A Conversation with Chef Dominique Ansel
Chef Dominique Ansel is the chef/owner behind New York City’s Dominique Ansel Bakery and Dominique Ansel Kitchen. Best known for his famed croissant-doughnut pastry, the Cronut—which was named one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2013” by TIME—he ranks among the most talked about chefs in the world. Other accolades include a 2014 James Beard Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” and ranking among Vanity Fair France’s “50 Most Influential French People in the World.”
Prior to opening Dominique Ansel Bakery, Dominique was the executive pastry chef at Daniel for six years, helping lead the restaurant to receive three Michelin stars, a James Beard Award, and its first four-star New York Times rating. He had previously worked at Parisian bakery Fauchon for seven years, leading its international expansion to Russia, Egypt, and many other countries. His first cookbook, Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
You grew up in the town of Beauvais, 45 miles north of Paris. Was that where you first became interested in the hospitality industry?
My parents didn’t have much money growing up, and I’m the last child from a family of four. Very early on, I had to find a job. So at 16, just coming out of school, I found a job in a restaurant called Cour et Jardin. There was a free culinary school in my hometown, Beauvais. So I went through their apprenticeship program—going to school for a week, then going to work for three weeks. I did this for three years overall: two in a savory kitchen and one year in a bakery.
Did you already know that you preferred pastry?
Yes. It was more precise, more scientific. It was refined and required precision; that’s what I liked about it.
You joined the army after that?
When I was 19 years old, military service was mandatory. After I did my service, instead of just staying in France, I asked to go to a different country. I eventually ended up living in French Guiana—in South America, just north of Brazil—and I stayed there for a year. I was part of the community teaching program, and was placed in the kitchen teaching locals how to cook with the skills I learned in school.
Did teaching other people help your career?
Yes, I learned a lot. I was very, very young— 19, 20 years old. That was my first time leaving the country, so it was very exciting. I knew I had a lot more to learn, so I came back to my hometown. With all of my savings—barely $2,000—I bought a car. I started driving back and forth between my hometown and Paris. I would drive there every day with resumes that I printed out at home. I had a map—an old fold-over map, because we did not have these magic cell phones. I didn’t know anyone in Paris, but I knew there were the best bakeries there.
So I'd go into Paris, pull over to the side of the road, and drop off resumes in various bakeries. After just a few days, I had eight job offers. Everyone was looking for staff. It was one of those times where the city was kind of booming. Eventually I worked for Pâtisserie Peltier, one of the oldest pâtisseries in Paris. It was a very old-school French shop, over 100 years old. I stayed at Peltier for a year, then went to work for Fauchon in Paris for almost eight years.
Tell me about your time at Fauchon.
I was hired as a temporary worker, between September and December, to support the bakery for the holidays. They tripled or quadrupled the production volume during that time, so they needed to hire 25 to 30 extra people. At the beginning of the season, they called us all into a room and told us they would keep three people at the end of the four months. It was like a competition. Then, a few days before the end of December, they alerted us that they were keeping only one out of the original 30.
A few days later, they called me into the office and said it would be me. I stayed at Fauchon for eight years. I started as a pastry cook, and after six months, I got promoted as a chef de partie, so I was in charge of a station with eight people working under me (though they were all older than I was). I learned a lot very quickly, and I had a lot of responsibilities very early on. When I was 24 years old, I became a sous chef, and then we expanded from one shop to twelve shops in Paris. At that point, I was in charge of a team of close to 100 people in the kitchen. At the same time, I was also overseeing the opening of new shops internationally, including traveling to many different countries.
When did you come to New York?
In 2006, Daniel Boulud called me and said he was looking for a pastry chef. I told him, “That's interesting, but I have no experience working in a fine dining restaurant.” He asked me to come to New York to talk and see his operation, so I came and did a small tasting for Daniel—like six desserts. I remember, after the second dessert, Daniel looked at me and asked, “When can you start?”
Eight weeks later, I was in New York with two suitcases. That’s all I had, other than a couple hundred dollars in my bank account. I wanted to work hard and to show Daniel that I could take this position and do something great. Three years later, we won three Michelin stars and got a four-star review from the New York Times. We also received the 2010 James Beard Award for “Outstanding Restaurant in the U.S.”
