Award-winning pastry chef Dominique Ansel's Cronut is famed for its taste, but also the round-the-block lines it prompts at his New York bakery. And now he's bringing the hype to London's Belgravia. Fiona Sims reports
I've never tried a Cronut. There, I've said it. The buzz surrounding the croissant/doughnut hybrid created by French-born New York chef Dominique Ansel swept the globe three years ago, prompting Time magazine to declare it one of the 25 Best Inventions of 2013.
Glazed on the top, the now extensively trademarked Cronut is filled with a flavoured cream and sugared like a doughnut, but uses laminated dough that is not that dissimilar to a croissant. It is crispy on the outside with soft layers within, say its fans.
But I'll have to wait until 30 September to try it, when Ansel opens his new London bakery on the Victoria end of Belgravia's Elizabeth Street. So instead I settle for a stab at one of his recipes from his cookbook, Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes - his first, published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster.
Many of the recipes are pages long (seven for the Gingerbread Pinecone) and I'm no pastry chef, but they are helpfully split into Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced, so I choose the former's chocolate pecan cookies. They are the best chocolate cookies I've ever tasted. And I tell Ansel this, with a little chocolate still smeared on my chin, as we meet outside his soon-to-be-opened London venture.
Dominique Ansel's Cronuts
"I get excited by simple things. Take the arlette," says Ansel, snappily dressed in a navy suit. The lesser-known cousin of the palmier, the delicate, buttery arlette is a lot more work and incredibly fragile, yet it is one of Ansel's most beloved pastries. "It melts on the tongue. The skill and finesse required to make such a beautiful object means it should be treasured."
And Ansel enjoys making beautiful things. From his time spent working at legendary Parisian bakery Fauchon to the six years he spent as pastry chef at New York's Daniel, helping to win its third Michelin star, his "creations" are all - be it the complex Gingerbread Pinecone or his simple chocolate cookie - as beautiful as they are tasty.
There's no doubting the visual treat in store for his customers. In addition to his first New York bakery, which opened in 2011 when Ansel was 34 years old, there is his second NYC shop located in the West Village, called Dominique Ansel Kitchen, which opened in April 2015. It takes a step away from the traditional bakery concept, as more than 70% of the menu is either made, finished or assembled to order. His Tokyo bakery opened in June 2015, followed a month later by U.P (short for 'unlimited possibilities'), his after-hours tasting table hidden in the Dominique Ansel Kitchen, where Ansel serves a multi-course, all-dessert tasting menu, complete with cocktail and wine pairings.
Some critics, most notably The Guardian's Jay Rayner, were less than kind about Ansel's move in the latter direction, but there is no shortage of praise for his bakery creations, and the London opening is hotly anticipated.
"We wanted the bakery in London to be a neighbourhood business, like it is in New York. We want people to drop by regularly. I want to get to know my customers. It's important to have pastries that are affordable for everyone," says Ansel, who charges a bargain $6.50 (less than £5) for that intricate Gingerbread Pinecone - "not the most profitable thing I've done," he admits.
"It's great that there is a pastry culture already established on Elizabeth Street, with Peggy Porschen and PoilÁ¢ne on the same street. The space is great, but the lovely courtyard garden out the back is the real attraction for me," explains Ansel, who will offer 20 tables outside and 30 tables inside.
So what deliciousness can we expect from the London bakery? In addition to showcasing some of Ansel's signature items, London will get some of its own exclusives, such as the Welsh Rarebit Croissant, with beer béchamel, sharp Cheddar and Worcestershire reduction, and the Banoffee Paella - Ansel's version of banoffee pie, baked in a paella pan then flipped upside down to reveal all the slices of caramelised banana, sliced to order and served with a dollop of fresh whipped cream on top. Plus there's the seasonal Millefeuille Dosa, served with fresh berries, jam and mascarpone cream.
Cannele de Bordeaux
The Cronut wasn't the only recipe of Ansel's to go viral. The Frozen S'Mores were a big hit, too, dreamed up during a heatwave, with Ansel relishing the challenge of creating a frozen marshmallow that would remain chewy. The Cookie Shot, too, has them queuing around the block - this time from 3pm, and he sells 1,000 of them a day.
When Ansel first opened in New York's Soho in 2011, everyone told him it wouldn't work - New York wasn't ready for a French bakery. "It surprised me. But I didn't want to do cupcakes, nor did I want to do the kind of pastry shop that had chandeliers and naked statues. I wanted something more intimate - somewhere that makes you feel good, a place you keep coming back to."
His only competition when he opened was a few old-school Italian restaurants, yet business was good from the start. "Right from the beginning I changed the menu continually - around 70% changes completely every six to eight weeks, and that's the same for Tokyo, and it will be the same in London. We've created over 100 new pastries since we opened in Tokyo. At first, people kept asking me why I wasn't doing the strawberry tart any more, and I had to explain that strawberries weren't in season. Now people come back and ask me what's on the menu," he says.
