It would probably be going too far to say that there is a war on between Maury Rubin’s pretzel croissant and Dominique Ansel’s Cronut—going too far because the two things can and do coexist grudgingly, one at Rubin’s City Bakery, off lower Fifth, and the other at Ansel’s self-named bakery, in SoHo, and also because, truth be told, Rubin’s combination of croissant sweetness and pretzel salt is by now a familiar staple of the lower-Manhattan breakfast, while the crowd for Ansel’s deep-fried croissant-doughnut is still a phenomenon, creating lines that sometimes start crawling around the block at Spring and Thompson Streets at five in the morning.
But it would not be going too far to say that the coexistence of the pretzel croissant and the Cronut is worth thinking of as a form of competition, if only on purely Darwinian terms, in which all coexistence is competition held briefly in equilibrium, particularly because their coexistence is representative of something new, pervasive, and quite possibly perverse: the hybridized and fetishized schnecken. Oblivious of the peril, we wake and find ourselves in an age of mutated pastry, cross-bread, trying to be two things at once. Doughnuts cross with croissants, croissants cross with pretzels; Montreal bagels are made puffier for New York tastes, and New York bagels are made as thin and sweet as the ones in Montreal. The Crumbs Bake Shop chain, having almost gone bankrupt pushing cupcakes, comes back to life to push the “baissant,” a bagel-croissant chimera. (A significant baker in Canada long ago crossed the brioche and the croissant to create the “broissant,” but, the baker being my mom, it so far remains blessedly uncommodified, and eaten only by her grandchildren.)
Let us look, then, at these case studies of how stale bread becomes fresh and familiar sweets take mutant forms, and ask why people line up at an ungodly hour to eat sweets that taste odd and look new. Is the pretzel croissant the forerunner of the Cronut or merely its parallel creature? Is the Cronut a craze that, like the designer cupcake, is doomed to walk the avenues briefly and then die in shame and embarrassment, or is it a true contribution—as the croissant and the doughnut and the pretzel all were in their day—and likely to become part of the common cupboard?
Innovation is baked before it is sautéed or simmered. The molecular-minded chef Ferran Adrià has argued that all innovation in cooking happens first in pastry. He notes that Antonin Carême, the early-nineteenth-century chef who is generally considered both the Washington and the Madison of French cuisine, was, by training, a pastry chef; he specialized in great pièces montées—mounted displays of cakes and pastry and nougat, rising toward the sky at banquets and diplomatic conferences. Carême created pastry temples in evocative ruin, resting on marzipan rocks; pastry pediments and pyramids and Chinese pavilions. This ascent toward architecture guaranteed the seriousness of cooking, and helped move it from peasant lore to contagious classifications—toward fixed recipes. And so, Adrià insists, at every step along the way the pastry chefs have led the “straight” chefs.
There is another reason for the priority of pastry: pastry chefs are the only ones in the kitchen who are alchemists by necessity. Where therôtisseur or the man with the sauté pan does his best work when he does least, it is in the nature of pastry-making that you begin with ingredients that don’t at all resemble what you end up with. It is de rigueur for the fish chef to say that he wants his fish to shine through, but the cakemaker does not want his cake to taste anything like the flour that constitutes it. Baking is always making new.
But there is perhaps a deeper hidden pressure. Among those who bake, three separate activities are gathered under one head. To use the French designations, which are as unsettled as their English counterparts, aboulanger bakes breads; a pâtissier is typically a guy with a storefront; and a chef pâtissier, a pastry chef, produces desserts in a restaurant kitchen, and, turning out mousses and gels and meringues, may rarely make pastry properly so called. (A fourth kind of sweetmaker is theconfiseur, who makes candies.) The triple track means that bakers, pastry-makers, and pastry chefs live in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and suspicion, the blurred lines between them leading each to think that he is the real sweetmaker, the others mere attendants—more or less the way comp-lit, English, and women’s-studies departments all make simultaneous bad-tempered claims on Virginia Woolf. This subtler, less visible competition among the kinds, as much as the alchemical possibilities of the craft, may be the real fire of innovation.
Retuning the pastry temperament has been transatlantic work, taken on mostly by Americans who learned to bake in France or by French people who learned the tradition and then emancipated themselves in these parts. Although France is still the best place to learn to bake, the French remain conservative, turning out the same things today that they did a century ago—the brioche, the croissant, the cream puff, the éclair. To the French, toying with these things has seemed like toying with the sequence of blues chords or the order of sharps. The basic arrangement works fine without your “improvements.”
