By now, Dominique Ansel must be fairly used to receiving awards and titles. Time magazine named the Cronut® one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2013,” Business Insider placed him on their list of “Most Innovative People Under 40,” and in 2014 he won the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Still, his latest award – being voted as the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2017 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – must feel like the cherry on top.
“It feels great!” Ansel told us this past weekend, when we caught up with him at his bakery in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood. “It’s such an honor and I wasn’t expecting that it would happen this year.” Ansel is the youngest and only US-based chef to ever take home the award, and the acknowledgement serves to further cement his position as the current prince of patisserie.
Aside from claiming the coveted title, this year also sees Ansel opening two additional branches of his bakery – in Ginza and Los Angeles – and, as always, launching plenty of creative new desserts. In between bites of his limited-edition Premium Chicken Cutlet Sandwich (which he created together with Michelin-star chef Zaiyu Hasegawa), we asked Ansel about his latest endeavors.
Congratulations on your new award! What do you think sets your pastries apart?
I think what’s unique about what we do is the creativity, and that we change the menu all the time. We come up with new ideas and find different ways of looking at pastries that are quite unusual. We’re very much trying to understand where our customers are based and what they like, and we come up with ideas that are fun as well as ideas that might be odd to them.
Tell us about your Tokyo summer specials for 2017: the What-a-Melon Soft Serve and the Crème de la Corn.
What-a-Melon is refreshing for the summer, and we wanted to do something unique with watermelons, so we came up with the idea of soft-serve watermelon ice cream. It’s just a simple, fun way of presenting it, such as eating the fruit along with the sorbet. We launched it in New York last weekend for the 4th of July and it was very very popular. We had lines of hundreds of people.
We launched the Crème de la Corn last year after going to Tsukiji Market, and seeing that sweetcorn was right on season in the summer. So we decided to grill it with soy sauce, which is a very Japanese way of eating corn. And we decided to put caramelized corn ice cream on top. I like ice cream that is not always on the cone or cup, so putting it on top of an actual corn is a very fun way of eating it.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you always wanted to work with a Japanese chef. What was it like working with Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa?
I collaborated with Hasegawa-san for the Premium Chicken Cutlet Sandwich [only on sale until July 9]. It’s very important for me to keep on looking for chefs out there who are creative. Also, his restaurant [Jimbocho Den] was named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, so it was an honor. We’re very good friends and I like his creativity and his unusual approach to Japanese food. He’s very sweet and down-to-earth. I like the new generation of chefs in Japan, definitely.
80% of your Japanese menu is unique to Japan. Why is it important to adapt the menu to the location and culture?
I want to say that a bakery, before anything else, is a local business. It’s a place where people go daily to get their coffee, bread and pastries. It’s a place where you work for your local customers, and I think it’s important to connect with them. So all of our creations are based on culture, and we use local ingredients and also traditions of eating and living in Japan. It’s very important for me that the menu fits the local customers.
What are your most popular desserts in Japan?
It’s hard to tell; I have a few good ones. There’s the Frozen S’more™, that’s definitely one of them. The DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann), the flaky caramelized croissant. You have to try this. I’ll make sure to get one for you, you have to try it today. Cookie Shot™ is also one of them. The cronuts are always popular because we change them so often, but I can say that the items that are always popular are the new items we create.
You once said that one of your favorite creations is the Frozen S’more™. How come?
I’m French, and I grew up in France, so I didn’t grow up eating s’mores, but it talks to me a lot. It’s a mix of many things. First of all, it’s very appealing, a huge marshmallow being torched, and we see the crust caramelizing as you torch it. It’s very exciting when you bite into it, you have this mix of texture that goes from a thin crust of sugar with a chewy marshmallow and frozen custard ice cream inside. It’s a mix of flavors and truly great combinations. As you bite into it, it’s chewy, it’s melty and it’s cold, it’s warm on the outside, it’s crunchy, it’s caramelized. There’s so much going on, it takes some time to remind you and make you see what’s actually happening.
How do you feel about being called “the Cronut guy”?
It’s one thing that I’m always very known for, but I think we’ve moved forward since then. We’ve shown a lot of creativity and new ideas. So now, people know us for creativity and more than just the Cronut.
What’s your favorite part of making pastries?
It’s seeing people’s reactions while they eat it. I want to see the smiles, the eyes closed, the emotions … I want to see their surprised faces. I love the idea that our creations stay in people’s memories for a long time. These reactions are what keep me going.
Your new branch in Ginza opened on March 29. How is it going there?
It’s really good. It’s different from Omotesando. We’ve created some items that are only available in Ginza such as the Zero Gravity Chiffon Cake, which is served inside a floating balloon; and the Square Watermelon Raspberry Pistachio Mousse Cake, which is like a miniature square watermelon with shortcake inside. We also have a Soba Buckwheat Croissant.
And you’re planning to open your LA branch this fall…
We have a unique concept for this branch. Here in Tokyo, it’s a bit more casual, but in LA, it will be a full restaurant with a bar and 126 seats. It’s really a chance for me to go back to my roots, because I started as a chef and then I transitioned to be a pastry chef very early on, but I still love cooking.
What are your favorite foods or places to eat in Tokyo?
I have a lot of favorite Japanese restaurants. I love yakitori, I love soba, I love sukiyaki, I love a lot of Japanese food actually. I love Jimbocho Den. I try my best to go to new restaurants every time I’m here, and I’m always impressed.
Do you like natto? Perhaps a natto-based pastry is on the cards?
I don’t really like natto – the texture or the flavor. It’s not something I can work with for a pastry. There are a lot of things that I don’t like that I can still work with, but natto is one of the extreme things that I cannot work with. [laughs]