Think innovative French pâtisserie, think Dominique Ansel. The New York-based pastry chef is all about pushing the boundaries of baking, putting imaginative twists on French classics and inventing one of the most talked about desserts of recent years – the Cronut®. He's been awarded the title of World's Best Pastry Chef in 2017, honored with the Ordre du Mérite Agricole in France and named one of the Most Innovative People Under 40 by Business Insider. And now you can order some of his greatest creations from his Belgravia bakery on Deliveroo.
We interviewed Dominique to find out what drove him to conquer the world of pâtisserie and to discover the fond food memories that inspire his Willy Wonka-like approach to pastry.
So, why pastry and what was it that inspired you?
It wasn't a decision that I made when I was younger, to become a chef. It was out of necessity, really. I grew up the youngest of four in a really poor town in France, and I had to start working in a kitchen when I was 16 as a way to help my family make ends meet and pay the bills. I started out in savoury first, and then I moved over to pastry, but it was pastry that really drew me in. I loved that it's a science and that everything has to be properly measured and exact. I often think it was fate – I started out in something that I had to do to help my family, and now it's what I love doing the most.
Talk us through your average day.
There really isn't an average day for me. With having shops in New York, London, Tokyo, and now LA, every day is different nowadays, as there isn't one place where I'm at all the time. Depending on the time of year, we might be in full-blown holiday production mode, or working on developing new pastries. I spend a lot of time with our teams in Tokyo or London, or I'm doing demonstrations or talks for culinary students. And in the past few months, I've been planning an entirely new savoury menu for our first-ever restaurant in Los Angeles.
Before starting your own bakery, what was your most memorable job as a chef, and has that influenced the way you work now?
My résumé is quite short in that I've spent many years working in just a few places. For me, there are two places where I've worked during my career that have had a great influence on me and were both very formative in many ways. The eight years that I was at Fauchon in Paris, for example. I started out on day one as just one of 30 hourly workers that they hired for additional holiday help, and I eventually worked my way up over the years to lead their international expansion. At Fauchon, I worked under Christophe Adam, and it was there that I learned so much about pastry techniques and all the building blocks for what pastry entails. Then I spent seven years working with Daniel Boulud as the Executive Pastry Chef at Daniel. It was my first job in the US, and to this day I still consider them to be my first family here in New York. Daniel inspired me to be entrepreneurial, taught me how to run a business and the importance of taking care of your guests.
What inspired the move to New York?
I was working at Fauchon in Paris when Daniel Boulud called me looking for an Executive Pastry Chef for his restaurant. I had never worked in fine dining before, or created plated desserts, but I decided to give it a shot. I prepared a tasting for Daniel in New York, and I remember it was seven or eight dishes. When he tried the second dish, he looked up at me and said "when can you start?" That was my job offer right there, and a few weeks later I moved to New York, with two suitcases, not knowing anyone.
When you launched the Cronut® in New York the response was huge. How did you react to that and did you ever anticipate that kind of reaction?
I get asked that question all the time. It's not something that you could anticipate. The Cronut® was just something we decided to add to the menu one day, around Mother's Day in 2013. We change our menu every six to eight weeks, so this was just one other item. I think it's a beautiful product. It was something new for people to try, and I'm really grateful that our guests enjoy it and that it has helped open doors for us, but I could have never expected it to take off like it did. It's also the reason why we keep on creating. For us, it's never about one product or just cutting and pasting. We want to continue to move forward with new ideas.
How long does it take to develop each Cronut® flavour, and how do the flavours you develop in New York translate to your other bakeries around the world?
We plan our flavours months in advance. We have one flavour each month and a different flavour in each of our shops each month, we never repeat them. We look at seasonality as well as local ingredients for inspiration. For example, we did a sour cherry and vanilla ganache flavour in London last year that was inspired by a bakewell tart. In Japan, there's incredible produce that you can't get anywhere else, so we take advantage of that with ingredients like golden pineapples from Okinawa, beautiful citrus fruits and Hokkaido milk.
What's been your favourite Cronut® flavour so far?
For me, it's always whatever is the newest one.
How do the other dishes compare in your bakeries, do you notice some locations prefer savoury over sweet or cakes to pastries?
Of course there are differences in our menus. It's never simply a cut and paste or a focus on one item. For each of our shops, we create a unique menu that's just for that place, with new creations and new dishes that are inspired by local ingredients and local traditions. In London, more than 30-40% of the menu is unique to London, with things like the Banoffee Paella, Eton Mess Lunchbox, and Dosa Mille Feuille. We always take the time to learn about the local cultures, what ingredients we have available to us, local palates and tastes. It's important for us to make sure we have a true understanding and embrace those differences, instead of trying to fit into one way, shape or form.
Of all your dishes, what's the most challenging item to make?
It depends. Some items take months to develop. Some items take days to make just one. So there really isn't one in particular.
What's the best dish you've ever eaten that was created by another pastry chef?
Alain Chartier's gelato and ice cream in France. He's an MOF for ice cream [Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France – it's awarded to top French artisans, so you know that ice cream's going to be good. Ed.]. I'll always remember how he would take a quenelle of every flavour and they would all melt at the exact same pace because they were made with such a precise formula.
And Patrick Roger's chocolates – his chocolates are little pieces of art themselves. Years ago in France, he built a life-size elephant entirely out of chocolate. I love his bonbons, each filled with ganache that are so rich in flavour you know exactly what it is the moment you bite into it.
What food do you miss the most from France?
All the different cheeses made by local small affineurs. There's just nothing like it.
Do you have a favourite food memory from your childhood?
Going to the local boulangerie in our town in France and picking up a fresh baguette, just out of the oven with that crackly crust outside and soft chewy inside. I remember driving home with my parents, holding the baguette, still warm from the oven, and ripping into it as soon as we got home. In France, when you're a kid, your parents give you the end piece to help build up your teeth.
What's your favourite quick and easy dish to rustle up after a busy day?
Soft scrambled eggs, with shallots and chives, a splash of cream and plenty of butter. And always with a hunk of crusty bread on the side.
For any amateur bakers, what essential tools would you recommend to get them started?
A good scale. Baking is chemistry. It's a science, so you need to be exact and precise.
So what's next for Dominique Ansel, do you have expansion plans or any new creations you're excited about?
We've just opened our first-ever restaurant out in Los Angeles, along with a bakery just a few weeks ago, so we're focused on that at the moment. For us, most importantly, it's about always creating and always coming up with new ideas. That's what keeps us going.
To order in one of the main man's brilliant creations for yourself, check out Dominique Ansel Bakery London on Deliveroo. And if you're out in Belgravia, pop into their bakery to warm yourself up with a Blossoming Hot Chocolate and some toasty Frozen S'mores.