Entrepreneurship is an endeavour that often requires clear mind-space for contrarian ideas, possibilities on the edge of their time, and creation of something that has not yet been. Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation.
Innovation comes out of great human ingenuity and personal passions, it’s the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The great thing about entrepreneurship is that there are few limitations when you are equipped with the right mind-set.
So a creative mime artist and a tablet toting spreadsheet loving tech entrepreneur walk into a bar – it doesn’t have to be the start of a joke – but the meeting place for a creative teaming experience that can lead to great success and inspiration for all.
You can be a street artist, an author, a dancer, a chef – there are no boundaries on being an entrepreneur, it’s an expression of self. We don’t always associate chefs with entrepreneurship, but they are as much entrepreneurs as product inventors or app developers.
Imagine you are a chef for a moment. In front of you is a blank canvas of ingredients, sat on the kitchen worktop, awaiting your spirit to infuse them with life. Right beside you are your creative tools. It’s a simple set up, but combined with the human imagination and an ability to execute, has the makings to create a unique piece of work with the power to inspire.
What chefs do is take an idea and manifest it into reality. They take a vision that existed nowhere else but in their own mind, and actualising it into reality through their work. That’s entrepreneurial thinking.
On May 10, 2013, Dominique Ansel did just this. He started selling a croissant-doughnut hybrid, which he called the Cronut, from his bakery in New York’s Soho neighbourhood. The pastry resembles a doughnut and is made from croissant-like dough, which is filled with flavoured cream and fried in grapeseed oil.
On that night, a blogger from Grub Street, the online restaurant blog from New York magazine, reported on the new pastry. The post resulted in much interest – 140,000 links to the blog post. The first day Ansell made 30, the next, 45. By the third day with than 100 people queuing, the line stretched back over four blocks.
It took him three months and more than ten variations to perfect the recipe he’s used ever since. Nine days later, he’d registered the pastry’s name as crowds of people were queuing around the block to try the new innovative delicacy.
With its flaky croissant and custard interior and fried, sugar-dipped exterior, it was bound to be popular, but no one could have predicted the ensuing, pastry-flecked frenzy. The not-so-secret Cronut recipe is now plastered all over the internet, but would-be imitators will need their piping bags and patience at the ready – it takes three days to make, thanks in part to the laminated dough. This is rolled together with a block of chilled butter to form layers, and needs a lengthy rest in the fridge.
Ansel takes things to the next level, however. Each batch of Cronuts takes Ansel and his team approximately three days to prepare. Day one consists of mixing the dough, then letting it ferment and rest overnight. Day two, butter is incorporated, and hundreds of sheets of dough are layered together before the dough rests again.
On day three, the dough is cut, formed into the Cronut shape, and left to ferment again. Once each has tripled in size, Cronut by Cronut is fried in grapeseed oil, filled with cream, rolled in sugar, and finished with a glaze. The secret of the Cronut has been solved. It takes three days and a lot of sugar, butter and graft.
And he’s not just a one-trick pony. There’s the DKA, his take on a Breton pastry, which is a caramelised croissant, with a soft flaky interior. There’s the frozen S’more, an ice-cream block wrapped in chocolate, then enrobed in marshmallow and frozen. There’s his soufflé inside a brioche shell and his shot glass fashioned from chocolate chip cookies. Ansel is the king of happy bakers.
The creator of Cronuts isn’t just a baker. Dominique opened his little bakery with just four employees five years ago. Flash-forward to 2018, hundreds of creations later, a sister shop in the West Village and now across the world in Tokyo and London. He’s as much an entrepreneur as any tech rock star.
Prior to starting his own business, Dominique was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s flagship French restaurant in NYC. During his six years there, he was part of the team that led the restaurant to receive its first four-star New York Times Rating and three Michelin stars. He also spent seven years at the venerable French bakery Fauchon, where he lead the charge of international expansion and helped set up shops in Russia, Egypt, Kuwait and other locations around the world.
Despite his ritzy resumé, the ‘Cronut King’ comes from humble origins. The youngest of four children, he grew up in Beauvais, about an hour north of Paris. His father was a factory worker, and the family couldn’t afford college, so Dominique began working at 16, training to be a chef and saving money.
At 19, he left home to complete a mandatory year of service in the French military, where he worked as a cook. After returning home he headed to Paris, not knowing anyone, and landed the job at Fauchon, where he quickly worked his way up from a temporary holiday season staffer to traveling the world and being in charge of international expansion.
