Dominique Ansel took home the award for outstanding pastry chef from the James Beard Foundation on Monday evening, days before the first birthday of the creation that skyrocketed his career. The Cronut, a portmanteau for the croissant-doughnut hybrid invented at Ansel’s New York bakery, made its debut on May 10, 2013.
It was born as a sweet way to move past a stinging defeat. “Last year at this time, we had lost the James Beard and dedicated ourselves to creating something new in the kitchen. The Cronut came out of it all,” Ansel recalls early on Tuesday. “And this morning I feel very humbled by all of it.”
He was already back in the kitchen by 4 a.m., he tells me, just hours after celebrating the award with his team. Evidence from Twitter (TWTR)—check that time stamp—suggests that he hardly slept before turning his attention back to his bakery:
Congratulations to the @beardfoundation winners and nominees tonite. Was an honor to share the stage with you. Business as usual tomorrow!
— Dominique Ansel (@DominiqueAnsel) May 6, 2014
The Cronut had already been showered with plenty of attention—it is arguably the most hyped, sought-after pastry in the world. Time magazine named it one of 2013’s best inventions. Eater.com heralded the pastry as the Biggest Spectacle of the Year. Ansel’s invention earned him appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—“Everyone should get one of these things because they’re unbelievable,” the host declared—and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Soon came imitations like the Crumbnut made by Crumbs Bake Shop (CRMB) and sold at BJs Wholesale Clubs, among others.
Ansel’s creation is flaky and buttery, like a croissant, but fried, like a doughnut—whose ringed shape it adopted. Each Cronut is rolled in sugar, filled with cream, and glazed. Flavors, such as the rose vanilla and raspberry lychee model, change every month. The price is $5. Customers, who are known to wait for hours in lines that clog the sidewalk outside Ansel’s Spring Street bakery, are limited to no more than two.
Given that it invented a food phenomenon, the bakery doesn’t sell all that many Cronuts. Ansel limits production to 300 each day for the store, with an additional 150 or so for special orders. Scarcity is entirely by choice—Ansel and his staff could easily make more if they chose—and the chef dismisses pleas to ramp up production. “I believe in creativity as a way of life, not just a way to earn a living,” the slim, soft-spoken chef says. “For so many years of my life, I was in the kitchen, just producing. I’ve been told not to think and not to ask any questions. But I refuse to work this way.”
Photograph by Richard Drew/AP Photo
That commercial restraint has done nothing to meet the ceaseless demand, so the early morning lines have been a fixture outside Ansel’s small shop for a year. The dreaded Cronut line is nearly as famous as the pastry.
The line-waiting passion of the Cronut crowd isn’t something the 36-year-old chef completely understands. “People ask me, ‘Were you expecting something like this?’ Of course not. No one could expect to create a pastry and have it explode worldwide,” he told me in the sunlit garden behind the store earlier this year. ”The idea is simple enough for everyone to understand, but different enough that we’re all curious,” Ansel says after a year. “That’s what captured people’s interest.”
Success hasn’t softened the French-born chef’s hard-working edge. He usually arrives at the 2,500-square-foot bakery around 4:30 a.m. “I still clean the bathroom if it is clogged,” he told me. “Someone has to do it.” Day-to-day operations continue to keep him busy: managing staff, repairing broken equipment himself, and controlling costs. Paperwork can keep him tied up until midnight. He also happens to be single. “Success in general is a sacrifice. What I do here—how much time I spend at work—there’s no limit.”
A fixation on creative purity did not blind him to the realities of business. His little bakery has had a spokeswoman from day one, and Ansel took the advice of his lawyer to trademark the name Cronut to fend off copycats.
Ansel grew up poor in Beauvais, a city north of Paris, with three siblings. His father worked at a prepared-food factory and his mother was a homemaker. At age 16 he washed dishes and swept floors at a restaurant and gradually climbed the ranks. He eventually took a job at the French bakery Fauchon before moving to New York in 2006 to work for chef Daniel Boulud. Within five years he had opened Dominique Ansel Bakery. “I was fairly happy with the bakery before the Cronut,” he recalls. “On the weekends, we had very long lines and we could barely produce enough.”
The buzz started the day before the Cronut’s debut almost one year ago, when New York magazine’s food blog published an item with a breathless headline that proved prescient: “Introducing the Cronut, a Doughnut-Croissant Hybrid That May Very Well Change Your Life.” Ansel credits the story for much of the early attention lavished on his hybrid pastry.
Within three days, customers were showing up before opening. By week two, the bakery was handing out baked treats to the lengthening queue, a ritual Ansel borrowed from a restaurant in Japan, at which cans of beer are doled out to guests in line. Unverified tales of black market Cronut sales and people scavenging for scraps in the bakery’s garbage spread across the Internet.
Whatever magic formula propelled the Cronut into the popular imagination, it isn’t something Ansel has been able to recreate at the same scale for his other pastries. He patiently praises them in interviews, trying to foster some measure of attention for his overlooked children. Some even apply the same whimsical Frankensteinian approach that worked once before. There’s the Magic Soufflé, which smuggles a chocolate soufflé inside an orange blossom brioche, and the miraculously engineered Frozen S’mores, in which ice cream is placed inside chocolate wafer which is inside a blowtorched marshmallow.
“The Cronut is a beautiful invention,” Ansel says, “but I am proud to have all of them, you know? Those pastries are as good and as creative as the Cronut is.”