From Cronuts to Croissants

Dominique Ansel’s new Workshop in NoMad sets the bar for pastry perfection

| 02 Sep 2021 | 12:21

The line began outside the flower-adorned, arched entryway of Dominique Ansel Workshop on 27th Street, wrapping around Madison Avenue for half a block. On a sweltering afternoon when the bakery first opened in mid-July, Ansel’s fans were intrigued, wanting to know what the French pastry chef who gave New Yorkers iconic desserts like Cookie Shots and the Cronut was up to next. As 56-year-old Joseph Stern, a Connecticut native near the end of the queue, put it: “I see the line, I see the yellow Dominique Ansel sign, I jump in!”

Ansel’s new flagship, housing a kitchen that makes pastries for the Workshop and his first bakery in Soho, along with his corporate office, is invested in all matter of viennoiserie. French for “things from Vienna,” it describes a whole category of rich, sweet pastries. “Which I like to say is croissants and all their different cousins,” explains Ansel. “We were inspired by Santa’s Workshop, and wanted to create a space with our own production kitchens and where we could bake up fresh pastries daily — in particular, all kinds of croissants. It’s a bit like going back to the roots, back to classic French viennoiserie.”

This means a completely new menu, from flaky, multigrain croissants to Brioche Bressanes spiked with orange blossom and star anise, pain au chocolats with three (not the usual two) batons of chocolate, and savory bites like Tomato Tart Tatins; what Ansel calls “French classics that we’ve reinterpreted [in a] more modern way.”

The Art of the Croissant

Inside the Workshop, after ascending a short flight of stairs, guests are greeted by a glass display counter brimming with a bevy of pastry beauties; yet, the crisp-skinned plain croissants take center stage. “I could talk about croissants for hours,” says Ansel. “We do cross-section checks every morning, so we can check on the quality, the honeycomb structure inside, how they proofed, what we can do tomorrow to make them even better.”

Ansel says he constantly strives for croissant perfection, refining over decades a process that “cannot be rushed” and takes “time, patience and practice.” It all starts with the levain, a leavening agent in the dough made from flour and water that ferments over time. “Our levain was started almost ten years ago when we first opened the Soho shop, and a piece of it lives on in each of our croissants and viennoiserie to this day,” says Ansel. Then comes the finest French ingredients for that velvety mouthfeel: Beurre d’Isigny, a hand-churned butter, and a flour called Les Grands Moulins des Paris.

The range encompasses the Classic Croissant, beautifully burnished and supremely buttery, the Olive Oil Croissant with hits of rosemary and garlic, and the Multigrain, packing stone-ground wheat, quinoa, roasted barley malt, chia seeds, oatmeal, sesame seeds and rye. And then there’s the caramelized crust croissant; a decadent, amped-up version of Dominique’s Kouign Amann, commonly known as the DKA at the Soho bakery. “It is our best-seller in Soho and at the Workshop, where we make a Brown Sugar version with a bit of molasses and a tiny bit of coffee,” says Ansel. “The DKA is absolutely one of my favorite pastries — I have one every morning for breakfast.” Tribeca tenant Jane E., 27, seated at the yellow tables on the sidewalk that afternoon, mumbled as she finished her DKA: “Diet be damned. Get me another one.”

The Cronut King

The DKA and the Cronut — a croissant-textured doughnut with a custard filling, fried and sugar-coated on the outside, so legendary it inspired a frenzy of awards, dupes and black market scalpers — signifies the creative spirit that powers Ansel’s bakeries: “It’s why right after the Cronut, we launched the Cookie Shot, then the Frozen S’mores. We have a saying here: don’t let the creation kill the creativity.” This is embodied in how the menus change every six to eight weeks, and why he decided to give the Workshop a completely different menu than the Soho bakery.

This love for the artistry one can express with something as precise and scientific as pastries comes from Ansel’s small town beginnings in Beauvais, a city in northern France, slowly discovering the wonder of making pastry as he washed dishes at a local restaurant. He was first part of a military program that taught locals how to cook, and then went on to work at esteemed Paris bakery Fauchon. “I stayed there for eight years, eventually leading international expansion, and that’s when Daniel Boulud called,” Ansel reminisces. “Next thing I knew, I was in New York and worked as executive pastry chef of Restaurant Daniel for six years before I opened my own shop on Spring Street.”

Today, Ansel is grateful that despite having to shut down in London and Los Angeles (for good) due to the pandemic, he was able to keep the Soho bakery afloat throughout the worst parts. “At the beginning of lockdown, there wasn’t much open in Soho, so we knew we had to be there for our guests and bring them some semblance of normalcy,” he says. “We saw so many of our regulars and neighbors who told us how thankful they were that we stayed open.”

Ansel now takes pride in bouncing back with something bigger and grander post-pandemic. “In Soho, our kitchens are quite small — just about 100 square feet — and here at the Workshop, we have over 4,000 square feet of space to work with,” he describes, noting that he hopes to launch a collection of chocolates at the Workshop by the end of the year and is excited to have a test kitchen where he can film videos, hold events and host chef collaborations.

“And here, you’re actually inside our production kitchens and can watch our chefs making these beautiful pastries for you every day,” Ansel adds, referring to the glass-encased commissary kitchen in full view from the counter. “The shorter the distance from the oven to your mouth, the better the croissant.”

Gia Mendez, a 29 year-old Upper East Sider who finally made it to the front of the line an hour in, appeared to take this seriously. She chomped on a Huckleberry Riz au Lait Cube — filled with huckleberry jam and Madagascan vanilla arborio rice pudding — as she walked away, declaring loudly: “Pastry this good waits for no woman!”

“At the beginning of lockdown, there wasn’t much open in Soho, so we knew we had to be there for our guests and bring them some semblance of normalcy. We saw so many of our regulars and neighbors who told us how thankful they were that we stayed open.” Dominique Ansel