With his unstoppable creativity, the New York Post proclaimed him the Willy Wonka of NYC, Food & Wine called him the culinary Van Gogh of our times, the most feted pastry chef in the world. With successful bakeries in London and Tokyo following New York off the back of the Cronut, he must be doing something right. a croissant-doughnut hybrid that became the most virally popular pastry of its time.
Dominique Ansel is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and innovative pastry chefs in the world and for good reason. He combines craft, complexity, surprise, presentation, contrasting textures, and wow factor into his creations. I think his self-starter ambitions and product innovation provides some great entrepreneurial lessons we can take from his craftsmanship.
Time as an ingredient In addition to focusing on ingredient quality and freshness, original flavour and texture combinations, and fun, novel presentations – an aspect Dominique obsesses over – it takes three days for a Cronut to be prepared, then it’s vital each is served at the optimal moment of peak temperature, lightness, and flavour. It was the first time I’d heard of time described as an ingredient, but it made total sense, and it is one of his guiding themes. Timing is everything for all entrepreneurs.
Put emotion into products One of the screening criteria for what makes a product onto his menu is that the item evokes emotions, often nostalgic emotions tied to childhood, like the warm madeleines that Proust wrote about, or memories of summer camping the Frozen S’mores evoke, or the memories of milk and cookies after school his milk filled chocolate chip cookie shots evoke, or the traditional little pastries from Bordeaux, France called cannelés. Emotion engages customers is a key lesson.
Multisensory innovation Ansel’s creations have textural and temperature contrasts, like the liquid milk and soft cookies, or the S’mores with the soft honey marshmallow exterior, smooth and creamy ice cream inside and the crisp chocolate feuilletine that separate the warm marshmallow exterior from the cold, creamy ice cream inside. Capturing the customer’s imagination is vital for a startup with a new product to market.
Continuous product iteration Ansel’s is always searching for ways to make his products even better, he subscribes to the notion, and works in an environment where the products can evolve on the fly. This is a luxury other product categories can’t to the same degree, so gives him advantage. Build a culture where there is a focus on continuous development and iteration.
Be a relentless learner Ansel’s evidences the appetite for learning that is seen in many successful entrepreneurs. Given how accomplished he is, you’d think there wasn’t much room for improvement, yet he feels there is so much more to try and do and create in his field. Build an ethos to always keep moving, innovating, learning, and growing.
Use your team as a source of new ideas Ansel constantly brainstorms with his staff. The menu changes every 6-8 weeks, so the teams are always coming up with new ideas together. He schedules regular tasting with to give feedback on new menu ideas and what ultimately ends up being added. Use your team’s knowledge and experience as a source of innovation.
Combine ideas The Cronut pastries are not only a creative take on donuts and croissants, but also French and American cultures, combining a classic French pastry with America’s love for the familiar flavours of a caramel, chocolate and peanut combinations. Keep an on open mind to serendipity.
Be authentic Ansel is an expert at the basics of pastry cooking as a foundation for innovation. If you study the early works of great contemporary painters and architects, like Picasso and Frank Ghery, they mastered the classics of their craft before they started to routinely innovate.
Dominique trained in classic French pastry, it’s an invaluable knowledge he brings to bear in deviating on traditional classics. Build your business on solid foundations before flying off at a creative tangent.
Trust yourself Dominique Ansel is always thinking broadly, about all the different ways he can innovate to make the experience of visiting his establishments special, different, memorable, and wonderful. In a recent interview, he was asked: ‘How do you know that what you’re doing is right?’. There was an awkward silence. Dominique put his hand on his heart and replied, in a serene, untroubled tone: I just know.
Ansel is dedicated to finding new ways to surprise, delight, and inspire through his desserts. With innovation and creativity at the heart of his work, he has brought a refreshing uniqueness to the world of pastry. Voted the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2017, as well as being honoured with the prestigious Ordre du Mérite Agricole, one of the highest honours in France, he is a true entrepreneur, always thinking about how he can touch people with food in a different way to stimulate them.
His bakery restricts daily Cronut output to around 350 per day, and though the line has shortened considerably, there will still be, on average, between 60 and 100 people waiting in the Cronut line when the doors open every morning at 8am. There is a new Cronut flavour every other month – there have been 36 since its debut on the menu.
We live in an age where you can make anything possible. If you have an idea, just go for it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, because the perfect opportunity is now.