Maury Rubin became an innovator only after he returned from Parisian training, in the nineties. Rubin was an early avatar of what has recently become a classic American culinary type: the successful professional who, turning to cooking as a second career, goes to Europe to learn how to press grapes or make pasta or bake bread, and then, coming home as a pro, uses the entrepreneurial expertise of his earlier experience to change how cooking or baking or winemaking happens. But few can have made as large a jump as Rubin, whose professional past was not, as often happens in cooking, that of a philosopher or a graphic designer or an English professor or a journalist. He was, instead, an Emmy-winning television producer and director, working for the sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose stentorian tones live on in amateur impressions long after the death of their maker. (“I knew that, being Howard’s producer, I was condemning myself to a lifetime of hearing impressions from strangers,” he says ruefully.) When Cosell entered his bitter retirement—“It’s a shame Howard wasn’t taking victory laps, but he was brooding in his tent”—Rubin decided to go to France and learn to bake.
Nothing in his previous life suggested a career in baking, and even now he can hardly explain it. He took a course at a school in central France, and then found a low-level job in a small artisanal bakery (“All pastry; not bread or boulanger work of any kind”) in Paris’s blue-collar Nineteenth Arrondissement. Speaking scarcely a word more than classroom French, he enriched it with kitchen French—“I knew all the words for kinds of pastry dough before I knew how to ask the way to the bathroom”—and then the necessary amount of bedroom French. Once he had learned the basics, he came home and, in 1990, opened the original City Bakery, on Seventeenth Street off Union Square. “That first bakery was, I think, a moment in bakery time, I really do,” he says now, sitting at a front table in the bakery’s current quarters, on Eighteenth Street, where it has resided since 2001. City Bakery is a modernist kind of place: a loftlike two-story space, with sleek tables running around the front room, a huge salad bar in back, and tables upstairs. Famous as a setting in “Sex and the City,” it has a vibe that continues to resonate with that era, somehow at once retro-diner and meatpacking-district performance space.
“The tarts were the first sort of popular thing, and their design was all just lines and dots—that was the look, the whole look,” Rubin explains, showing old photographs. “If you learned pastry in France, the only question was, which pastry tip were you going to use—Rosette No. 7 or Rosette No. 3? I thought, No rosettes!”
The pretzel croissant appeared six years later. Rubin explains that, when you have a bakery, many different things get made side by side. “You’re surrounded by all these materials all day long,” he says. “Here’s the chocolate section, here’s the pastry section. In this case, a German woman who came to New York as a graphic designer just couldn’t get going, and asked if she could borrow some space in the kitchen.” She wanted to try a German-style-pretzel business, and she set up a small table in the kitchen, next to where the croissants were being made. Another baker sprinkled some of the rock salt with which she topped off her pretzels on the standard croissant, crossed its two legs to give it a pretzel shape, and a new thing was born.
Asked if it was a playful moment of invention, Rubin responds sternly, almost Cosellianly, “It wasn’t playful. I hate play. It was just a process. You have scores and scores of those moments when you try these things out. I remember in ’96, the first time I tasted it, I thought”—his voice goes high and giddy—“Yeeaahh! And the next day we made a bunch more, and I remember everybody saying, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ And I said ‘O.K., fine, try it out.’ ”
The pretzel croissant—though on the surface simply a croissant transitioning into a soft pretzel, with the salt highlighting the sweet-butter taste by contrast, a flavor cliché now but striking back then—holds a secret. That is the bagel-like application of sesame seeds, allowing the thing to be nutty, salty, buttery, and sweet all at once, and eliding one of the world’s great divisions—between those who want something savory to start the day and those who prefer something sweet. From that day to this, the pretzel croissant has been a standby and profit center for Rubin, where the tarts and cakes that preceded it in his line of inventions are now rarely baked or sold, Rubin having discovered the sad truth that the superior-baked-goods business is a brutal one in New York, while the lunch business—City Bakery includes not only the salad bar but a large prepared-foods area—can be a very good one.
For Rubin, the most significant fact on the pastry-making horizon, easily overlooked by outsiders, is that the costs have accelerated wildly in the past several years. The price of oil, which surged past a hundred dollars a barrel in 2008, took a breather, and then started to climb again, determines the cost of transportation, and thus of food, whether the flour is milled in Iowa or the butter churned in New Zealand. “Here’s a real number,” Rubin says. “Around 1990, I was paying thirty-four cents a pound for organic flour, and in 2009 forty-four cents—a ten-cent difference in nineteen years. Then, overnight, the price went to ninety-two cents, and now it’s settled in the sixties. Butter went from a dollar twenty-five a pound to four-fifty a pound, and in a French-driven pastry bakery the croissant is literally fifty per cent butter, so half of most of what you buy at City Bakery is butter. If you’re making bread, you’re buying flour, water, and salt. Here you’re buying butter.” The margins are unforgiving, and potential markups are limited: people will pay three dollars for a croissant but not five, even if that is closer to what it costs to make one.