And the Cronut is no longer Ansel's best-selling item - that's the DKA, which stands for 'Dominique's Kouign Amann'. Pronounced kween ah-mahn, the Breton caramelised croissant-like bun features a sugar crust and is lighter than the traditional version. "I modified the recipe to decrease the butter and sugar, which resulted in a lighter texture," he explains. Ansel makes 500-600 DKAs every day, and up to 1,000 DKAs in the Tokyo shop.
DKA (Dominique's Kouign Amann)
So apart from his native France, from where else does he draw inspiration? "I'm curious. I like to try new things. I like to learn about different cultures. When I go to Tokyo I always get inspired - and not just by the food, but also by architecture, art and fashion. London inspires me, too. There's such an amazing cultural mix here and so many different styles of cooking. Don't get me wrong, New York is very creative, but there is another level of creativity going on here that is hugely inspiring," declares Ansel, highlighting Hoppers and Barrafina among his latest favourite London dining spots.
So what will go viral in the UK? My money is on the rarebit.
Chocolate chip cookie shot
The Cronut craze
Dominique Ansel has trademarked the CronutÂ® in around 50 countries worldwide, including the UK and the US, but that doesn't stop the legion of Cronut imitators out there. "There are a lot of bad copies. It's just abusing the customer. I think a respectable chef should have his own creations," shrugs Ansel.
"There was no magic formula or marketing strategy behind this croissant-doughnut hybrid; it was simply another creation," says Ansel of the pastry that made his name. "It's a beautiful story, actually. One day my team wanted to eat doughnuts and having no recipe, I decided to make my own. I grew up with the croissant and I love layers, so this is what I came up with. It took me three months to get it right."
And when he had got it right, a blogger friend, Hugh Merwin, who writes for New York magazine, stopped by to try it and he loved it. "He took some pictures, wrote a story about it, and the article went viral. He rang me to tell me that I should prepare myself, and make more Cronut pastries for the next day. Three days after we launched it, on a May morning in 2013, there were 150 people waiting outside three hours before we opened," says Ansel.
By the end of the week there were queues stretching for two and a half blocks, with second-hand Cronut pastries changing hands on the black market for $100. But instead of fearing the queue (they were a team of just four) they have embraced it, handing out hot chocolate and hand warmers to those who wait patiently in the winter, even serenading the queues with carol singers during Christmas.
And did they ramp up production and start scouting out industrial units? Nope. "My dad worked in a factory when I was a kid, so I knew I never wanted to do that. It kills creativity. Yes, you could replicate the Cronut to a certain level but you would never get the same quality. We have to adjust that recipe every day, depending on the weather. I might use a different flour, with a different gluten content, and I can only make that decision by touch and experience," reasons Ansel.
"We make 400-450 Cronuts a day, that's it. And I sell out every day. Three years on and we still have 80-100 customers queuing outside every morning before we open the New York shop," says Ansel, who offers a different flavour filling each month.
Dominique Ansel - the early years
Ansel hails from the city of Beauvais in the Picardy region of France, 75km north of Paris. The youngest of four children, his father worked in a factory. "I didn't grow up eating good food - we couldn't afford it. My mother was a terrible cook, so that pushed me to be in the kitchen. When I was 16 years old, my parents didn't have any money to send me to college so I found a job in a restaurant, and went to cooking school one day a week - I thought it would be an easy way for me to help support the family and learn while on the job."
His first year in the kitchen was horrible, he remembers. "It was a really abusive environment. But then we got a new boss, who had worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, and he was very supportive. I learned so much from him - he taught me about passion, he even bought me a set of knives. I did everything in that kitchen, including desserts. I loved how creative and artistic you could be with pastry; there's only so much you can do with a piece of meat."
So Ansel went on to do a bakery apprenticeship. Then, after a year doing military service in Guiana where he taught locals how to cook, he bought a car with his savings and drove to Paris.
"I was still a young kid - just 20 years old. I dropped off my CV at every bakery in the city until someone gave me a job," he remembers. After working another year at a neighbourhood bakery, he landed a four-month trial at legendary Parisian pÁ¢tisserie Fauchon, where Ansel managed to beat 20 or so other cooks for one highly coveted permanent position, working there for seven years, and opening shops for the company all over the world.
Then he got a call out of the blue from New York chef Daniel Boulud (who has written the foreword for Ansel's book). "Daniel took one bite of my desserts and said: 'when can you start?'," grins Ansel. He looked after the pastry section at Daniel for the next six years, helping the restaurant to win its third Michelin star. "In 2011, I decided to fly on my own, so I spent all my savings on a little place in Soho." The awards followed, most notably the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2014.