When I walk into the newest outpost of the Dominique Ansel Bakery in South West London, I may not be confronted by the 200-strong line of people that the shop saw on its opening morning a few days earlier, but the place is still packed.
Dominique Ansel, chef and owner of the eponymous bakery, has done stints at France's famed Fauchon patisserie and was executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud's acclaimed restaurant in New York. But you're more likely to have heard of his viral 2013 croissant-doughnut hybrid pastry: the Cronut.
I'm here to learn how to make banoffee paella, a new dessert that will be exclusive to Ansel's new London bakery. But it's clear that three years in, the Cronut is still king. I notice that the majority of customers at the newly opened bakery are digging into the distinctive pastry as I wait for Ansel with a "DKA" (Dominique's Kouign Amann, his take on the regional French cake-pastry) in my hand.
My blood sugar levels start to rise as I'm taken upstairs by one of Ansel's team to the vast pastry kitchen above the shop.
"Chef, are you ready?" she asks.
"I need 35 seconds," replies Ansel.
"Not 37?" she jokes.
"No, 35," comes the deadpan reply.
A smiling-but-focused Ansel appears and I am introduced. He looks me straight in the eyes.
"So I'm going to make the banoffee paella and then I'm going to watch you eat it," he says. Sugary, buttery pastry flowing freely around my bloodstream, I nervously agree. Ansel begins by sprinkling a hot paella pan with sugar and waits for it to caramelize.
"I wanted to make new things for the London bakery that were inspired by the food scene here, not just by British food," he says of the dish. "Since Spanish cuisine is really present, I decided to use a paella pan to caramelize the bananas. It's just beautiful, super tasty, and a cool way of putting together a banoffee."
As he slices bananas and adds them to the pan, Ansel adds: "And the reason why I chose banoffee pie? Because I love bananas! It's that simple. Isn't that a good reason? Do you like bananas? Everyone likes bananas. I don't know anyone who doesn't like bananas."
I tell him that weirdly, my mom doesn't actually like bananas. I can feel the Brownie points I earned earlier for saying that I'd tried a kouign amann before instantly slip away. Ansel smiles: "Well. She needs to try my banoffee." The banana-and-caramel mixture starts to bubble, releasing a pleasing singed-sugar aroma into the kitchen. Ansel whips out his phone to take a picture. He has a Cronut phone cover. Of course he does.
I take the opportunity to segue the conversation onto the topic of the pastry that still draws 6 AM lines at the original bakery in New York. "No one could plan something like this," Ansel says of the Cronut's success. "At the time, I had just four employees in my small bakery." He continues: "I think it took off for a few reasons. Everyone's had a doughnut before and everyone's had a croissant. People can picture the two of them together. And it's something that's affordable, too. It's not a fine dining restaurant. It's something anyone can buy."
Back to the banoffee paella. A here's-one-I-made-earlier chilled and set caramelized banana base is brought out, ready for piping the whipped dulce de leche cream. I ask Ansel why he decided to trademark the Cronut's name. "It was shortly after it became popular on the advice of my lawyer, when I was trademarking the of the bakery," he explains. "A lot of the industry take creations from small companies and they mass-produce it and trademark it, stopping you from using the name that you created. It was just a matter of protection."
So what about the copycat versions that have sprung up since the pastry's rise in popularity? "Inspiring people to create other things is flattering but when people rip off your ideas and make their customers believe it's something else, it's not flattering anymore," he says bluntly. "Any good chef should be able to create his own thing." I don't mention my affinity for the Greggsnut. Cream piped on, the final flourish to the banoffee is added in the form of the cookie crumb topping. Thank God it's nearly time to taste it. My sugar levels are starting to wane.
"We present it in the pan and then we'll flip a slice upside down as people order it so the crumb doesn't go soggy," explains Ansel.
You've got to hand it to the man. It's kind of a simple but genius idea—no one likes a soggy-bottomed banoffee.
Another here's-one-I-made-earlier moment later (the banoffee usually goes in the fridge to chill again), and Ansel is ready to slice. It's the first time I see him looking nervous, but he soon chips in with a disclaimer: "The first slice is always like flipping the first pancake. It's never perfect." Everyone in the room holds their breath and looks to see Ansel's reaction as he turns out the slice. Does it match up to his standards?
Ansel hands me the plate and a fork, which I take to mean as a "Yes." To distract from the eyes on me as I take a bite of the ridiculously decadent but moreish pie, I ask Ansel if he ever gets sick of the sweet stuff. Right on cue, a wave of freshly baked DKA smell wafts in from the next room.
"That smell is great, it makes me hungry. I have a DKA every day for breakfast," he laughs. "I'll never get tired of it. It's so addictive." Ansel sees me out through the shop and as I wave goodbye, a small crowd of fans starts to form around him. I remember something he told me earlier: "Just do good food and people will appreciate it. Then they'll come back because they trust you." The mantra seems to be working out so far.