What did you have in mind when you opened Dominique Ansel Bakery?
I wanted a place that was chill, comfortable. Not a French bakery where you see gold and sculpture and chandeliers everywhere, but more of a place where there’s a good vibe, nice music playing. The idea was to be like a New York coffee shop: a relaxed atmosphere, beautiful pastries, a place where you can feel free to sit. It combined a Parisian spirit, when it comes to quality, with a New York energy.
How did you create your menu?
I remember before opening the bakery, people were telling me, “Don’t open a French bakery, it will not work. New York City is not ready for it.” People were telling me to do cupcakes and cheesecake, saying that’s the only thing that sells in New York. I remember stepping back and thinking to myself, “That’s not me. It’s not who I am. It’s not what I believe in, and it’s not what I’m trying to accomplish.” I did not listen to anyone. Instead, I did what I thought would be great, meaning creating new things all the time, changing the menu very often. But it's also about creating an emotional connection with people.
For example, everyone talks about the Cronut. The Cronut is great, but right after the Cronut, during the heat wave, I launched the Frozen S’more. It’s a S’more but the marshmallow is made with honey, not sugar, so it’s a lot less sweet and it’s very flavorful. We serve it on a smoked applewood branch, so you have the scent of a campfire. Inside, there’s vanilla ice cream and a chocolate wafer, and we torch the marshmallow to order so that the outside shell caramelizes. It’s thin, almost like a crème brûlée. You bite into it. It’s warm, it’s chewy, it’s crunchy—but it’s also cold, and it’s just amazing. It’s one of our best sellers.
I still love it and eat one once in a while. That’s what I mean when I talk about an emotional connection. The S’more is not something I grew up with. I didn’t even know about it before coming to the U.S. It’s something I discovered, something I had to learn about. Even though it’s not my childhood, I want to understand it and I want to connect people with our food. That is how I created the Frozen S’more.
Did you know that the Cronut would blow up like it did?
Who can imagine something going viral in the way that it did? Who can think of a pastry getting so popular, not only in New York, not only in the country, but worldwide? Even the best chef with all the money in the world, with all the marketing strategy, as much as you try to do that, you can't. You can’t force people to like something.
So would you ever consider licensing something like that?
It’s not something you can mass-produce. It only has a shelf life of a couple of hours, and I don’t want to kill my creation. I don’t want to kill the product and our creativity as well. We’re not just about the Cronut. After the Cronut, we created so many pastries that were almost as popular as the Cronut, but received less buzz. It’s not everything. If Picasso only had one painting, no one would know about him. He changed his style, he tried different things, and he evolved a style of painting. He changed.
Tell me about your creative process when you're inventing a new product.
It starts with an idea. Very often it’s an emotional connection, or sometimes we work off a flavor or texture. But most of the time, we want to make sure that people connect with the food and the food has a reason to be. From there, I work in the kitchen with the team, trying out different variations on a product. We look at it together. It’s a very open conversation. We all talk about it, and we all criticize each other, so if something is too sweet, if it’s too big or ugly, we’ll tell each other right away.
In your cookbook, you have some philosophical essays. One is titled “Never Run Out of Ideas.”
It's like I was telling you about Picasso and painting: You shouldn’t hold on to an idea and keep it for later; it will be too late. That’s what the chapter talks about: never run out of ideas and never think you have an idea that’s too good to be shared with the world. As soon as you have it, use it and move on to something else. That’s what we have done with the Cronut. I love the Cronut, but we’re moving on. We’ll move on to a Frozen S’more, to a Cookie Shot, to every other creation after that.
What's a typical day like for you?
On a typical day I arrive at about four in the morning and go to bed at one in the morning. That’s my regular day. I want to push myself to work harder every day and I don’t take anything for granted. I usually start by finishing the baking with the overnight team. I work through the day, work a little bit on the new creations, work in the office, and then I will go and spend some more time with the team in the afternoon, then more office work. Why? Because I have a shop in New York, right on Spring Street. I’m opening another one in the West Village very soon, and we’re opening a shop in Tokyo as well.
What can you tell me about the Tokyo shop?
Tokyo is going to be a futuristic version of what we have here in New York. We’re going to have a pop-up window at the entrance of the building, with a set where people can take photos for social media. We'll change the background artists all the time.
