We were lucky enough to go behind the scenes at Dominique Ansel's Belgravia bakery just as they were crafting their festive desserts and wintery pastries. At Deliveroo, we think patisserie and Christmas have magic in equal measure – no matter what age you are, you get that little spark of anticipation whether you're opening the door to your presents on Christmas morning or are about to dig your spoon into a pastry that almost looks too precious to eat. Walking through the door, you're greeted with an archway of frosty ferns, fairy lights, winter berries and candies in Dominique Ansel's signature egg yolk-yellow. As you push open the door, the first thing you notice is that bakery smell – a warm, buttery, sugary, caramel scent you wish you could bottle and spritz wherever you go.
Then there's the counter. It's a Wonka-esque world of pure imagination. Rows of green, gold and rosy pink macarons to the right; glossy mirror glazes that shine like patent on the Liquid Caramel Peanut Butter Mousse Cakes; and twists on classic French pâtisserie, like the Tahitian vanilla-flecked Cannele and a London version of a Paris-Brest, complete with dapper moustache and monocle.
The festive pastries stand in the middle, like lines of little Christmas ornaments. There's the intricate Gingerbread Pinecone, with over 60 hand-crafted chocolate petals on the outside. And then you catch the snow-capped Mont Blanc with chestnut cream; adorable religieuse crafted into Santa-shapes and an earmuff-wearing penguin called Chilly; and a herd of mince pies, dressed like reindeer with delicate chocolate antlers.
To see how these were made, we headed up to the pastry kitchen to meet James, the Executive Sous Chef of the Belgravia bakery. To find out more about their festive menu and what the day of a pastry chef at Dominique Ansel looks like, we gave him this short Q&A.
Interview with James, Head Pastry Chef at Dominique Ansel, London
Firstly, why pastry and who or what inspired you to get started?
Pastry has always fascinated me, the colours, the textures and how we can manipulate them to produce something beautiful. I remember my grandmother being amazing with anything pastry-related, going to the local bakery as a young child and seeing all the beautiful breads and cakes – and smelling that amazing smell that only a bakery has – from then I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
When did you start at Dominique Ansel in London and can you remember the first thing you made?
I started with Dominique Ansel just before the opening of our London bakery. The first thing that I made was the Cronut®... quite a difficult thing to master but I was being taught directly by Chef Dominque, so I had the best teacher possible.
Talk us through your average day.
First thing when I arrive at work is to check in on all the staff and see how their shift is going and if they have everything that they need. I then check all the products starting with the laminated products (Cronut®, Croissant etc). Then I check all the petits gateaux followed by savoury, we then open the store and I will greet the line-up of guests and welcome them in.
After opening we look at the production list that was made the night before and assign tasks to the chefs.
Several times a day we refill the pastry and viennoiserie counters and check for quality and consistency.
The day usually ends with chocolate work by tempering the chocolates and making all the beautiful decorations for our petits gateaux ready for our garnish team who come in early to get all the products ready each day.
For anyone who's never seen a pastry kitchen, describe how it differs to other restaurant kitchens?
The main difference is that our pastry kitchens are very calm, no one is racing around or shouting or yelling as you might expect in a restaurant kitchen. It's very important to Chef Dominique and our team that everyone is respectful of one another and that we create an environment that's polite and professional. It is also much cooler in temperature in our kitchens. We need it this way as we are working with lots of butter and lots of chocolate. Pastry is about precision, so timing and temperature is everything to us.
Here at Dominique Ansel Bakery London, we have a pastry room where we make all our petits gateaux, a lamination room where we make all the Cronut®, croissants, DKA's (Dominique's Kouign Amann), pain au chocolat etc., and then we have a bake room where the ovens are. The bake room is separate to keep the heat in one area and the rest of the kitchen cool.
What goes into developing dishes for the London bakery? And how do tastes compare in London to tastes in the other markets?
When dishes are developed there is lots of communication with Chef Dominique, as he's quite hands on and works with our team from start to finish on each dish. He will send his ideas to us and a vision of something he wants to create – it may be a new pastry, or an idea for an entirely new way of presenting something. Then we work on the development. We'll work on sketches first with an overview of flavours, textures and colours. Chef Dominique will give feedback and ideas and from this we move into the actual test making of the item. He's often here with us in London as we do our final tests and tastings. But if he's not with us at that moment, we'll share pictures of all the testing stages and decor/plating options with Chef Dominique and we'll make any changes from there.
Tastes in London are getting quite refined as patisserie is starting to become more and more popular and people are now looking for good quality ingredients, good quality chocolate and fine finished products. I think that here we like our patisserie a little less sweet than in the US.
How do you develop the festive dishes? How long before Christmas does the process start?
This process starts months before Christmas! We typically plan months ahead for all holidays, and have our holiday ideas nailed down when it's still warm and sunny out. We start preparing our mince pie fruits in autumn, soaking them in a bit of brandy, cider and sherry, to ensure that by the time Christmas comes we have a beautifully moist and tasty filling. Testing for all of our holiday pastries happens weeks, sometimes months, before the season begins, so we can make any final tweaks and our team has mastered all the recipes by the time the holiday season kicks off.
What's been your favourite Cronut® flavour so far and why?
They have all been amazing, however for my personal tastes there has been two that stand out to me. Sour cherry and white almond ganache (from November 2016) was a stand out as it was our take on the flavours of a classic bakewell tart which everyone loves. Also, the roasted plum and eggnog ganache Cronut® this month is fun and festive and tastes delicious.
What's the most challenging item to make?
All of our items are quite challenging to begin with as they are quite technical and require precision. The most challenging is anything in the viennoiserie section as getting daily consistency requires a lot of skill and a lot of listening to and feeling the dough. No two days are exactly the same, and factors like the temperature of the flour, the temperature of the water and even the temperature of the room play a big part in the final result.
For any amateur bakers, what essential tools would you recommend to get them started?
A sharp paring knife, a dough scraper, a good electric mixer, an accurate thermometer, a small step palette knife and an endless imagination.
What are your five cupboard essentials that you always stock in the kitchen at home?
Being a pastry chef I always have French butter, sugar, flour, milk and cream.
Of the items on the Dominique Ansel Deliveroo menu, what's your favourite and what should people try first?
Croque Monsieur, Croque Monsieur, Croque Monsieur. It's heavenly!! I've always loved a classic Croque Monsieur and always have them when I travel to Paris. I've never found a great one in London and I have to say that ours is the best one that I have ever tried. The bread is soaked in a savoury custard first, so when the sandwich toasts in the oven, the bread stays moist while the cheese gets melted and the edges start to crisp up. We also have a turkey croque as well, to offer something a little different.
What's your favourite dish from the other Dominique Ansel bakeries and how would you describe it?
I've not had the chance to go to another Dominique Ansel bakery just yet, but would love to see NY and LA first. But you can never go wrong with a DKA.
What's your favourite quick and easy dish to rustle up after a busy day?
Pasta. It's quick and easy and quite comforting.
What's the best thing about being a pastry chef?
The best thing is being able to be creative. We can play with colours, flavours, textures and visuals to create something spectacular. There is nothing better than looking at all the things that we produce and see how beautiful it is and to be proud of it and to share it with people. But the absolute best part of being a pastry chef is to see the smile on the faces and the sparkle in the eyes of our customers as they stand at our pastry case and look at what we make.
Pick up some patisserie perfection from Dominique Ansel on Deliveroo. And if you're out in Belgravia, pop into their bakery to warm yourself up with a Blossoming Hot Chocolate, some toasty Frozen S'mores or a Gingerbread Pinecone.