Chef Dominique Ansel is synonymous with the Cronut®, but you don’t earn the 2014 James Beard Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” and get named the 2017 “World’s Best Pastry Chef” by being a one-hit wonder. The France native started working in restaurants starting at age 16, spent nearly eight years expanding the Fauchon brand abroad, and worked for six years as Executive Pastry chef for Daniel Boulud on a team that earned four stars from The New York Times. Ansel opened a small bakery in SoHo in 2011. He and partner Amy Ma have since expanded to Tokyo and London and recently launched their most ambitious project at The Grove in L.A. You’ll find a large Dominique Ansel Bakery right on the main plaza, with their first restaurant upstairs. 189 by Dominique Ansel serves creative riffs on French classics and other plates that defy easy categorization. Leading up to their grand opening, I met Ansel in a booth that’s backed by a pattern designed to mirror a croissant’s inner crumb, and he better explained his approach.
Joshua Lurie: Did you always plan to cook in restaurants for a living, or did you consider other careers?
Dominique Ansel: I started working in kitchens when I 16 years old. At the time it was not really a dream. It was more of necessity. I left school and had to help support the family. I’m the last of four children. My dad used to work in a factory. My mom was at home taking care of the kids. We were in a poor neighborhood, so when I was 16, I decided to find a job and bring money home. I thought that working in restaurants would be easy, but I was wrong. I was really wrong, and I found out very early. I was working 16 hours a day washing dishes and sweeping the floor. Then I graduated to garde manger and would clean the salads and clean the fish, and more and more. I went to culinary school at the same time. I was going to school one week every month. I got an actual culinary education. That’s how I started. I had no big dreams of becoming a chef.
JL: What do you find most satisfying about working in restaurants?
DA: The most satisfying part is the people and the joy and happiness you can bring to guests. We carry memories and emotions to people’s tables. It’s not always just through the food. It’s not always how exceptional it is, how unique it is. It’s how you connect with the guest. That’s a pretty big driver for me to see people excited about what we do, and then come back and trust us because we deliver something else, more than just food.
JL: Why did you decide to open in Los Angeles?
DA: This is a huge country. We have people traveling from California all the time to New York, and even to Japan, to see us. It’s an amazing opportunity to be here. Los Angeles food culture is amazing. It’s so ethnically diverse, and there are some great chefs and great talent here. I love the weather. Coming here, it was an amazing opportunity for us to do something special with the space that we have. In New York, we have a tiny, tiny little shop. We have more options and more opportunities to express ourselves in different outlets, whether it’s the bakery, restaurant, or bar.
JL: How specifically did this opportunity at The Grove come about?
DA: I came here for a pop-up at The Grove almost four years ago. We did a pop-up for charity. We brought the Cronut® here for charity, for kids in Los Angeles. We had almost 700 people show up on a rainy day when we thought nobody would show up. It was amazing to see so many people excited about food. We always see people lined up for electronics and shoes, but when you can do the same with food and get people excited, it’s an amazing opportunity. I’ve always had a great relationship with The Grove and Rick Caruso. When we came here, they went above and beyond any expectations in terms of giving people hospitality, passing them food while waiting in line while it was a deluge outside. It’s a lot of what we do in New York, so naturally, we connected.
JL: What are the biggest challenges in making sure your food is unique in each city? How important is differentiating locations for you?
DA: It’s everything. I worked for years at Fauchon. I was in charge of developing the brand internationally. I would travel and open the same concept and same pastry shops around the world. Some of these were a huge success. Some of them didn’t work as well. Early on I realized that being personal to the location and to the people was important. In all my travels, I would talk to locals and learn who they are and what they eat, why they eat this way. I think that’s my personality. I don’t like cookie-cutters. I don’t like repeating the same concept exactly. I like every location to have its own personality and finding connections with the locals. What they eat. How they eat it. Why they like it. And creating new dishes based on those facts. Culturally, locally, there are differences.
JL: Is there any risk that by opening in multiple cities, that your food becomes less special in New York or in each city?
DA: Every location is special. We have created hundreds of pastries in Japan that we have never brought anywhere else. Same in London. Same in New York. Creativity is not something you can turn off. Being creative is something I live for. Coming up with new ideas, I love it. It’s challenging. It’s difficult, but this is who I am. I don’t get tired of it. I get excited the more I do it. Personalizing those creations, those dishes, to locals, is who were are. This is our DNA as a company.
JL: You’re clearly not a one-hit wonder, but you’ve become synonymous with the Cronut®. Has there been any downside to creating such a signature pastry?
