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Interview: Dominique Ansel

The Cronut's creator loves Japanese food, nail art and even Gudetama – and stays fit by eating one of his signature sweets every day

Photo by Christopher Lloyd

No serious foodie can have missed the Cronut craze: a couple of years back, demand for Dominique Ansel's endlessly hyped hybrid masterpiece shot through the roof on a global scale, with New Yorkers joined by fans from all over the world in queuing up for a bite of the revolutionary croissant-doughnut.

Since then, the French-born pastry chef has kept us in his sweet grip with creations like frozen s’mores, cookie shots and DKA pastries, and recently stopped by Tokyo to celebrate the Cronut's third birthday at Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando. A fan of all things Japan – washoku, nail art and Gudetama, the 'lazy egg' – Ansel took a few minutes to tell us about his life, success, and staying in shape by eating a Cronut every single day.

 

When did you decide that becoming a pastry chef was the career path for you?

My interest in becoming a chef grew over time. I started working in the kitchen when I was barely 16 years old, and at the time my parents didn’t have any money, so I had to find a job to support the family. I found a job in a restaurant, and at the same time I was going to culinary school. So that’s how it started. I didn’t know I was going to love it that much, and didn’t know that I’ll be doing what I do today. It was never in my mind where I was like ‘I want to be a chef’.

So when did you ‘know’?

Just after the first year. My first year wasn't easy and was actually pretty rough, but the second year we had a new boss that bought the restaurant where I was working at. He was really young, passionate, and was from Paris where he had worked as a sous chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant. One of the most important things I ever learned from him was to love my job. He taught me how to respect the ingredients and understand what I was doing. So after one year I really liked it, but my first year was horrible.

What’s the toughest job you had to do?

I’ve done everything. Clean the bathroom, sweep the floor, take out the trash, and I washed dishes for like a whole year! But it’s okay, because we learn this way. I still do it if I have to!

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Photo credit: Chris Lloyd

Your Tokyo location has already been here for a year. It must have been very difficult opening a store in another country.

I think the most important thing for me is to connect locally with people, with the culture, and understanding the tradition. Understanding what they eat and how they eat it. So I try to eat out as much as I can at different restaurants and see what people eat. I speak with people [in Japan] from New York over Skype, so we brainstorm a lot on what and why they [Japanese people] like it. And this is why 40 percent of our menu is dedicated to [exclusive] creations for Tokyo.

The Cronut must be one of the most Instagrammed foods ever, and you even made a set where people can take photos for social media purposes at this Tokyo location – do you enjoy Instagramming and documenting food yourself?

Of course, a lot! Have you seen my Instagram? Everything I eat I find quite photogenic and I love taking photos of food. I think it’s important to communicate with our guests, to be closer to them and to show them what we work on. It’s a great way of communicating with our customers.

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The Cronut

We heard you trademarked the Cronut name nine days after you released the pastry. Did you expect it to get a lot of attention in such a short time?

At the time we only had four employees and myself, and there was no PR strategy. We had good pastries, kept on changing the menu with innovative creations. So even with all the money in the world, no one can plan something like this. I mean, I was surprised about the excitement that people had for the Cronut, and it opened a lot of beautiful doors for us and led us to opportunities like Tokyo. I’m very grateful that happened and we keep on working hard. We don’t take it for granted.

The first day we had the Cronut we made only 15 pieces. My kitchen in New York was no bigger than a table. It's a little bigger now, but that's how we started. One table, a small fridge and a freezer, and that was it. We couldn’t do that many so we only made 15, and this blogger from Grubstreet came and he put it on his blog on a Saturday afternoon I believe, around 1pm.

Around 6pm he gave me a call and told me that the article went viral. And I was like 'Great. So what does that mean?’ and he said, ‘You should be ready to get busy this weekend. We had an increase of traffic of 300 percent on our website and over 140,000 links for the articles.’ The second day we had over 50 people, and by the third day we had over 150 people waiting outsde.

