Sinful Synergy: How the Cronut Seduced America
The combination croissant-donut is the summer's yummiest meme -- but does pastry chef Dominique Ansel's decadent creation have the legs of the mighty cupcake?
On Saturday, March 1, after enduring countless knockoffs and wannabes, Angelenos will finally get a chance to sample an authentic Cronut®. The delicacy's creator, Dominique Ansel, is setting up shop at Barneys New York in The Grove from 10 a.m until 2 p.m. Word has it that lines have begun to form a full day in advance, despite torrential downpours -- such is the power of the Cronut®. We revisit now The Hollywood Reporter's summertime investigation into the viral pastry sensation that ate America.
The Summer of 2013 will be remembered for a number of things, most of them exceedingly unpleasant. Not so the Cronut, however, the rare object of media fascination that seems to exist for no other reason than to please. The Cronut, if you happen to live under a fritter, is the croissant-donut mash-up that has taken the world by storm since being introduced in May by star -- make that now superstar -- pastry chef Dominique Ansel (pictured below). Sold exclusively in his Soho-based Dominique Ansel Bakery, it’s made from a croissant-like dough that is meticulously proofed, then deep-fried in scorch-resistant grapeseed oil at a top-secret temperature. The result, which took two months and 10 recipes to perfect, is a flaky, yet unmistakably donut-y, product. Cronuts are then filled with flavored cream -- lime-tinged blackberry or lemony maple syrup, for example -- lightly coated in sugar and garnished with a crown of brightly colored glaze.
Cronuts are hardly the first food craze, as anyone who has swirled a fondue fork in the '70s will tell you, but they are in many respects a unique phenomenon. They’re not unrelated to the cupcake, for years an unremarkable children’s birthday mainstay until the Magnolia Bakery in New York's West Village re-imagined them as a trendy urbanite accessory worth lining up for. But cupcakes, which Magnolia began selling back in 1996, largely predate Internet culture, and relied on word of mouth, and, eventually, immortalization on an episode of Sex and the City, to reach critical mass. Cronuts, by contrast, were literally an overnight sensation. “We put it on the menu, I went to bed, we had a mention on a blog, and the same night they had over 140,000 hits just for this link,” Ansel, at 35 an award-winning sweets wizard who previously worked as the executive pastry chef for Daniel Boulud, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They called us and told us that maybe we should make a few more.”
That blog was Grub Street, which heralded the Cronut on the eve of its arrival in a post penned by associate editor Hugh Merwin. A soft-spoken food writer who paid his dues by working for years in the kitchens of four-star Manhattan restaurants, Merwin was offered four Cronuts ahead of their debut, which he shared with his girlfriend and two others. As soon as he bit into one, he knew he was tasting something extraordinarily special. Asked to describe it, Merwin goes silent for a moment, then offers, "Things that are cloyingly sweet I don't really like. And I’m not big on romanticizing food experiences as being orgasmic, so I’d never say anything like that. But having grown up just outside of New York, I’m used to the classic donuts. This is sort of a very well-dressed classic donut with some bells and whistles." Erin Carlson, a staff editor at THR.com, is less restrained in her assessment: "The flavor is deliciously sticky-sweet and the tang of the blackberry and lime counterbalanced the buttery richness of the dough," she rhapsodizes. "This thing is filling -- after gobbling one, you don't need another. It's the anti-Dunkin Donut. It's satisfying and complex, and totally original."
Sensing a sensation, Ansel increased Cronut production on the second day from 30 to 50. Those sold out in 15 minutes. The day after that, he made 75, and those sold out in 20 minutes. “By the third day we had a line out the door and I couldn’t see the end of the line,” Ansel says. He posted a Cronut FAQ to his website ("Please use a serrated knife, so as not to crush the layers..."). As social media exploded over the greatest Franco-American gift exchange since the days of Jerry Lewis or perhaps even Lady Liberty herself, a feeding frenzy ensued, particularly among trend-famished media outlets. By late May, local news had caught whiff of the early morning lines snaking down Spring St. and sent camera crews to investigate.
The Cronut was soon popping up everywhere, and with the craze came the requisite cynicism. The New York Times dubbed it a “Frankenpastry” and placed it, quel horreur, in a croissant timeline alongside the Burger King Croissan’Wich. Matt Lauer stared down a plate of them on the Today show, then refused to try one, snipping, “I’m still on muffin tops.” Kelly Ripa joked to her viewers that she thought the Cronut queue was “the line to the Apple Store.” The lines were indeed beginning to resemble the unfathomably long ones that met the arrival of every iteration of the iPhone. Scalpers had begun creeping into them and reselling their bounty for upwards of $100, earning a scolding from Chef Dominique on Twitter: "People -- these guys smell like alcohol and haven't showered for days ... you bought food they touched?!!!" Then there was the anonymous man on Craigslist who advertised a "genuine Dominique Ansel Bakery Cronut" in exchange for a very specific sex act. The media ate every development up. Cronutmania was, and still is, in full force.
