Hopes were high when Daniel alum Dominique Ansel launched his eponymous bakery in New York’s Soho neighborhood in November of 2011. On its opening day, the store sold out by 3:00 P.M., and the enthusiasm has only barely waned ever since. Now a nominee for our 2013 Outstanding Pastry Chef award, Ansel chatted with us about the unexpected success of his most popular item, the other pastry chefs he admires, and a perfect glass of milk.
JBF: What is your favorite item from the current menu at Dominique Ansel? Which creation are you most proud of?
DA: Well, the DKA, a.k.a. Dominique’s Kouign Amann, changed my life. The kouign amann is a pastry from Brittany that’s been described as a “caramelized croissant”. I remember first making it back at Fauchon, and later I baked some for the manager’s meetings at Daniel. Never once did I think that this unpronounceable pastry would make such an impact here in New York when I opened my own shop. We have quadrupled production. Some things have changed since I first started making them: I’ve reduced the butter and sugar levels by almost half to make something that’s lighter and more perishable, but also so much more delicate.
A pastry that I’m proud of? The Paris-New York, which is a twist on traditional French Paris-Brest, with a ring of choux dough that uses chocolate, peanut butter cream, and soft caramel instead of the classic hazelnut cream. It’s been through four incarnations, with different glazes, a slightly different shape, and variations on the recipe. We are constantly tweaking.
JBF: What can we expect to see on your menu this summer? Anything new on the way?
DA: We change our menu in the bakery every six weeks. Besides a few of our signature items, we wipe the slate clean. New desserts, new viennoiseries, daily ice cream flavors. You can’t imagine the drama that results when you take away someone’s favorite tart or cake; people in the States aren’t used to a bakery menu changing the way we do. But you must keep moving. Summer is my favorite time for desserts, with so much fresh fruit in season. It’s when we’re really going to shine.
JBF: Do you ever thinking about expanding and opening additional locations?
DA: You know, I’m in the store every morning, seven days a week. Before we open the doors, I do a complete walk through. I can’t tell you the amount of little things I can nitpick on and the list of ideas I have for changes. Maybe one day, when this list shortens, I can build another list for another store.
JBF: What are some of your favorite desserts at other restaurants in New York City right now?
DA: Let me preface this by saying I’m going to be very biased. I always recommend the desserts at Le Bernardin by Laurie Jon Moran and Café Boulud by Noah Carroll. Laurie and Noah were both my sous-chefs at Daniel, and I see such great potential in them. They’re very different and have taken their fundamentals into their own stylistic directions. I feel like a proud father seeing how far they’ve come.
JBF: Who are some other pastry chefs working in America right now that you really admire?
DA: I have lots of respect for my friend Francisco Migoya, who leads the pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. He is constantly challenging himself and testing out new techniques—a true chef and academic.
There’s also one dessert that I always remember: it was made by chef Kamel Guechida at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. It was a spherical sugar dome—when you poured hot syrup on top, it opened up like a flower.
JBF: What are your favorite pastry books?
DA: Pierre Herme’s books are always done well. And there’s also Albert Adria’s Natura—just page after page of beautiful work.
JBF: Finally, what is your earliest food memory?
DA: Believe it or not, it was milk, straight from a cow and still warm. I remember my dad giving me some to taste at a farm in France. There was that unbelievable creaminess, that clean simplicity—clear flavor, silky richness, and ever-so slight sweetness. It fits the profile for the perfect dessert in my mind.