(This interview appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
What began with just four employee cooks – two cooks and two baristas – has now turned into a pasty empire. Chef Dominique Ansel’s mission to this day has remained the same – bring a smile to every guests’ face with pastries.
Though the path wasn’t easy as he stepped out from under the renowned Chef Daniel Boulud, he overcame his entrepreneurial fear with enough excitement and belief to follow his heart – despite the naysayers who claimed a “French bakery in New York wouldn’t work,” and that he would be better off making “cupcakes and cheesecakes.” No, he didn’t listen, and his innovations have pushed the boundaries of tradition ever since.
In our interview with Chef Ansel, we dive into his success, mistakes, the pressure to continuously innovate, and why a little butter, flour, eggs, sugar and imagination are the foundations for just about anything pastry related.
When you see someone try a new pastry with a smile on their face, that makes everything worth it in the end.
With your success thus far, what helped you get to this point?
When we first opened the Bakery, I had just four employees – two cooks, two baristas. To surround yourself with a team that works hard and truly cares for what we do, that’s so important. I would be nowhere without my team, and we’ve been grateful enough to have grown here in New York and also now in London, Tokyo, and LA. Also, our guests keep us going and on our toes. There’s never a time when we aren’t working on new menu items and developing new creations – and our guests are curious and are excited to try what’s new. When you see someone try a new pastry with a smile on their face, that makes everything worth it in the end.
What’s one major mistake you made in your professional career and the lesson you learned from it?
I think that you can learn from everything. So, even if a pastry that you’re working on doesn’t quite work at first, it’s about continuing to think of different iterations and new presentations and techniques, and to keep trying until you get it right, not taking no for an answer – sometimes that’s what you can learn from the most.
There’s never a time when we aren’t working on new menu items and developing new creations
Why did you decide to open your own place after working with Chef Boulud, and what was that period like stepping out on your own?
I’ve always wanted to create something of my own, and of course, I was nervous, scared, and excited at the opportunity all at the same time. So many people gave me advice. They told me that a French bakery in New York wouldn’t work, and that I should make cupcakes and cheesecakes. But I didn’t listen. I wanted to create a place that was welcoming for the neighborhood and the community, a place where we could be creative and make beautiful pastries for people to enjoy. And that’s what we did.
After opening your own place and receiving high-levels of notoriety and fame, what was that like and how did you handle it all?
We’ve always had a small team, and even when the Cronut first launched five years ago in May 2013 – about a year and a half after we opened – we still had four employees. It was a lot of hard work, and it still is, but we’ve always stayed humble and we’ve since grown our team and our shops. And made sure to focus not only on the quality of our pastries, but also on customer service and taking care of our guests in line – it’s why we go out and greet them each morning with warm madeleines and hot chocolate (or lemonade when it’s warm out), umbrellas when it’s raining, hand warmers when it’s chilly. And at the end of the day, it’s most important for us to keep on creating and to not let one creation stop us from continuing to work on new ideas for people to try.
You just have to keep working at it – a pastry is never really complete, there’s always something that can be improved or a different way of presenting it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I think that inspiration can come from anywhere – an ingredient that’s in season, from art and architecture, fashion, from traveling and learning about new ingredients or local traditions.
In your career thus far, what’s a technique that you’ve fallen in love with but struggled to master?
Some pastries take weeks to develop, sometimes even months. I remember I wanted to make a chocolate pinecone cake that looks like a real pinecone, and I asked one of my chefs to test a few presentations and they definitely weren’t looking good. But over a few weeks, we worked on the finishing together. You just have to keep working at it – a pastry is never really complete, there’s always something that can be improved or a different way of presenting it. And now it’s one of our signatures in each shop that we serve during every holidays season – it’s a beautiful singular pinecone made with ginger mousse, speculoos ganache, and a spiced cake, and it’s covered in more than 60 or 70 tiny hand-cut chocolate petals. It’s beautiful.
With a little butter, flour, eggs, and sugar, the right foundations, and a lot of imagination, you can create anything.
Was there a bit of tension you experienced internally as you started breaking boundaries on classical or traditional pastries?
There’s always going to be people that are critical about what you do, but for us, it’s about telling a story through our creations and really connecting with guests so that they understand. One of our best-sellers is called the Frozen S’more – it’s an ice cream version of a s’more with Tahitian vanilla ice cream surrounded by chocolate feuilletine and honey marshmallow that’s torched to order on a smoked willow wood branch. Where I grew up in France, we didn’t have s’mores, and I had no idea what one was until I came to the U.S. But it’s something that’s so nostalgic to so many people here, and I wanted to create a way to bring people back to those childhood memories.
With your success thus far, is there internal pressure felt to create the “next big thing” or push the boundaries further?
There’s never a time when we’re not creating something new. At any given time, we can be working on a dozen different things, whether it’s for here in NYC or for Japan or London or LA. The easy thing to do would be to just cut and paste or just focus on one item, but that’s not what we’re about and not what I want to do. Keeping on creating is in our DNA and what we do every day.
It’s important to have foundations – to learn the skills and the techniques, and we encourage our young cooks to ask questions and work on mastering their skills.
What does the breakdown between inspiration and perspiration look like in your world?
It’s important to have foundations – to learn the skills and the techniques, and we encourage our young cooks to ask questions and work on mastering their skills. For us – with a little butter, flour, eggs, and sugar, the right foundations, and a lot of imagination, you can create anything.
A pastry is never really complete, there’s always something that can be improved or a different way of presenting it.
What’s your advice for the pastry professionals out there today?
To stay curious and not be afraid. Starting out, it’s always going to be hard work, long hours, and not everything is going to work the first time out. But keep trying, be open, and stay curious and things will start to work out in the end.
Photo Credits: Thomas Schauer, Scott Grummett, Jakob Layman, Brent Herrig, Dominique Ansel Bakery Japan, Evan Sung