That began an eight-year run during which he became a sous chef tasked with opening franchises of the pastry shop around the world.
In 2006, Daniel Boulud asked him to come aboard as the pastry sous at Daniel here in New York. “I wasn’t a pastry chef in the restaurant — I mostly worked in the bakery,” Ansel recalls. “I needed a lot of different skills and knowledge. It was a big change for me.” In the six years Ansel spent at Daniel, the restaurant racked up a number of accolades — and the pastry chef was nominated for a Beard. The natural next step from there, he says, was his own place, and he’d always wanted a bakery. Two years ago, he made his dream reality, and now, his tiny Soho jewel is an international destination.
In this interview, Ansel weighs in on greatest hits, lessons learned from Daniel, and where the idea for the Cronut came from.
What was the draw to pastry for you?
I was really passionate about cooking. I still am. It’s about making good food — I like pleasing people. Cooking is a lot of things: It’s working with seasonal ingredients, making sure the fruit is ripe, and achieving balance. Psatry is a lot more scientific. You’re making everything from scratch, and you’re often starting with just flour and water. You have a lot more opportunity to be artistic — it’s a lot more precise in general. But I still love both.
Talk to me a bit about the pastry scene in New York.
There’s still a lot to be discovered. I’ve been here for eight years, and I’ve seen the food change a lot — for the last 15 to 20 years, it’s been growing and blooming. New Yorkers are excited to eat out. But this is just the beginning of the pastry world — we’re getting more bakeries and different styles of pastries, and people are paying attention to pastries. Pastry is a very important part of the meal and food culture. It’s growing, but there’s still a lot to be done.
What lessons did you learn from Daniel that made opening this shop easier?
Everything I learned there helped me start this business. New York has its own way of understanding food — I don’t think anyone could come from France and straight open. I think it’s important to know the business before you can do anything. Know the market, know what people like, know the culture, know the traditions — it’s important to understand the market and the locals.
Soho is very young, very modern. It’s a good crowd that has a good vibe and good energy. It’s so different than any other part of the city. There’s a young crowd and lots of locals. We’re a little off the shopping area, but we also get tourists.
What did you see that was missing in the NYC culinary world that made you think you should open this?
New York is really openminded. New Yorkers travel a lot and know a lot about food — there are so many great restaurants from many other countries. People are willing to learn, discover, to get excited, to be impressed, to be shown something different. That fits with what I do. I believe in creativity and innovation, and there are a lot of things that haven’t been explored in the food scene and the pastry world.
Any reason you wanted to go back to the bakery instead of another restaurant?
Opening a bakery was a dream. I always wanted to have my own place and do my own creations. After working for Daniel, the best next step was to open my own business.
What has been your biggest challenge?
When I opened this, a lot of people said, do lunch and sandwiches. This isn’t going to work in New York, it’s been tried. I wanted to show people that I could make it work. I really told myself that pastry is what I believe in, it’s what I want to do, and it will work.
Tell me about the greatest hits and things you’re very proud of.
In the beginning, it was the DK — Dominique’s Kouign Amann. It’s a flaky caramel croissant from Brittany in France. It’s usually about eight to 10 inches in diameter; it’s a bread dough with lots of butter and sugar. The version we do here is quite different. It’s an unusual size with less butter and less sugar. It’s been a big hit since day one — we’ve been selling out every single day since we opened the shop.
I wanted to make the world of pastry exciting, so we change the menu every six to eight weeks. People come back expecting to see changes. And we bake fresh all the time; the oven is on 24 hours a day. We bake madeleines to order, we bake DKs six to eight times a day, and we bake canlis all day. Every time you come to the bakery, there’s something hot and fresh from the oven. I believe in freshness and small batches. It makes a big impact on the quality.
On the next page, Ansel talks about how he came up with the Cronut.
Okay, let’s talk about the Cronut. Where did the idea come from?
