Dominique Ansel: The Leading Light of Pastry
Alex Halberstadt investigates the magical allure of Cronuts™ and their now-famous inventor.
The next time you read about Dominique Ansel, the pastry chef of the moment, don't envy him. During the several days we spent together, I began to think of him as a kind of confectionary Van Gogh—a pioneering artist molested by a capricious destiny. Over the course of our brief acquaintance, Ansel taught me about the quickening power of the Internet, perseverance and the passive-aggressive behavior of the first couple of France.
I first scoped out the Cronut™ frenzy in front of Ansel's eponymous Soho, New York, bakery on an early morning in October. At 6:45 it was still murky, but the line had wound its way along the chain-link fence of the Vesuvio Playground and around the corner, onto Thompson Street. Among the youngish, drowsy Cronut™ hopefuls, the savvy had brought friends, and lounged in folding chairs or on discreetly placed cardboard; others stood, drawn up in the chill, their downturned faces lit by the bluish glare of smart-phones. The reason for the commotion was, of course, Ansel's croissant-doughnut hybrid—laminated, glazed, heightened to beehive-hairdo proportions, fried in grapeseed oil and injected with a filling of the month, like Tahitian vanilla cream and caramelized apple.
Ansel chose pastry making because he's always enjoyed the scientific rigor of the craft, and emulsifying custards and laminating paper-thin doughs afforded him opportunities to calculate and measure. He's worked at Fauchon, the Fabergé of sweets on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, and for six years was the executive pastry chef at the restaurant Daniel. Ansel—who is 36 but looks 28, with milk-chocolate eyes and a forehead of professorial elevation—sleeps barely five hours a night and is happiest tracing precise vectors with a bag of ginger-infused crème anglaise. He is soft-spoken and mild and organically averse to notoriety. Which is why there exists considerable irony in Ansel becoming the custodian of the world's most viral dessert, a situation that has forced him to hire Johann, a security guard shaped like a Coke machine, to discourage line-cutting, peddling and scalping outside the shop. The Cronut™ has impelled him to submit to thousands of personal questions, and to be photographed surreptitiously on the premises of Manhattan dry cleaners, and to be told by glucose-addled strangers, on an almost hourly basis, that he has changed their life. You have to feel for the guy. It's as though Henrik Ibsen had written Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Cronut™ cult, like Presbyterianism, has spread rapidly across the land. For Ansel, who grew up poor in France, counting coins on the floor of his apartment, the culmination of his unbidden fame was a recent visit from Valérie Trierweiler, the soignée girlfriend of France's president François Hollande, who swept into the bakery with a detail of bodyguards and consular workers. She wanted to meet the chef she'd been hearing so much about in Paris. She handed Ansel her phone. "It's the President," she said. On the other end, Hollande told the dumbstruck Ansel how proud France was of his accomplishments. Trierweiler also expressed pride because "the Cronut™ is French." Ansel began to say that his invention was as much American as French, but she interrupted. "It's French because you're French," she said, bringing their confab to a close.
At this juncture, I'd like to address a possibly distracting typographical issue about Ansel's best-known creation. He introduced the Cronut™ on May 10, 2013, and nine days later, on the advice of his attorney, filed an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. The USPTO has since received 12 applications—from parties other than Ansel—attempting to trademark the indelible name, and his attorney has been busy mailing cease-and-desist letters to supermarket chains, industrial bakers and other entities that have attempted to bask, extralegally, in the croissant-doughnut bonanza. In any case, the spelling of Cronut™ is no longer a lexical whim but a matter of international law, enforced in more than 30 countries under the Madrid Protocol by the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.
