by Sarah Zorn
While certain savory chefs have attained serious celebrity status, increasingly on the level of movie and music stars, for the most part, pastry professionals have continued to linger in the shadows. Which is why —though he received plenty of industry acclaim for his work at the three Michelin-starred Daniel — Dominique Ansel’s ascension to the world stage has been practically unprecedented, fueled by frenzied interest in his mind-boggling, science-defying desserts. Seriously, you’d have to go to the ends of the earth to find someone who hasn’t heard of his trademarked croissant-donut hybrid, the Cronut, which was named the NYT’s “Word of the Year” in 2013, made TIME’s “25 Best Inventions” list, and has spawned countless, eager imitators, from Dunkin Donuts to Stew Leonard’s to Crumbs.
And while he could easily rest on his laurels from now until the foreseeable future, Ansel’s credo is to constantly push himself one further. Which is why he plans to open a second NYC shop this spring, complete with made-to-order items and a communal, after-hours table, offering cocktails paired with $65 dessert tasting menus. But in between managing his growing global empire, and conceptualizing his newest, highly Instagrammable sweet, he was somehow able to find the time to chat with us, about everything from his upcoming, (Cronut-free!) establishment, to his take on the fledgling “dessert speakeasy” trend.
So tell us all about your upcoming bakery and tasting table! In what ways will it be similar to your original Soho spot, and how will it be entirely different?
Just like the Soho shop, this is predominantly a retail bakery (not a full-blown restaurant). But it will have a completely new menu and concept. At the new bakery, Dominique Ansel Kitchen, 70% of the menu will be made, assembled, or finished fresh to order. The items here are a bit more classic and simpler when compared to the Soho shop, but the idea is really to look at "time as an ingredient". People want to have their espresso fresh ground these days, and their sandwich toasted and assembled to order, not just sitting in a deli case. Why not with pastries. That's what we're exploring at the Kitchen. And the UP (the after-hours tasting table) is just a little gem where we go all out. The name UP stands for "unlimited possibilities" and that's exactly what we're exploring there.
What was your thinking behind specifically not serving Cronuts at this new space?
It's a new store with a new concept, that's all. We don't like being pigeonholed, and I think it's important to keep creating. Just moving forward.
The amount of worldwide attention you’ve received as a pastry chef (who almost never get the recognition they deserve), and for a bakery, no less, is entirely unparalleled. Why do you think you and your desserts have caught on the way they have?
I'm not very sure what exactly made everything catch on so fast. A lot of people say it happened over night, but I've been coming up with new pastry items since I was in the kitchen at the age of 16. So it has taken a while to come this far. Trends come and go, I suppose, but it's important to keep pushing forward and to work harder. We can't take anything for granted, and it is a daily push and lifestyle. Life has certainly gotten harder and not easier, but we're grateful that we have a chance to really shine a spotlight on dessert and pastry.
While being highly successful is one thing, I doubt it was ever a goal of yours to become famous. What have been the most difficult and most rewarding aspects for you, when it comes to being a public figure?
It's been really nice getting to know the guests who come by and hear their stories. For years, I worked in the basement kitchen, away from sunlight, and you never get to see people enjoying the food or ask them what their favorite part was. I think the difficulty is just making sure you plan time around it. A lot of times I'm working and producing in the kitchen and it's becoming harder to step away and say "hello" to someone. I still try my best though.
While we’ve all heard of Cronuts and Magic Soufflés and Milk & Cookie Shots, what do you think are some of the most unsung sweets at your store?
Oh, the DKA. For sure. It is my favorite thing.
How to you go about conceptualizing some of your desserts? Take us through your creative process!
We create new menus every 6-8 weeks. We take creation really seriously over here. And rather than looking just at an ingredient, we look a lot for the story or emotion we hope it will bring out. I always say that pastries in a case are like silent film stars. You don't have a waiter who brings it to your table and explains every part. And so you really have to design around that. So that each one has a personality just by looking at it.
You plan to pair cocktails with desserts as part as a tasting menu, but that will be only one aspect of your new business. What are your thoughts on the rising trend of so-called “dessert speakeasies?”
We're excited to start working with beverages as well. If red wine goes with steak and white wine with fish, then as a rule of thumb, cocktails and desserts are a great pairing. I'm not sure I'd ever do a business that's just a "dessert speakeasy" -- bakeries are big breakfast businesses, and it's about being available in the day time for your guests who want to grab an afternoon snack or early morning croissant. At the end of the day, a good bakery is someone's regular pit stop, and nothing fancy. An after hours tasting is mostly just for special events.