The team was thinking of doing something new, and someone mentioned a doughnut. I said, “I don’t mind doing that, I’ll take any challenge, but I’m French — I don’t have a recipe for a doughnut. I’ll make it my own.” The dough is not a croissant dough at all; it’s very specific dough that I do for this item. It took me two months to get the recipe so that the pastry would have flaky layers, fry easily, hold the cream, and last longer than just now. We launched just before Mother’s Day. Grub Street wrote about it the same day, and they called us that night and told us they had an increase of traffic by 300 percent, and 140,000 links. They said, “Maybe you should make more.” I thought, OK, I’ll make 35 more. The next day, there were 50 people waiting outside, and we sold out in 15 or 20 minutes. There were 100 people on the third day. It took us by surprise. We slowly increased production week after week, and now we average 450 Cronuts a day. We sell two maximum per person — and we have 100 to 250 people outside the door every morning no matter if it’s warm, cold, snowing, raining. It’s great.
Tell me about a couple of other innovations along the lines of the Cronut.
Right after Cronut, we had the frozen s’more. That was during the heat wave. It was funny seeing people eating a s’more on the bench in Soho. I wanted to change ice cream. I had this chewy ice cream in Istanbul, so I wanted something chewy. So I made vanilla ice cream and covered it with chocolate wafer and encased it inside marshmallow. I put it on a branch that had been smoked, and then we toast marshmallow to order. So it’s chewy, cold, crunchy, and it smells like campfire. It was really different. We still sell out every single day.
After that, I did magic soufflé. I worked in a restaurant for many years; people asked every week for chocolate soufflé. Everyone knows how hard it is to make perfect soufflé — it doesn’t last, and you have to eat right from the oven. I was challenged to make something that would last and would be portable. Magic soufflé is chocolate soufflé encased inside orange brioche, and then we flash it to order. It’s super tender, moist, and has the perfect texture. I challenged myself to do something impossible. It’s called magic soufflé because it’s impossible.
How long did it take to get those things right?
The Cronut took two months. The s’more, two weeks. The magic soufflé was about two and a half months. That one was really technically difficult.
What’s research and development like for you?
I think about something I want to make, analyze the recipe, and then test it from a recipe I have or one I make up myself. I tweak it day after day, and I test every day. I test it 60 or 70 times before I get something I like, and we still tweak after we launch.
Everyone else has weighed in on Cronut mania — what do you think about the crowds?
I love the Cronut — I think it’s a great product. It’s different and unusual, and I’m glad to have so many fans. It gives me a chance to showcase all the other things. And I don’t want to turn into a Cronut shop — we do as many as we can every day, but we keep innovating and making new things.
Any big lessons?
Never forget where you’re from. I’ll never forget my roots.
What are your goals and ambitions from here? Another bakery?
Another bakery eventually — but that would be a lot different than what I do now. There’s still a lot to do in improving the world of pastry. So I want to keep doing what I do, which is what I love. I want to keep creating and getting the world excited about pastry.
Would you ever do a savory project?
Pastry and baking is my specialty, my craft. Always focus on what you’re good at.
On the next page, Ansel reveals his favorite spots in the city for breakfast and dessert.
Best place in the city for coffee:
Best spot for a beer or a drink:
For beer, BXL. It’s a Belgian beer bar, and I love Belgian beer. For a drink, Wallflower, which just opened in East Village. Amazing cocktails.
Best place for dessert:
Le Bernardin — pastry chef Laurie Jon Moran is doing an amazing job. It’s very light and modern.
Best place for a special occasion:
Daniel. I worked for there for six years, and I didn’t have a chance to eat there often. I went back for Thanksgiving, and it was just amazing.
Best place for breakfast:
The Mandarin Oriental. I like their Japanese breakfast.
Best neighborhood for food:
Soho and East Village.
Who would you most want to cook for? Or sell a Cronut to?
President Obama. His people have been in.
Who would you most like to cook for you?
Dish you could eat forever:
Something you love about NYC restaurants:
Anything you think gets overlooked?
Understanding how small our space is and how much diversity we have. We’re not hiding anything — this is it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 4, 2013