The world of baking has exploded in the last decade; our towns and cities are increasingly offering shops and cafes based on artisanal pastries and cakes. Leading the charge of this new generation is internationally-renowned chef, Dominique Ansel. From his origins in Northern France via the military where he learned to cook, Chef Dominique Ansel has built a business that stretches across three continents. He has shops that have queues of people round the block hours before opening just to get a taste; oh and along the way he still found time to invent the Cronut®.
When we heard he was opening his first full service restaurant in LA to add to his bakeries in London, New York and Tokyo, we jumped at the chance to interview the global leader in the industry.
You're opening a full service restaurant in LA soon; what can we expect to see on the menu?
For me, food is about memories, having narrative and telling a story. For our LA restaurant, what’s really exciting is that this is our first chance to tell that narrative through a full meal from start to finish. We’re working on developing the menu, but in the end, I want to cook food that’s relatable, but something that will always have that little twist so that your experience becomes a memorable one. Plus, we’ll have access to all the amazing fresh California and West Coast produce out there, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Having trained as a chef before becoming known as one of the world’s most exciting and renowned bakers, does it make you nervous or excited to be returning to the pass?
A little bit of both, but it’s definitely exciting and I’m not just working alone; we’re building a really talented team of chefs who share the same drive as me to create something really special and really unique for our guests. When you’re used to being a pastry chef, you usually get the smallest corner and the smallest table in the restaurant kitchen, but this time, we have a full kitchen at our fingertips and the chance to tell a whole story through our menu and manage the full breadth of a menu, not just the dessert courses at the end.
It’s also a chance for us to show our hospitality. In a Bakery, it’s must more fast-paced and you’re face-to-face with each guest for just a minute or two, sometimes just seconds, but when it comes to a seated restaurant, it’s a chance for to take care of that guest for an hour or two and really make that a memorable experience for them.
The bakery in Soho NYC has long queues for the Cronut® every day; what would you queue for?
I don’t mind lines at all. In Tokyo, there are lines for all the best places, and you know its’ good when there’s a line out the door. I never mind waiting for something that’s going to be good, like all the great ramen and yakitori spots in Japan.
The rise of Instagram has seen food given a global platform, and it's well known that how a dish looks is really important to it's overall appeal, do you sketch the ideas or just keep trying plating until you find what works best?
I usually see a dish in my mind before all else, but a lot of my team sketche out ideas. For me, once I have a concept in mind, it’s a matter of working on the presentation and refining the flavours and the taste until it’s ready. I also never think a dish is ever really complete; there’s always some other way to improve on it, to make it even better. At the end of the day though, making something that just looks good or has an interesting presentation that’ll look great on Instagram isn’t enough; it has to taste good too. You can have the most beautiful dish but if it taste horrible, then what’s the point?
Baking at home has seen a huge explosion in the last few years and become very popular on TV, but is there anything more frustrating than watching someone make a stunning cake knowing you won't get to try it?
No. Just seeing people getting excited about pastry and baking is great. When you’re a chef, you develop a real love for seeing people eat and enjoy your food, so it’s fun to watch other people create and enjoy their food too.
You did part of your national service in French Guiana as well as travelling the world cooking; will influences from your travels be on display in the new restaurant?
Traveling is one of the biggest influences when it comes to creating new dishes and brainstorming new ideas. For LA in particular, travel will most definitely be an inspiration for the restaurant menu. LA is one of those cities that’s just so vast and so eclectic, and that’s really reflective in the food scene there, where one minute you can be grilling some of the best Korean BBQ, then head out for Ethiopian food, or stopping for the best tacos from a late-night taco truck. It’s the perfect place where you can blend cultures and get creative with your food, and people are really open to trying new things too. Don’t expect me to cook French just because I’m French.
Famously you started your culinary career by spending all your savings on a car and driving to Paris; do you remember what car it was and what did you do with it?
It was a beat-up Renault 5. It was nearly falling apart when I got it. I tried to sell it at one point, but no one wanted it!
Philanthropy has become a huge part of your life, what inspired you to find a way to use your unique skills to raise so much for charities?
Giving back is something that’s really important to me, particularly with charities like the Food Bank of New York and God’s Love We Deliver that help to fight hunger. I didn’t grow up having much, so I’m really grateful now to be able to give back and help out wherever I can. I remember when the Cronut® first launched in 2013, just in that first year alone, we were able to raise over $100,000 just by auctioning off twenty-four Cronut® pastries.
You've lived in the U.S. for a long time now; what is the first thing you do when you get back to France?
I always head to a local neighbourhood bistro, somewhere that hasn’t changed in years that makes you feel like you’re having something that’s home-cooked. I love Le Baratin whenever I have a chance to go to Paris. If you were to think of a quintessential French bistro from a romantic movie, this would be it. It’s run by a couple, with the wife running the kitchen and her husband at the bar up at the front of the house, and the menu is up on the blackboard with ingredients and dishes that change daily. The veal brains are my favourite, with lemon butter sauce, chives and soft baby potatoes.
I'm British, and for all Brit's there is a never-ending debate you may be able to help us settle, what is the best biscuit to dunk into tea? It's not a Rich Tea biscuit for sure.
As a French man who lives in NYC, I think I’m well aware enough that I’m not apt to answer this question [laughs].
The culinary industry is hugely involved with apprenticeships and learning on the job, do you think it's a model other industries could learn from?
Absolutely. In the culinary industry, you learn so much from apprenticing and learning from your mentors and that in turn helps you to teach others later. I think that in any creative industry – art, fashion, music, tech, etc., apprenticeships and internships are really important and the skills that you learn will be valuable and applicable to your career path later down the road.
With businesses on both coasts in the US, London and Japan, you must spend a lot of time on planes; do you eat airline food?
I eat everything when I’m on a flight. I end up watching a lot of movies and trying all the food. Asiana, China Airlines and Japan Airlines are all quite good when it comes to the food that’s served on board.
Final question, almost everyone will tell people their mum is the best cook they know; what do you miss from your mum’s kitchen?
Nothing. My mom was actually a horrible cook. I grew up in a really poor area in France and it was often pretty tough for my family to have dinner on the table each night. It’s in part one of the reasons why I became a chef, having to start working in a kitchen when I was a teenager to help my family and to do something better for myself and for my future.
Thanks for the time Chef Dominique, I think I need to book myself a first-ever trip to LA in the Autumn!