I opened the door with my staff, shaking and being scared in the morning. I had to do inspirational speeches for them. We’ve grown a lot since then and now we can make more Cronuts, but it all started with a nice simple creation and something thoughtful for our guests.

Do you bring any New York flavours to Tokyo?

No, we haven’t repeated a single flavour since we opened. 36 flavours in New York for three years and not a single one repeated. Same goes for Tokyo, we change it every time.

How many calories are in a Cronut? Do calories even matter when you’re thinking of a new creation?

I don’t know, you know? There are some very specific tests you need to run. The dough is different from a croissant – same technique, but different recipe. So it’s hard to calculate calories like this. Of course you want food to be healthy, but you don’t eat ten of it everyday. People eat it occasionally. Guests come once a month for the new flavour – it’s not like casually getting a bag of potato chips. But I eat one Cronut every day!

Really? Tell us your secret to staying fit!

I’m on my fit [routine] all day long. I eat a Cronut and a DKA every day. Have you had a DKA before? It’s my favourite, so good. I love it! I shouldn’t say that actually – I love them all. I have to watch what I eat, but I’m fit all day long, so.  

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Photo credit: Chris Lloyd

I heard you love Asian food. Have you discovered any favourites?

I love Asian food, especially Japanese food. I’m not saying this just because we’re in Japan. I eat Japanese food almost every day in New York. Do you know Aburiya Kinnosuke? It’s a restaurant in Midtown. I love soba. Soba Totto, have you been? They have really good yakitori, and good soba of course.

How about Tokyo?

I went to this place where they specialise in meat, but it’s far away. You grill your own meat but it’s a small restaurant and not fancy at all. There’s no venting, so after half an hour I’m crying and crying, but the food was so good. It was really amazing.

If today was your last day on Earth, what's the last dessert you’ll eat?

Probably all of them here! But if I had to choose one it would be the DKA. It stands for Dominique's Kouign Amann and is a flaky croissant. This is our bestseller in New York and Tokyo. There’s something about the simplicity of it that people really enjoy. I’ve been eating DKA since the opening of the shop for the past five years or so – I absolutely love it.

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The DKA

You threw an all-you-can-eat pie party in NYC last year. How was that, and are you planning to bring something similar to Tokyo?

I’m not sure, who knows. I like to mix things up and come up with new ideas all the time. The pie night was actually inspired by just me, who wanted to take our team managers out for a team-building activity, and I decided to take them apple picking in New Jersey. I drove the entire team in a minivan and went apple picking but they got a little bit competitive and ended up getting so many apples, so we decided to throw a little party for our guests and decided to put tickets on our website.

We announced the party and after five seconds, our website crashed. We had too much traffic and had three designers working on the website but couldn’t get it back up. So we posted on Instagram and Twitter telling people we’ll give tickets to people who email us, so we received over 750 emails in less than three minutes.

What's one advice you give to aspiring pastry chefs?

Not to be afraid. Not to be afraid of how much work you have to put into something, throwing new ideas out there, trying and studying something on your own. Throughout my career, people have always been telling me not to do things, like not to open a shop in New York City since New York wasn’t ready for French pastries, and not to change the menu too much.

So I didn’t listen to anyone and did the opposite. Our shop isn’t like a typical French bakery, you know? There’s no chandelier and gold everywhere. It’s really casual and relaxed. It’s a place where people are happy. You can sit for five minutes or an hour, no one’s going to kick you out.

What do you do besides working at the bakery while travelling here in Tokyo?

I like to stay aware of what’s happening in the city. It’s been hard for me to come and not get stuck in the kitchen. I took my team with me and we went to see all the pastry shops and say hi to the chefs. I like to see what’s happening locally. I went to the 21 21 museum [21_21 Design Sight] last time for an exhibition curated by Issey Miyake, and there were art show pieces in movement. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to use these ideas in a pastry, but I like being inspired and seeing other forms of art.

Check out Dominique Ansel's latest creations at his Tokyo café, Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando.

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Photo credit: Chris Lloyd

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Photo credit: Chris Lloyd

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