And that is what sets the Cronut apart: the instantaneity and sheer scale of its popularity. The Cronut is an edible meme, a portmanteau pastry that hijacked the zeitgeist. It's utterly high concept, yet a cinch to grasp and market -- a combination that would make any Hollywood producer green with envy. The phenomenon was presaged in some ways in 2004 by the noodles and pork buns at David Chang's Momofuku and in 2008 by the Korean BBQ-filled tacos of L.A.'s Kogi truck, both of which captivated the foodisphere and drew long lines of their own. But the global fervor for the Cronut eclipses both of those. Trace back even further, and you would probably discover more downscale fare in its family tree: the Big Mac, for example, a bun-and-a-half spin on the burger introduced by a Pittsburgh McDonald's in 1967 that proved so instantly popular, it was in every franchise by the following year.
Part of the Cronut's success may lie in its odd duality. The Internet is always a sucker, it seems, for a ridiculous-sounding hybrid -- as evidenced last week by the giddy hysteria that greeted Syfy channel's god-awful TV movie, Sharknado, yet another unexpected meme from the summer of '13. In that respect, the Cronut could also be seen as an unlikely distant cousin to another product of unholy junk-food matrimony: the Doritos Locos Tacos. That item, a beef taco served in an electric orange Doritos shell, was launched on March 8, 2012, to coincide with the Mexican fast food chain's 50th anniversary. It too became an instant social media sensation; over 450 million of them have been gobbled up since. But Taco Bell has the infrastructure to get their Locos into the hands of anyone who wants one. The Cronut, despite a proliferation of knock-offs -- including a West Coast version, the Crullant (more on those in "The Cronut Craze: Coast to Coast," a companion video to this story) -- is available at one place only. Hence those long lines. They're hard not to notice, and they are ridiculous. As Albert Brooks, a comedy icon and chronicler of everyday American foolishness, noted on Twitter, "If you're waiting two hours in line for a Cronut, on behalf of all humanity, I'm sorry we failed you."
"The first time that I went into the shop, and the line wasn’t what it is now -- I heard that there were 1,000 people in the line the other day -- I was really overwhelmed by it and I was kind of scared," Merwin recalls. "I went there to pick up the second flavor, the lemon-maple one. It was a very unnerving experience being there. Everybody was really waiting patiently." Merwin managed to collect his order without incident, as generally the mood in Cronut lines is unflappably upbeat. A recent Wednesday line consisted of roughly 250 people, at the front of which stood an adorable little boy, dressed as if for church in a preppy plaid shirt, shorts and glasses. He had arrived with his mother a 5 a.m. and paced around excitedly as Ansel approached the shop doors, like Charlie Bucket meeting Willy Wonka at the factory gates. Another man further along in the line had woken up at 3 a.m. and came in from Long Island on the LIRR. Why? "I like dessert."
Handsome with a slender build, large brown eyes and a warm but contained presence, Ansel greets the masses every morning at precisely 8 a.m. Unlike other star chefs in the cantankerous culinary world, he has no sordid back story, nor does he nurture a cult of personality based on a badass reputation. He'll usually send out some warm madeleines and hot coffee to those who have sacrificed their mornings for a taste of his wares. He’s managed to nudge daily Cronut production up to 350, of which each customer is allowed a limit of two, priced at $5 each, and he always makes sure to warn people when supplies start running low. Ansel says those turned away usually wind up buying one of his other offerings, like the DKA, short for Dominique’s Kouign Amann, a ball of flaky dough with a crunchy crust.
Ansel is a professional, an artisan devoted to nailing the perfect blend of art and commerce. He sees the overwhelming success of the Cronut as the result of a perfect storm of elements: the catchy name (which he's trademarked), the originality, the fact that it’s "delicious and fun to eat," or at least to imagine eating. “People can picture it," he explains. "Everybody knows what a donut is and everybody knows what a croissant is. Mix them together, and they have an idea of what it might taste like.” Ansel says he's not interested in parlaying his invention, or his business, into the next Starbucks and the promise of a Cronut on every corner.
“It’s very important to me that everything I do I put a lot of care and love into,” Ansel says. “I don’t want to expand to opening hundreds of Cronut shops. My shop is very unique and has its own personality, and I want to control the quality and creative aspect of the business.” For Ansel, that means moving beyond the Cronut and onto his next innovations. He talks excitedly about “Summer S’mores,” a spin on the campfire standard which incorporates a frozen marshmallow filling inspired by a chewy ice cream he tried on a trip to Istanbul. It comes served on a pre-smoked wooden stick. "It's a mix of smells and texture," Ansel says.