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Baking a history: Cronut chef on his Caesars Palace creation

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Desert Companion's Fifth Street.

IS IT A DONUT? Is it a croissant? It’s a hybrid pastry called the Cronut that went viral in 2013 after inventor and chef Dominique Ansel unveiled it in his self-titled bakery in New York. With other locations now in New York and Hong Kong, Ansel recently opened his seventh bakery, this time on the Strip. As a professional chef myself, I needed to find out the story behind the Cronut. Why did Ansel choose Las Vegas for his most recent venture? And how did he climb from small town French kid to World’s Best Pastry Chef? (By the way, he blames his mother.)  

Why did you choose Las Vegas for your newest location? 
I'm very humbled and very fortunate to have the chance to be here. I’ve been working with the Caesars Palace team for many years now to bring this project to life. We've been working on it for two years building a team, thinking of creative ideas and menu design. It's a great opportunity for me to show how we think about pastry differently. 

You have the Lucky 7 exclusive new pastries here in Las Vegas, but food fans will be mad at me if I don't talk to you about the Cronut. It's become synonymous with Dominique Ansel. It took multiple recipes and many months to perfect, but how did you come up with the Cronut originally? Why a croissant and a donut? 
The Cronut was created year two of the bakery. We were trying to change the menu and come up with new ideas. My girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife, asked me to make a donut. And I looked at her and was like, “You're crazy. I'm French. I have no recipe for donut. I don't know how to do that.” 

I love that it's a woman behind this. 
(laughs) She asked me to do something creative. I wasn't going to be grumpy about it. I came up with something that was fun and flaky. I grew up eating croissants. I love the texture. And you know, the donut is such an icon in America, so I can combine both together. I came up with a recipe in about three months. We decided to fill it with one flavor the first month.  

And after the launch — which was insane — the first day I think I made 35 or 40. At the time, I only had four employees to open the bakery, two chefs and two baristas. With my wife and I, there were six of us. We started very humble. By day three, we had over 150 people waiting outside before opening. It was just scary, a mass panic … people coming in yelling at us asking us to make more.

We decided to stay true to ourselves, focus on what we believe in … customer service, quality, and not to overdo it. We slowly ramped up the numbers, hired more team members. The Cronut is a beautiful creation. We change the flavor every single month, and we have never, ever repeated a flavor anywhere around the world. 

You’re going to do that in Las Vegas as well. Is it for that FOMO factor? Is it because you want people to be like, “I can only get it this month, and I'll never be able to get it again?” 
I mean FOMO for me is small, but creativity will push you. It's easy to keep one flavor. It's boring. It's much more exciting when, the first of each month, you have a new flavor. People come back for the new flavor every month. We’ve had people that have been to the bakery every single month for the last eight years.

Many chefs have a signature dessert or entree. You have a trademarked, waiting in long lines, legendary pastry invention. You were named World’s Best Pastry Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. How do you stay grounded?  
When we first registered the trademark, a friend that represented us on the legal side told me that I should trademark the Cronut. And I was like “No, don't worry about it. It's fine.” She's like, “No, you don’t understand. This thing is going viral.” It was just a few days after we launched it. She said, “I'm going to do it for you, and we'll talk about it later.” She did a trademark for us. Three days later, there were about 27 applications for the same trademark.  

It helps us preserve the name of the Cronut. We've done a lot of good things with it ... raising money for charities. The first few months of the Cronut, we raised over $100,000 that went to feed people in need in New York City. It was amazing to be able to help the community. 

You didn't become a chef on purpose. You started in a small town in France working in a restaurant to help support your family. When you see where you are now, do you think this was destiny?
I believe in destiny. I think what pushed me to work in the kitchen is that my mom was a horrible cook. She was so bad.

Wait, what? 
It doesn't matter if you're French or not (laughs). She was bad at cooking and didn't like it at all. I was always at a young age in the kitchen trying to serve dinner. We didn't have much growing up. My dad used to work in a factory. We had four kids at home plus the grandma, plus my cousin, dogs, and cats. It was hard to get food on table at the end of the month. I decided to be a chef because I liked food, and it was easy to make good meals with simple ingredients without being expensive. That's what pushed me. When I look back, I don't forget where I'm from.  

I tried to hide it for part of my life. I didn't want to talk about it. I grew up in the projects. My parents had no money to feed the kids. I didn’t have the greatest childhood. That's why I like helping and feeding people. It's important for me. 

Dominique Ansel Bakery is open 7 days a week at Caesars Palace.  

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Lorraine Blanco Moss is the host of KNPR's award-winning Asian American Pacific Islander podcast, Exit Spring Mountain. She's also a former producer for State of Nevada, specializing in food and hospitality, women's issues, and sports.