DA: The Cronut® is a beautiful creation. I will always love it. Of course everyone wants to talk about it…sometimes overshadowing some of our other creations that should be mentioned…After I created the Cronut®, I told myself, we won’t let our creation kill our creativity, and I will move forward from there. After the Cronut®, I created frozen S’mores, the cookie shots, and hundreds of other pastries. They’re not as popular as the Cronut®, but some of them are really close. People talk mostly about the Cronut®. It’s beautiful to have that creation. It’s like a singer. If you have a popular song, people always want you to sing that song. A singer wants to sing something else; they want to sing more songs. It’s the same with what I do.
I love the Cronut®. We change the flavor every month, which keeps it very unique. It’s the same creation, but it’s very eclectic. We’ve never duplicated any flavors in any countries, so they’re all really unique. We keep on moving forward and creating new things all the time. I don’t want to open a Cronut® shop and I don’t want to open hundreds of shops and have a factory. I want to keep it unique, authentic.
JL: People don’t associate you with savory food so much. What’s your approach with savory food?
DA: Well, my first job in the kitchen was as a savory chef. This is my foundation. I was actually not a pastry chef; I was a savory chef for years before I transitioned to pastry. Cooking is something I always loved, and never stopped doing. When it comes to savory food, it’s more than just savory food. It’s more the way to think of food, the way to present it, and the way of connecting with people. I like good food. I like food that people remember as well. Same as pastries. I like pastries that people remember. I like dishes that have emotion and have a story to tell. Some chefs create with more focus on ingredients. Some chefs are more story driven. I’m a little of both, but more story driven. I want dishes that have their own story and own voice.
JL: Tell me the story one of your dinner dishes.
DA: I love the roasted chicken. It’s chicken that’s inspired by me and my chef. I grew up in France and once a week we’d go and grab chicken with my family when we had any money. At the market, they had this beautiful roast chicken and I always remember bringing it back home and holding it. It was really, really hot. I would rip it open and have this beautiful aroma and flavor of chicken. I always loved this. My chef, Hyun Lee, he’s Korean, but grew up in Argentina. Growing up, he had a lot of samgyetang, chicken soup. We made a dish that combined both of our memories. We made rotisserie chicken with black garlic rice – really tasty, with this beautiful roasted deep flavor of black garlic – we serve it with a Korean scallion salad and rub the chicken with chile butter so it gets crispy and super juicy. That’s one of my favorite dishes on the menu.
JL: What would be on the table for a dream meal from your restaurant’s opening menu?
DA: A lot of dishes. Cabbage soup with ham hock broth. It’s meaty, beautiful, super tender cabbage. I grew up eating soup on weekends. My grandma used to do cabbage soup. She would cook it in the pressure cooker so it was super tender. We use a similar technique here, but we do a meaty broth with deep flavor.
JL: That would be the first course. Then what?
DA: We have shrimp that we cook a la plancha and put mentaiko butter over the shrimp and serve it with a shrimp cracker that we do in-house and sprinkle with tomato powder. That’s a really good one.
JL: Then the chicken. What would you finish with?
DA: We have a lot of really fun desserts. We kept desserts simple, but meaningful. I wanted people to dream about these desserts. There’s one we call The Well. If we make dough, a pasta dish starts with the well. Put flour on the table and put eggs in it. It looks exactly like this, but it’s made with shaved ice, so it’s milk granita, honey gelee, and passion fruit gel. There’s an eggshell on the side, and there’s fennel meringue on the bottom. So it’s crispy and fresh, refreshing, and sharp from the passion fruit. With milk and honey, it’s barely sweet. That’s a really good dish as well.
JL: When World’s 50 Best named you the World’s Best Pastry Chef earlier this year – that’s quite an honor – what was your reaction?
DA: I was so touched by such an amazing accomplishment. To have validation from my peers and people in the industry, that means a lot to me. I’ve worked really hard my entire life to be where I am today. I always work hard and don’t take anything for granted. This is a beautiful industry and when you have the chance to be the voice and pass on stories of what you do, and why you do it, and why you love it, it means the world to me. I’m very grateful for the honor and was not expecting it. It’s amazing. It’s quite an accomplishment, for sure.
JL: Are you the world’s greatest pastry chef?
DA: There are a lot of amazing chefs out there, tons of them. It’s always hard to recognize one. There are definitely a lot of talented people. There’s plenty of room for everyone. There are tons of pastry chefs and chefs as well that deserve recognition. We have different styles, different backgrounds, different definitions, and different visions. It’s just a matter of getting to know them.