Get ready, London — the man behind the cronut is coming to town. Victoria Stewart talks banoffee in Belgravia with Dominique Ansel (Image: Vicki Couchman)
What links a frozen s’more, a chocolate-chip cookie shot and a DKA? They are all inventions of New York pastry chef Dominique Ansel, known to many as the creator of the Cronut, that magic, gooey, flaky croissant-doughnut hybrid which he thought up — and later trademarked after it became an internet sensation in 2013.
Now, two years after his first visit to London, Ansel has decided to open his first bakery here, launching in Belgravia in late September.
“I grew up not that far away in France but it wasn’t until I lived in New York that I had a chance to visit London — and I loved it right away,” he explains when we meet during one of his recent trips, on which he is accompanied by his partner and business partner Amy Ma, whom he met 10 years ago.
“There is this energy in New York that I really love, and the pace and the people and so many things were the same as London,” he continues. “But of course it’s different — I think London is a lot more charming, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
He has inspired spin-off creations around the world (ever heard of the cro-dough or dosant?) and his good looks combined with 270,000 Instagram followers mean there is a permanent queue outside his NY bakery. So you’d think, perhaps, that Ansel could be a twerp. Instead he is gentle, thoughtful and disbelieving of his success.
He also owns the Dominique Ansel Kitchen in New York, plus an outlet in Japan. The Belgravia bakery will be bigger than his New York original, and “of course” the Cronut will feature, alongside some special London confections.
London, he thinks, “is so rich with so many different cultures, so it’s important to look at the food scene as a whole, how people eat and what they eat”.
The new menu will include a Welsh rarebit croissant with a beer béchamel which Ansel says “came out well — it’s good for breakfast”, as well as a banoffee paella, “because Spanish cuisine is really well-represented in London and I wanted to build a banoffee pie inside a paella pan on top of caramelised bananas”, and a caramelised millefeuille dosa.
“I love Indian cuisine and I’ve always been fascinated by how thin and delicate the dosa is,” he says. “But this one’s going to take a little while to develop.” He smiles.
The Cronut, meanwhile, is still going strong. Its development took three months which “was just like another pastry really. I developed the recipe until I was happy with it, and the first day it was just like any other launch — I made 35.”
But two days after a blogger’s article attracted 140,000 website links in one afternoon Ansel walked up to find 150 people queuing outside the bakery. He remembers the pastries “were selling on the black market for like $2,000”, and how he raised $100,000 for just 24 in a charity auction. “It went mad. I didn’t get it. It had travelled the world in just a few days.”
Now his New York bakery makes 400-500 Cronuts a day, and there is a queue before it opens at 8am — everyone, regardless of fame or fortune, must get in line. Fortunately, those in the queue are given fresh madeleines, or hot chocolate in winter. “It’s important for me to be hospitable,” he says.
The fans are zealous. Two named their daughter Madeleine after the queue treats, a couple got engaged in the queue and a dedicated Instagrammer named her account after the creation (@cronutgirl). When Ansel threw a birthday party for the Cronut in May this year @cronutgirl was one of more than 100 who attended and who sang Happy Birthday to the pastry.
Ansel says he hasn’t tried any of the London Cronut spin-offs, although he loves St John Bakery’s doughnuts. He wants to experiment more himself. “I don’t want our creation to kill our creativity. The Cronut is a great pastry, but it’s not it.”
Indeed, the queue-worthy pastry mash-ups sometimes distract from the fact that Ansel is a hugely skilled craftsman. He grew up north of Paris (“with not very much”) and started cooking during military service before getting a job at the Fauchon bakery. He later became head of pastry for Daniel Boulud’s flagship three-Michelin-starred French restaurant, Daniel, in New York.
Introducing his prodigy’s recipe book, Boulud wrote: “I am pleased that Dominique has continued to represent the DNA of French patisserie while embracing a true New York je ne sais quoi.”
‘Food to me is very much about emotions. It’s the way to connect with people.’
He insists he doesn’t feel pressured to top the Cronut. He has other bestsellers — the cookie shot also has its own queue from 3pm — and says “if you’re afraid of failing, you’ll be afraid of quitting. Creating for me is really fun. It’s really not pressure. My team are afraid that their ideas aren’t good enough. But we’ve learned to criticise ourselves in a good way, so that if someone has an idea, we talk about it.
“Food to me is very much about emotions,” he continues. “It’s the way to connect with people. The first thing I do when we have a new pastry is to watch people eating them, just to see their emotions.”
Does the serial inventor ever switch off? “I wish I had time for hobbies!” he says. “I did run the New York marathon a few years ago, although I just had knee surgery.”
He also says he works out “a little. But also I’m on my feet all day long… I don’t get much sleep. I usually wake up at 4am or 5am and go to bed at midnight. And I talk to Japan every day. I will do the same with London.”
He’s not worried that Brexit could kibosh his London plans, and doesn’t think politics “would affect the opening of a small bakery. We’re still on track with the opening. It’s not fine dining. It’s a bakery. Anyone can buy something: it’s a lot more accessible.”
As for trends, he says quietly: “I don’t follow them. I like to lead them.”
Article appeared in Evening Standard, August 2016