Illustration by Sydney the Artist
Welcome to Take Out, a new column where writer Sophie Brickman (@sbrickman) takes chefs, bartenders, and restaurateurs out of their normal environments for a day on the town.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in midtown, Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut™, was curled into the fetal position on a firm-tensioned 2000T Hästens mattress, the pallet of choice for the King of Sweden. It costs $37,200. Across Hästens’ East 58th Street showroom was the Ferrari of all mattresses, the Vividus, which takes 160 hours to make by hand and runs a cool $108,000.
After shifting from side to side a few times, Ansel shoved his hands under his cheek for support.
“With someone of your build, the soft version would be very good,” said salesman Tim Holley quickly, detecting slight discomfort. “It’s all about weight distribution. If you’re, um, rounder in the center, you might feel as if you are in a hammock with the soft tension. If you are lean, soft is good.”
So the lean pâtissier switched beds once more and sank in silently, hands by his sides, expressive eyebrows softening, the duvet cover cocooning him on either side. A moment later, a French-inflected murmur came out of the fluff: “Oh, yeah. This is truly something.”
I dream about pastry. In a dream, you can swim in marshmallows!
Ansel rarely gets more than four hours of sleep a night, and sometimes functions on as little as two. He’s up at 4am each day and plows through the next twenty hours, greeting the lines of Cronut™-hungry masses that start forming in the wee hours, baking, hawking his pastries at countless events, training employees, doing the pastry paperwork inherent in running a business, dreaming up new confections, and working on his upcoming book at home late at night. We figured Ansel could use an afternoon of deluxe sleep, though he claims not to feel particularly exhausted.
“I don’t have a $100,000 bed,” he allowed, “so sometimes yes, I feel tired. But it’s habit—I never slept very much. I’ve been doing this, this style of life, since I was 16.”
Born and raised in France, Ansel began apprenticing to local bakers after high school, eventually going on to spend seven years at Fauchon—where he helped the Parisian gourmet food company expand to Russia, Kuwait and Egypt—and six at Daniel in New York City. He opened his own pastry shop in SoHo in 2011, and this year, won the coveted James Beard Award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef.” On the menu now are myriad playful, creative desserts to rival the Cronut™, from the Cookie Shot—a shot glass made of cookie dough, served with vanilla-infused milk—to the Frozen S’More, a chewy ice-cream confection that’s torched to order like its eponymous campfire treat.
“A lot of people ask me where I get my inspiration from,” he said, fresh from the mattress store and making his way west on 57th Street. “And dreaming is a source of inspiration for me.”
Do you dream of Cronuts, chef?
“I dream about pastry,” he answered. “In a dream, there is no limit. When you are in the kitchen, you are like, ‘Here’s something you can’t do physically,’ or ‘How much is this going to cost me?’ In a dream, you can swim in marshmallows!”
A pool of marshmallow fluff is not yet on the summer menu, but one menu hit, his “chocolate caviar tart,” came straight from a deep REM stage.
“I dreamt that I had caviar in front of me, and that it was in a tin, but I picked it up and bit into it, right through it!” he said, crossing Fifth Avenue. “So I woke up and asked myself, how would I make such a tart?”
Sleeping gives you courage. When you wake up and have your full energy, you are not scared of anything.
His solution: a tart shell filled with caramel-coffee mousse, and topped with pearls of dark chocolate. “This all came out of a dream. And sleep—it is very important,” he continued, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of construction. “Sleeping gives you courage. Courage! When you wake up and have your full energy, you are not scared of anything.”
A few minutes later, Ansel walked into a midtown office building, took the elevator to the 12th floor, and got out at YeloSpa, which specializes in deluxe power naps and, according to the receptionist, is a frequent stop for midtown businessmen who need to take a break in the middle of the day. Robin Hood-esque lute music tinkled over the sound system.
“I don’t see how people can take a break like that from work,” said Ansel. “I barely have time to eat.”
After signing in, he was led into a special sleeping room, snuggled under a cashmere blanket, and tilted back at a 25-degree angle to the floor—the spa’s special “zero gravity” sleeping option. The lute music changed to underwater Mario Brothers, then what seemed to be a xylophone version of “Welcome to our World of Toys.” About 20 minutes later, an artificial sunrise gradually lightened the room, and Ansel returned to the reception area looking mostly unchanged.
“I slept for maybe one minute,” he said. “No Cronut™ dreams.”