James Beard Awards: NYC’s 2013 rookie class

Get to know the culinary talent—chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders—repping NYC at the James Beard Awards for the first time this year.

Dominique Ansel

Dominique Ansel Photograph: Thomas Schauer

Dominique Ansel, Dominique Ansel Bakery
Nominee: Outstanding Pastry Chef

You were executive pastry chef at Daniel when they received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year in 2010. What would it mean to win one on your own?
It’s wonderful recognition from people in the food industry. Daniel has been one of the best restaurants in the country so many times and has won so many awards. To receive this kind of recognition just after a year and a half in business, it’s very flattering.

What’s the most important lesson you learned at Daniel?
The most important thing I learned has nothing to do with the kitchen, it was more about making customers happy. Working in a bakery, you never had to interact with customers, but at Daniel, that was very important. I was going out to the dining room to meet customers and hearing what they liked, what makes them happy, what makes them special. They’re coming for a night and ordering special desserts, you have to be able to make it even if you’re short on time or don’t have the right equipment.

How did you get into baking?
I started working when I was 16. I was not very sure what I wanted to do, but I really liked to cook at home with my dad so I was like ’Maybe I’ll try to be a chef.’ I found an apprenticeship with a small restaurant in the town where I’m from and after two years of cooking, I wanted to learn about pastry.

What was the first item you learned to make?
It was a cake with very refined walnut flour. It did well on the menu. People loved it and they loved it even more when I was making it. Chefs do pastries, but they don’t all follow recipes. I was good at it because I was precise.

Do you have a favorite creation?
One of our signatures is the kouign amann. We call it the DKA and it’s a flaky, caramelized croissant. It’s something very special to me because I learned to make it when I was back in France at Fauchon. Our other signature is the Paris-New York, a take on the Paris-Brest, which is a cream puff with hazelnuts. I wanted to bring the two cultures together, so I paired peanut butter, caramel and chocolate. It reminds a little bit of the Snickers bar, which to me is something very American. I remember training for a marathon and after a run, grabbing a Snickers bar because I really needed sugar. It’s all the sugar I can eat in a day.

Another all-American dessert—the cupcake—has been back in the news recently. Are you a fan?
I’m not against cupcakes and I will occasionally try them. I like the Sprinkles cupcakes because they’re very clean and simple in flavor. I know people use artificial flavors and food coloring for cupcakes. I’m not really into that.

What’s next for you? Any plans to open a second Dominique Ansel?
Yes, eventually, but it’ll be something different. As I was saying, there’s only one Daniel and I think it’s important to keep your identity and to know who you are and what you do. Dominique Ansel bakery will not become a chain, but I’ll eventually develop different concept.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
I will probably call all of my team and have a drink together. We have 15 people all together, about six or seven in the kitchen. It’s tiny, but it’s a big team for a small bakery. They work very hard for me.