Welcome to The Tastemakers, a series in which we chat with the most talented, connected and influential people in the world of food and drink.
If you've spent any time browsing the internet in the past three years, it's likely you've stumbled across the pastry phenomenon that is the Cronut®. If you're lucky, you might even have waited in line for a few hours to get your hands on one.
But the pastry chef behind the doughnut/croissant hybrid never set out to start a viral food craze. Instead, Dominique Ansel's aim was always to create a different kind of pastry shop—one in which things were constantly developing and changing.
At the age of 15 in his home country of France, Ansel took a job in a restaurant to help support his family. Years later, after studying as a chef and pastry chef and moving to the U.S., Ansel spent six years working at Daniel Boulud's acclaimed Daniel before opening Dominique Ansel Bakery in 2011.
Today, Ansel also runs Dominique Ansel Kitchen, has opened a bakery location in Tokyo and still has customers lining up down the block to taste the Cronut®. We chatted with Ansel about his day-to-day life, the projects he has in the works and how he came up with everyone's favorite pastry.
What does a typical day look like for you?
"My day starts around four or five o'clock in the morning, when I'll go to the bakery to check on everyone, open the doors, welcome people, finish the baking. And then I'll go over to the kitchen to open and do the same thing there. Then I'll do some office work, work on some new recipes and test new menus, and then I'll usually leave around 8 or 9 at night and cook dinner. Once or twice a week, I'll get on a call with Japan late at night, since they're in a different time zone, and that might last between two and four hours. We've opened a bakery location in Tokyo now, so it's good to find out how everything is going, how the menus are doing there. So my day might end at 12 or 1 in the morning. I don't sleep much."
Do you take any days off?
"Not really. Sometimes I'll try to take off Sunday afternoon for a little bit, but not usually. It's just something I'm used to."
What's the most exciting thing you've worked on in the last year?
"There's a lot. Opening Dominique Ansel Kitchen was very exciting for me, as well as the private tasting table experience there called U.P. We have a new menu there called American Dreams that's been a lot of fun. And then we also had the opening in Japan, so it's a been a big year. And in the coming year, we'll also be opening in London, so there's always something exciting going on."
You've probably gotten this question a thousand times, but we have to ask: How did you come up with idea for the Cronut® and bring it to life?
"I have past experience in retail, front and back of house, and in fine dining when I was working for Daniel. When I opened my own bakery, I told myself that I was going to do a different kind of pastry shop and one that was always changing—changing with the seasons, changing every day, which isn't really something bakeries are used to. It's something I've been doing since I opened the shop in 2011. So we were always trying to introduce new ideas, and the Cronut® was just one of them. We were having a brainstorm session once, and the team had the idea to do a doughnut, but I'm French, so, of course, I said I'd try to do something with my own little touch. It took me about three months of work before we got it right—it actually takes three days to make each one.
When we put it on the menu, I remember someone took a picture of it and put it on Grub Street, and he called me that same night and told me that the article had gone viral. At the beginning, I didn't understand what he meant, but then he showed me that the website had had an increase in traffic of 300 percent, and it had hundreds of thousands of clicks in just a few hours. He said, 'Maybe you should make a few more of these," and I thought, Yeah, I made 35 today; I'll make 45 tomorrow. But by the third day, we had over 100 people waiting outside. It just started with something very simple, mindful, that had a little story, and it just happened to go viral."
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What is your go-to cuisine when you're cooking for yourself or eating out?
"I like to cook Taiwanese food at home. And I love Japanese food when I go out. I love the ingredients and the simplicity of Japanese food, and I always enjoy their cuisine."
Who is the person you most admire in the food industry?
"I worked for Daniel for almost six years, and I definitely learned a lot from him. And I had the chance to meet with Danny Meyer a few times as well, and he's a good friend now; I really admire what he's built, the way he runs his restaurant and his interaction with the staff. He's very inspirational for any business owner, I think."
What advice would you give to a young chef or pastry chef who's just starting out?
"Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of trying, and don't be afraid of what you don't know. When you come to a point in your life and realize you don't know something, you can actually teach yourself and learn on your own. Sometimes you don't have someone to fix everything for you, and you have to figure it out yourself. That's how you move forward: by practicing and getting stronger. Keep on tasting and see what works."
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