Japanese people love taking photos, and we want to give them a chance to do a fun photo with us. The interior design is going to be very silicon, with cleaner lines to match with the local market. Japanese shops are very clean and slick. We’re not just a New York bakery that's coming to Tokyo. We’re a New York bakery that wants to embrace the Japanese culture and be a part of it.
Can you discuss any of the specific ingredients?
I’ll use things like flax sugar—that is very Japanese. Hokkaido milk, which I love. It’s so good, so silky and flavorful. Even if you've had fresh farm milk from France, that's not comparable. I might do something using green tea. I love wagashi, those little sweets that are made out of bean paste, which they eat with green tea in the afternoon. I’ve been to Japan many times now. I do think there’s a connection between French cuisine and Japanese cuisine: the dedication that people have for food. Chefs there don’t think about a career change or doing anything else; it’s pure dedication, and that’s all you’re going to do.
What about Dominique Ansel Kitchen, the shop you just opened in the West Village?
The shop in the West Village is focused on made-to-order desserts, so 70 percent of the menu will be made to order. Think of a chocolate mousse. Typically, you have to make the chocolate mousse, put it in the cake, then put it in the fridge or in the freezer and then eat it later. It’s still soft, but it’s set and often very dense. Here we will have chocolate mousse that is actually folded to order.
You will have a choice of the intensity of chocolate you want to have, and the chocolate you want us to use as well, and we will fold it to order. When we give it to you, it's smooth and creamy, with a delicate texture. It’s very special when you’ve just made it; when you let it sit and eat it later, it's a different experience. Think of coffee, for example.
A few years ago people were going to a deli, drinking coffee that was in a thermos, sitting there for hours. Now people want fresh-brewed coffee, freshly ground coffee. People will wait 10 to 15 minutes for good coffee. That hasn't been explored before when it comes to pastry, and I think there’s a lot to do there. I’m hoping to reach people and give them something they’ve never had before.
How many staff do you have at the bakery, and at your other locations? Here we have over 35 people. At Dominique Ansel Kitchen, we’re going to have at least as many people. And in Japan, we’ll have close to 100 people. It’s a much bigger shop. It’s 5,000 square feet. It’s going to be in Omotesando Hills [a shopping complex in Shibuya], which is really like the Soho of Tokyo. It’s the perfect neighborhood for us.
What are some attributes of outstanding team members, people you want to keep working with?Passion and dedication. That’s everything for me. I don’t mind taking someone that has very little experience or even zero experience, so long as they’re passionate, dedicated and willing to learn. If they’re not flexible, if they don’t understand what we do or why we do it, it just doesn’t work because my entire team is passionate and dedicated.
You received the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, among many other awards. What was your reaction to that honor?
I feel very lucky and fortunate to have a chance to reach out to people, and on top of that, to be recognized for what I do. It’s very flattering—but it’s never just me. It’s the entire team behind me. It’s never a one-man show. I couldn’t do what I do without my team.
I have to ask about your work for Food Bank for New York City, among other charities.
It's good that you started the interview by asking where I’m from, because when people think of France, they think of this beautiful small town, with flowers and nice people, but it’s not like that everywhere. It’s like every country. I grew up in a poor neighborhood. My dad was working in a factory. My mom was taking care of four kids. In France you get paid once a month; it’s tight when you have six people to feed.
Growing up, sometimes my mom didn’t manage the money very well, so at the end of the month we were not eating well or going without food. I remember two years ago, someone tweeted me saying that the soup kitchen line was much longer than the Cronut line. I looked at it and thought, “Yes, that’s true. If I can do something about it, I will be happy to.”
So last year I worked with a few different charities, like City Harvest's Bid Against Hunger auction. I raised over $100,000 by auctioning off 24 Cronuts; the entire amount was donated to charity to support the Food Bank for New York City, God's Love We Deliver, City Harvest, and others. It’s something that’s always been very important for me, to be a part of the community. I’ve never forgotten where I’m from.
To end our conversation, what does baking mean to you?
It’s not a job; it’s my life. It’s what I do, and it’s what I will be doing forever. Baking is bringing happiness to people—happiness and emotions—and hopefully having them spread it around.
Click here to learn more about ICE's School of Pastry & Baking Arts.