Little about Ansel's biography foretold his present eminence. He grew up an unlovely hour north of Paris, in Beauvais; with its hives of public housing and teenage gangs, it's almost certainly the single most blighted city in France. Three siblings, his parents, grandmother and a cousin shared two rooms with him in the local projects. Ansel let on that his mother wasn't the thriftiest with the family budget, and by month's end, he would sometimes dine on stale bread soaked in milk and heated in the oven. At his first job—the 16-year-old Ansel washed dishes and swept floors at a family restaurant—a sous-chef heated a metal spatula over the gas range and used it to brand Ansel's forearm. The only cooking classes he could afford were offered by the city and entailed preparing food in the kitchen of a nursing home. His ticket out of Beauvais was the mandatory draft—he enlisted a year before it was abolished—and he spent a year at the Republic's least popular military outpost, in the humid rainforest of French Guiana. He said his quick way with the regional dialect and a job in the kitchen were all that averted the death threats that greeted him at the army base; nearly every enlisted man was a local of African descent, and some weren't too keen on their colonial masters. "But when you work with people's food," Ansel added, "they generally don't mess with you."
Back home, he traded his savings for an elderly Renault coupe and drove to Paris, where he knew no one. He worked his way up from a neighborhood bakery to a holiday-help stint at Fauchon; only one of the 32 seasonal workers would be offered a permanent job, and Ansel won it. He went on to hold nearly every position at the Parisian institution, eventually opening new shops abroad when the company decided to expand. In Moscow, he single-handedly trained a group of novice bakers to make some of the world's most filigreed pastry—speaking Russian. His interpreter disappeared on the second day, so Ansel bought a dictionary. One morning, he noticed several young cooks in his kitchen wearing particularly vivid makeup; they said they had applied it the previous night, before heading to their other jobs as strippers.
In 2006, Ansel arrived in New York City with nothing but two suitcases, to take over the top pastry job at Daniel. The situation in the restaurant's kitchen turned out to be rather unlike the choreographed service in the dining room. "When Daniel [Boulud] got in my face, I yelled back at him. A few times we really got into it, and I remember chasing him through the kitchen and the cooks around us scattering. But we always smiled and shook hands the next morning."
All along, Ansel planned to open his own, considerably less French operation. Instead of Fauchon, with its coiffed, suited salespeople, he envisioned a casual shop with a lunch trade, good coffee and "nobody with a French accent to give you attitude." He opened his doors in Soho in 2011. In addition to traditional staples like macarons, cannelés de Bordeaux and his DKA (a shrink-ray version of the Breton pastry kouign amann), Ansel began to think up increasingly strange and original inventions, many inspired by American flavors like peanut butter and sweet potato. The most theatrical was the Frozen S'more: a vanilla-flavored core of elastic frozen custard—inspired by Turkish dondurma—in a chocolate feuilletine wafer under a layer of marshmallow, stabbed with an applewood-smoked willow branch and torched to order.
Though he may be the most inventive pastry chef going, Ansel isn't forthcoming about what drives him to invent; he spoke to me about creativity the way NBA players speak to play-by-play announcers about "stepping up." But he was surely on to something when he remarked that at least one of his pastries was inspired by dreams. Consider his disconcertingly mimetic Apple Marshmallow. A whipped vanilla marshmallow with the texture of Champagne foam, a blood-colored milk chocolate shell and an unexpected center of salted caramel, it contains more than a sprinkling of dream logic.
On the morning I visited the bakery, I arrived a few minutes before the first batch of customers would be let in, and Ansel was conferring coolly with his counter staff, some of whom had the sunken-cheeked look of people anticipating severe trauma. Ansel opened the doors and greeted the waiting before they were ushered into another, shorter line along the counter by a young woman with an air-traffic-controller manner. Soon, they discovered the small glass room in the back where two chefs were injecting Cronuts™ with the business end of a pastry bag; a volley of flash photography ensued. Ansel shot me a smile and a shrug before he was borne away for photos and testimonials, and I sat at a table on the terrace with my own personal Cronut™, cut it in half, and took a bite. It was pretty good.
Alex Halberstadt has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. He's working on a family memoir called Young Heroes of the Soviet Union.