The 9 Dishes That Made My Career: Dominique Ansel

The James Beard-nominated chef walks us through his menu of inventive pastries.

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Photo: Liz Barclay

Plenty of pastry displays around New York City lure sweet tooths with bright colors and hand-piped designs, but few deliver the mix of personality and impeccable technique as Dominique Ansel Bakery. Inside the glass-encased kitchen of his bustling Soho workshop, the pastry maven and his crew turn out whimsical creations that meld classic French technique with bright seasonal ingredients, inspirations from architecture and other cuisines, and riffs on beloved American flavors like peanut butter and chocolate ganache. His signature kouign amanns—traditional sweet croissants from Brittany—are baked three to four times a day and usually sell out before the close of business. Equally as coveted are his lemon-inflected madeleines, spongey bite-size cakes that are baked to order and served warm with a light dusting of powdered sugar.

Before taking on a more visible role in the kitchen of his own bakery, Ansel worked mostly behind the scenes as a mastermind for a number of renowned pastry programs. He has worked with Christophe Adam at the exotic and popular Paris Epicerie—Fauchon—and spent six years as the Executive Pastry chef at Daniel in NYC. After helping the restaurant rack up three Michelin stars and a perfect four star review from the New York Times, Ansel decided to set out on his own, opening Dominique Ansel Bakery in 2011. Recently, his talents and creativity have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation with a nomination for the Outstanding Pastry Chef  2013 award. Though the lanky and jovial Frenchmen is finally in the limelight, he remains grounded in the same fundamentals that have attracted all the accolades and success. For Ansel, it is only about pushing the boundaries of his mind, his ovens, and his fellow bakers.

Amid all the critical acclaim, Ansel seems to get the most joy from customers who regularly return for seconds after making it only a few blocks away from the shop. This type of craving isn't surprising once you've had a chance to taste his playful, ever-changing lineup of treats—from seasonal creations like Easter eggs filled with marshmallow chicks, to honeycomb-infused tarts. His shop offers an escape from the stranglehold of cupcakes (though requests have been made), trading them in instead themed religieuse (tiered creme puffs) for birthday celebrations and classic cannelles baked in traditional copper pans rather than cheaper, more practical silicon stand-ins. Amazingly, all of this comes from the mind of a man who admittedly doesn't eat many sweets, and hates the feeling of meringue between his fingers.

Ansel's inspirations come from childhood memories, including family meals featuring blood peaches soaked in wine, and the cities of Paris and New York (he makes a twist on the classic Paris Brest that looks like a hamburger but tastes like a Snickers bar). The nine dishes celebrated here are those that best represent Ansel's tireless quest for pastry perfection.

Written by Hannah Norwick (@HannahNorwick)

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