It would be easy to dismiss Dominique Ansel, creator of the Cronut, as a one-hit wonder, a guy who got lucky because he mashed together a donut and a croissant before anybody else. But like many overnight sensations, Ansel’s was decades in the making.
Before opening Dominique Ansel Bakery in 2011 to become one of the hottest pastry shops in New York’s Soho, he was head pastry chef at Daniel as it earned three stars from Michelin and four from the New York Times. Before that, he spent eight years at the esteemed French bakery Fauchon.
If any pastry chef could call himself a designer, it’s Ansel. His simplest dishes are made from three ubiquitous materials–flour, sugar, and butter–yet he still manages to buck the status quo, crafting them into elegant and surprising desserts. This is the guy who has turned a chocolate chip cookie into shot glass of sweet cream; filled a pretzel lobster tail with peanut butter and topped it off with butter crunch; created a “Waffogato” of vanilla ice cream topped with maple-syrup espresso; and reimagined the rootbeer float as a tin-can sundae topped with macerated cherries, mini marshmallows, and a meringue kiss.
We talked to Ansel about what drives him, how he stays creative, and, yes, we asked quite a bit about the Cronut, too.
Are you sick of the Cronut?
No, of course not! Why would I be sick of the Cronut? It’s a wonderful creation, but let’s not let the creation kill our creativity. I’m glad we created it at the bakery, but at the same time, I don’t think we should only bet on the Cronut. I have a lot more ideas.
If I were only doing Cronuts, I think I’d be kind of sad. I wouldn’t have a chance to keep doing new things. I’m super excited about creating new products. And my staff is super excited.
But is there an expectation now to make the Next Big Thing?
I’m not trying to recreate the Cronut every time. I’m just trying to give people something new. If they like it, great. If they like it less, that’s okay. I don’t worry about what goes viral. You can’t force it. You can’t choose for your customers.
Have you gotten any offers from big companies to mass produce the Cronut?
Yes, many. Yes, big companies. The thing is, the Cronut is not something you can mass produce. It has a shelf life of a couple hours depending on the weather. It’s fried in grapeseed oil. It’s filled with a cream. It’s really good when you eat it in the next couple of hours. It’s not something you you could mass-produce, freeze, and ship in a box. You’d just destroy it, and it wouldn’t be the same product anymore.
Why not just cash in on the name? Forget the quality and get it on store shelves. Famous chefs do this all the time.
To me, it is really important that I stand for what I believe in, which is creativity. And I think the Cronut is a great creation. I don’t want to kill it, cash in on it, and make it disappear.
Have you ever had an idea for a dessert that you couldn’t make?
I’m pretty stubborn, so when I want to do something, I make it happen.
Your bakery’s kitchen is 10 feet by 12 feet and baking 24 hours a day. How do you manage creating new desserts in that context?
I’m like everybody. I never have enough time, but I make some time, you know? I think for everyone in New York, especially, if you have your own business, it’s very busy, and you never have enough time for everything, but you can always stretch your day, sleep a little bit less, and invest the time into things that are important for your future.
A lot of people don’t realize that you’re constantly reformulating your existing recipes. Why? Why not just make the thing and move on?
You know, I work with food. And food is alive. So depending on the weather, right now it’s almost 90 degrees and 80% humidity. You have to adjust your product, especially when you work with dough. At the bakery, every other day, we pull four to five pastries and test them.
Even if we have a classic item, I love to improve it, I love to update it. If you have an iPhone 4, you want an iPhone 5 because it’s better, newer, faster. It’s the same with my food. I want to make it taste better, to be yummier. I want to always be improving and making it better.
A few days ago, we planned to tweak one of our recipes we have on the menu, the Cotton Soft Cheesecake. Before we were very happy with it. Now, we’re taking it to the next level.
What experience are you trying to create with each new item on your menu?
I think each thing should be fun. It should be playful. People should be surprised. It should give people emotion.
With the Frozen S’more, people know sitting around the campfire and roasting s’mores. It’s something that culturally has a lot of impact here–they’re really American. S’mores are not something I grew up with, but they’re something that gives emotion. And to me, it’s important to find things people are emotionally attached to, and provide them something new based upon this.
I wanted to recreate a frozen version for summer. I got inspired by dondurma. It’s a Turkish ice cream that they beat, so it becomes sticky and gooey. I wanted to have a chewy consistency in the ice cream, so I made a marshmallow that uses honey instead of sugar, because it changes the texture and is so much better. This we put on a branch that was applewood smoked. And we torched it to order.
It’s a fun way of eating ice cream. It’s new because you’ve never seen it anywhere else. It’s chewy. It’s cold. It’s crispy. It’s a lot of fun.
Why this focus on the “new”? You’ve said the word a dozen times during this interview!
Because it’s just like, it’s the future! You want to change. You don’t want to be left behind. You want to lead rather than have people look at you saying “they were this during this time.” We keep moving, changing, getting better, keeping people excited. And we move on. I think it’s so important. It’s life for me.