You probably know Dominique Ansel, one of the world’s best pastry chefs, for creating the Cronut. But his newly announced second shop, Dominique Ansel Kitchen, won’t serve the viral croissant-donut hybrid at all when it opens this spring in New York’s West Village neighborhood. Instead, he’s moving forward with another, potentially more radical idea in baked goods: Rather than selling pastries that have been sitting in a display case all day, most everything served at the Kitchen will be made-to-order for customers right in front of their eyes.
I spoke with Ansel over the phone about the benefits and challenges of bringing the idea to life.
You could have just opened a Cronut stand and banked! Why’d you go with this made-to-order concept instead?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Many, many years ago, people would get coffee brewed one, two, three, or four hours earlier. Now people will go to a coffee shop and wait for an espresso drink pulled on the spot. They’ll wait a few minutes for a drink. At the bakery, if you could have pastry made to order and freshly assembled for you, it can be so much better.
Compared to any top tier bakery, the quality really is that much better?
Time is an ingredient. It’s very important. Some things are meant to be eaten in a few minutes [of being made]. Some things are meant to be eaten hours later. Everything has a shelf life, and it’s important for people to know.
Is the made-to-order really a new idea, though? Didn’t you make desserts to order at Daniel?
I spent many years in France working at a bakery, where you started very, very early to bake in the day. Then at Daniel we made everything to order. I want to combine the two ideas. Not everything can be made to order. Some things need time to rest. An opera cake–a French classic sponge cake, like a French tiramisu–needs to be soaked for a day or two before it can be eaten. Macarons need to sit in the fridge for a day or two to get moist in the center.
Will you actually be baking any desserts, or just assembling them precooked?
There will be a few things that are actually baked to order. We bake mini-sized madeleines to order at our [existing] bakery now. They’re like little, two-bite, fluffy lemon cakes. It takes four minutes from the time we take the order to give you the order. And we serve fresh and hot from the oven. It is possible to do it.
We’re also going to serve an ice cream where we scrape vanilla bean and spread it on the ice cream, and a lemon butter tart where we emulsify the butter inside the lemon and pour it into a tart shell to order.
Operationally, how will you pull this off?
The kitchen will be a lot different from a regular bakery. It’s more like a restaurant service where people have stations. Each person in the kitchen will have a station so it comes out really fast. It’s changing the model of what a bakery is, informed by the experience and knowledge of working in the restaurant business.
I get the idea of fresher desserts, but aren’t you selling an experience of theater, too?
When people walk into the shop, I want them to feel like they’re in the middle of the kitchen.
A lot of fine dining restaurants will invite you into the kitchen at the end of the meal. I remember being at Daniel, and watching people walk into the kitchen, being amazed by it all. I’ve always wanted to invite people into the kitchen, so our layout is a whole open kitchen. There will be mirrors above the kitchen, so you can stay and see the action.
So it is theater?
It’s theater. It’s a stage. We are chefs, and you see–not only in NYC, but in the world–there are more open kitchens. People like to see who’s preparing their food and how they make it.
Isn’t that a lot of pressure though? I wouldn’t want to work all day while someone stared at me.
I think it’s just a question of organization, and really training staff the right way. If you know what you’re doing, you can’t be nervous. Like going on stage, you know what you have to play, what you say, and how you act. It’s the same for us in the kitchen. We have orders coming in; we execute the orders.
The other advantage is we can see our customers, their reaction, and connect with them, seeing how they enjoy our food. That’s a big advantage to me.