Why Dominique Ansel Still Only Makes 300 Cronuts a Day
Dominique Ansel took home the award for outstanding pastry chef by the James Beard Foundation on Monday evening, days before the first birthday of the creation that skyrocketed his career. The Cronut, a portmanteau for the croissant-doughnut hybrid invented at Ansel’s New York bakery, debuted on May 10, 2013. It was born as a sweet way to move past a stinging defeat.
“Last year at this time, we had lost the James Beard and dedicated ourselves to creating something new in the kitchen. The Cronut came out of it all,” Ansel recalled on Tuesday morning. “And this morning I feel very humbled by all of it.”
He was already back in the kitchen by 4 a.m., he told me, just hours after celebrating the award with his team. Evidence from Twitter — check that timestamp — suggests that he hardly slept at all before turning his attention back to his bakery:
Congratulations to the @beardfoundation winners and nominees tonite. Was an honor to share the stage with you. Business as usual tomorrow!
— Dominique Ansel (@DominiqueAnsel) May 6, 2014
The Cronut had already had been showered with plenty of attention — it’s arguably the most hyped and sought after pastry in the world. Time magazine named it one of 2013’s best inventions. Eater.com heralded the pastry as the Spectacle of the Year. Ansel’s invention earned him appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — “Everyone should get one of these things because they’re unbelievable,” the host declared — and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Then came imitations like the Crumbnut made by and sold at BJs Wholesale Clubs, among others.
Ansel’s creation is flaky and buttery like a croissant but fried like a doughnut, whose ringed shape it adopted. Each Cronut is rolled in sugar, filled with cream, and glazed. The flavor, like rose vanilla and raspberry lychee, changes every month. The price is $5 and customers, who are known to wait for hours in lines that clog the sidewalk outside his Spring Street bakery, are limited to no more than two.
For a food phenomenon, his bakery doesn’t actually sell all that many Cronuts. Ansel strictly limits production to 300 each day for the store with another 150 or so for special orders. Scarcity is entirely by choice — Ansel and his staff could easily make more if they so chose — and the chef dismisses pleas to ramp up production. “I believe in creativity as a way of life, not just a way to earn a living,” the slim, soft-spoken chef says. “For so many years of my life, I was in the kitchen, just producing. I’ve been told not to think and not to ask any questions. But I refuse to work this way.”
That commercial restraint has done nothing to meet the ceaseless demand, and so early morning lines have remained a fixture outside his small shop for a year. The dreaded Cronut line is itself nearly as famous as the pastry.
The line-waiting passion of the Cronut crowds isn’t something even the 36-year-old chef completely understands. “People ask me, ‘Were you expecting something like this?’ Of course not. No one could expect to create a pastry and have it explode worldwide,” he told me from the sun-lit garden behind the store earlier this year. “The idea is simple enough for everyone to understand, but different enough that we’re all curious,” Ansel says. “That’s what captured people’s interest.”
Success hasn’t softened the French-born chef’s hard-working edge. He usually arrives at the 2,500 square foot bakery around 4:30 a.m. “I still clean the bathroom if it is clogged,” he told me. “Someone has to do it.” Day-to-day operations continue to keep him busy: managing staff, repairing broken equipment himself, and controlling costs. Paperwork can keep him tied up until midnight. He also happens to be single. “Success in general is a sacrifice. What I do here, how much time I spend at work, there’s no limit.”
A fixation on creative purity did not blind him to the realities of business. His little bakery has had a spokeswoman from day one, and Ansel took the advice of his lawyer to trademark the name Cronut to fend off copycats.
Ansel grew up poor in Beauvais, a city north of Paris, with three siblings. His father worked at a prepared food factory and his mother was a homemaker. At age 16 he washed dishes and swept floors at a restaurant and gradually climbed the ranks. He eventually took a job at the French bakery Fauchon before moving to New York City in 2006 to work for chef Daniel Boulud. Within five years he had opened Dominique Ansel Bakery. “I was fairly happy with the bakery before the Cronut,” he recalls. “On the weekends we had very long lines and we could barely produce enough.”
The buzz started the day before the Cronut’s debut almost one year ago, when New York magazine’s food blog published an item with a breathless headline that proved prescient: “Introducing the Cronut, a Doughnut-Croissant Hybrid That May Very Well Change Your Life.” Ansel credits the story for much of the early attention lavished on his hybrid pastry.
Within three days, customers were showing up before opening. By week two, the bakery was handing out baked treats to the lengthening queue, a ritual Ansel borrowed from a restaurant in Japan at which cans of beer are doled out to guests in line. Unverified tales of black market Cronut sales and people scavenging for scraps in the bakery’s garbage spread across the Internet.
Whatever magic formula propelled the Cronut into the popular imagination, it isn’t something Ansel has been able to recreate at the same scale for his other pastries. He patiently praises them in interviews, trying to foster some measure of attention for his overlooked children. Some even apply the same whimsical Frankensteinian approach that worked once before. There’s the Magic Soufflé, which smuggles a chocolate soufflé inside an orange blossom brioche, and the miraculously engineered Frozen S’mores, in which ice cream is placed inside chocolate wafer which is inside a blowtorched marshmallow.
“The Cronut is a beautiful invention,” Ansel says, “but I am proud to have all of them, you know? Those pastries are as good and as creative as the Cronut is.”
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This article originally published at Businessweek
Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/05/07/dominique-ansel-wins-james-beard-award/
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