By Andrea Strong
In 2013, Dominique Ansel opened a tiny pastry shop in SoHo where he married a croissant and a donut and turned its offspring, the Cronut®, into an overnight Instagram sensation that was heralded by TIME magazine as one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2013.” Since then, Ansel has gone on to create some of the most inspired and viral desserts in the industry, including the Cookie Shot, Frozen S’more, Blossoming Hot Chocolate, Gingerbread Pinecone and Christmas Morning Cereal. His out-of-the-box creations have given him a reputation as a “culinary Van Gogh” (Food & Wine) and “the Willy Wonka of New York” (New York Post).
What’s the next step for the creator of the most Instagram-worthy pastry on the planet? To quote Ansel, “the creation isn’t killing the creativity.” He’s taking yet another risk and expanding into unchartered territory — the savory kitchen, with a full-service restaurant called 189 by Dominique Ansel set to open this fall in Los Angeles at The Grove. The restaurant name is personal: it is taken from the address of Ansel’s original SoHo shop, located at 189 Spring Street. Coincidentally, his LA restaurant address also happens to be at 189 The Grove Drive. “It was meant to be,” said Ansel. “It reminds us of our home, and now it will be our second home on the West Coast.”
Andrea Strong spoke with Dominique about his move from pastry to savory, the challenges of opening restaurants in new cities and finding inspiration in unexpected places — like nail art.
What inspired you to choose Los Angeles as a location for your first savory restaurant? I’m a tad upset — what about NYC!
I’ve always loved LA. The food scene is so exciting and so eclectic, and it’s so much a part of the culture there. Each time I visit LA, I find myself going to different neighborhoods, ones that are often out of the way, just to eat. One minute you can be having amazing Korean BBQ, Ethiopian food the next, then al pastor tacos from a truck somewhere late at night. And there’s beautiful fresh produce year-round so I’m excited for that, too. Plus, coming from New York where our Soho shop is quite small and has a tiny kitchen of just about a hundred square feet, it’ll be nice to have so much more space to work with.
How does your pastry background influence your savory cooking?
I actually started working in kitchens on the savory side before turning over to pastry. It’s the science behind pastry that really stuck with me. I love that it requires precision and measuring. You have to be exact. And I think that carries over to all parts of cooking — the level of discipline, precision and planning that goes into all that you do in a kitchen regardless if it’s a pastry or a savory kitchen.
I wonder what you might tell a student about being limited to pastry or savory cooking. In other words, should a pastry student stick to pastry or should they be open to doing savory? Is it best to stay in your niche?
You should never limit yourself. I always tell my team to stay curious and to really push yourself and not be afraid of trying something new. If people always stayed in their niche or stuck to what’s comfortable for them, then creativity wouldn’t be possible.
One of the things I think is most impressive about chefs is their fortitude. You are constantly faced with criticism and I wonder how you stay true to your goals and follow your passion when there are naysayers along the way.
For us, it’s about continuing to create. We have a saying: “Don’t let the creation kill the creativity,” meaning, don’t let one creation stop you from continuing to come up with new ideas and to keep pushing. Even before we opened, there were people who would tell me that a French bakery in New York would never work, and that I should make cupcakes and cheesecakes. I didn’t listen. Every day, we work on developing new ideas, new creations and when I see our guests enjoying what we’ve made, it makes all of it worth it.
You have said that when you cook you try to make an emotional connection with people. Desserts like the Cronut and the Frozen S’more take people to a more simple time. What is it about food that you think really moves people and how do you figure out how to do that so well?
Food is such a personal thing. You always remember that birthday dinner you had with your family, celebrating special moments with a beautiful cake, spending the holidays around the table with your loved ones — all of these moments that are centered around food. With desserts, there’s a sense of nostalgia there too — roasting marshmallows around the campfire during the summertime, having cookies and milk after school, baking with your mom or grandma when you were a kid. For us, food is a way to create a memory or an emotional connection with people.
You have shops in London and Tokyo. How do you learn about a new culture before you make the leap? What is your process? Do you move there? Eat there for a few days? Talk to friends?
We took a lot of time in developing Japan and London, both of which were years in the making. Japan is somewhere where I get a lot of inspiration — from the food, from learning about the culture, appreciating the dedication that people have for food and for their craft there. And the talent there is incredible — well-trained chefs who have the skills and the discipline to maintain quality. And with London, there’s quite an international scene when it comes to food and a blend of history and heritage there that’s special. We spent quite some time immersing ourselves in the culture, learning from the locals and about local ingredients and traditions, understanding people’s tastes and how to work with new ingredients we hadn’t worked with before and learning from our partners there who helped guide us along the way.
What are the challenges you’ve faced in expanding overseas or to new markets?
With distance, quality becomes the most important thing — maintaining quality day in and day out. And communication becomes crucial too — having a team that’s on the ground who communicates with one another about what’s happening in the kitchen and in the FOH, and also communicating to our team here in NYC that’s an ocean away.
There’s also a learning curve when it comes to working with local ingredients, because with pastry, the tiniest nuances and changes with moisture levels, fat content, how the flour is aged, etc., can make all the difference. Learning to standardize ingredients and recipes in London and in Tokyo took some time to work out. In the UK, for example, the dairy is richer and thicker, so infusion times go up. The eggs are different, the butter is different, so we took a lot of time working on standardizing recipes to adapt.
Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to make that move to expand to an unfamiliar market?
You have to make yourself familiar first and foremost. If you don’t do the proper due diligence to really understand the culture, local tastes and adapt accordingly, then you shouldn’t be heading into that market.
Let’s talk a bit about inspiration — where do you find yours? Did the Cronut come to you in a dream?
For me, inspiration can come from anywhere — from traveling, from art and architecture, fashion, even something totally unrelated to food that I see on Instagram, like nail art, for example. Each item that we create has a different story and a different inspiration, so there isn’t a set formula.
The Cronut was just one item that we decided to add to our menu. It took more than two months and 10 different recipes until we finally got it right. We change our menu every six to eight weeks, so it was just another new creation.
How do you instill inspiration and motivation in your staff?
We’re always working on creating something new, and I encourage my team to push themselves to think out of the box, even if that means failing the first few times we try something. I also think that a product is never really complete. There’s always a way that it can be improved, whether it’s figuring out a different way to present or plate it, or a different technique when it comes to the baking process. It can always get better, and we can always get better.
What comes next? Will New York City get a savory restaurant too? (Please say yes!)
We’re taking things slowly and steadily, making sure not to overwhelm the team or open something just for the sake of opening. We put a lot of thought and a lot of time into each place that we open, so it’s never just a cut and paste. We just opened a new shop in Tokyo, and with the LA restaurant coming up in the fall, that’s our focus.
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