One solution is to make the pastry so essential that its market becomes fairly price-insensitive. “The Cronut!” Rubin exclaims. He has views on the subject. “I’m a student of bakeries and baking. When I hear somebody’s opened a new bakery, I love it—I’m there every time.” In that spirit, he went to Dominique Ansel’s shop, back in the pre-Cronut era. “I thought the pastry was terrible, and I thought his croissant was especially terrible,” Rubin says. “I wasn’t surprised, because he’s a high-end dessert-maker.” Ansel, he knew, had made his reputation as the pastry chef—i.e., dessert chef—at the restaurant Daniel. “It was no surprise that that person would be so bad at pâtisserie and boulangerie. They’re like cardiology and podiatry. That a pastry chef is going to make a lousy croissant? You know what? I’m not even going to hold that against him, because most people make lousy croissants. That made more sense to me than not, but I certainly noted that theviennoiserie was really underwhelming.”
Rubin says, “When the Cronut became a thing, I just thought, Oh, my God, that’s perfect! His croissant sucked, so he threw it in oil. And I think, Brilliant! He must have known, so he threw it in hot oil. What do I think of it? Because I’ve done this a long time now, and I care deeply about it, when someone comes along with something innovative I think deeply about it.
“I struggle to separate the blogosphere’s role in it as compared to what’s real work,” he goes on. “I think of it as a hula-hoop moment, and unlike anything else in pastry time. It couldn’t exist without the blogosphere. Most people don’t know anything about good pastry anymore. What goes around is ‘O.M.G.!’ in a Yelp review, and I’ve seen the regard for really well-made pastry go down and down and down.”
Although he hastens to add that, however dubious the Cronut’s origins, he likes it as a finished thing, the craze clearly sticks in his throat. “The Cronut thing is what a bunch of musicians felt when they first saw Chubby Checker,” he says. Chubby Checker, for the innocent, sang the early sixties hit “The Twist,” which managed to cheapen R. & B. anddegrade American pop-dance music at the same time. “It’s still amazing to me how few places make really good pastry, and on the innovative front I may be a tough critic,” he says. “But I think there are no critics out there.”
Walk about twenty blocks south, continuing in a straight line down Fifth, jogging through Washington Square and onto Thompson Street, and you arrive at Dominique Ansel’s bakery, on Spring Street, and, if you get there early enough, his line. Although skeptics consider the Cronut to be what the great New York restaurant writer Seymour Britchky once called “a New Yorker trap”—something that is local but still essentially ersatz, like a checked-tablecloth neighborhood restaurant where the food is terrible and the mom-and-pop proprietors are hostile to newcomers—the line is real, and long. The Cronut now has a TM added to it in any communication from the Ansel bakery, so that, like Xerox and Kleenex, it can try to protect itself from becoming a common term in everyday usage.
But any thoughts that its maker might be more a shrewd P.R. man than an artist are dispelled in conversation over morning coffee and a few fresh-baked madeleines in an airy, glass-walled back-garden space—the Cronuts having all gone in the dawn hours. Dominique Ansel turns out to have had a classical French culinary education: recruited from a working-class family in his mid-teens, and bullied in a kitchen by a mean head chef, he slowly worked his way up the ladder of French cooking.
He comes from the gray, grim northern city of Beauvais. “I grew up in a poor neighborhood,” he says. “My dad was working in a factory, and we lived with my cousin and grandmom. My dad always had a small salary—you know, in France you are paid at the end of the month, and near the end of the month we rarely had money. We’d just buy bread to have dinner, bread dipped in milk. I remember being hungry—so hungry. I remember seeing the ribs on my chest.”
After an apprenticeship at a local bakery and one at a better local restaurant, he gathered the courage to go to Paris and distribute résumés, offering his services to anyone who would take them. He did some work at Peltier (as Rubin might be surprised to learn), a place once legendary for its croissants, and then got hired for the Christmas rush at Fauchon—the period when every French family must have abûche de Noël and a galette des rois. Hired along with twenty or so other young French pâtissiers, with the Navy SEAL-like guarantee that only one or two of them would ever make the permanent kitchen team, Ansel prevailed and was rapidly promoted. When, in 2004, Daniel Boulud went looking for a new pastry chef for his main New York restaurant, someone in Paris suggested Ansel, and though on his arrival here he spoke scarcely a word of English—he now speaks it with crisp, aphoristic clarity—he had a very successful run in the high-end restaurant.
But his real ambition was always to have his own shop. So he began looking for a space where he could bake. “I was looking for quite some time,” he says. “And I was really looking at different locations, and my designer walked by and saw this place.” He adds, innocently, “I thought, SoHo, it’s very artistic, very trendy, there’s a lot of galleries and art and culture. It is not where all the tourists are.”
Ansel was determined to be as avant-garde as the art scene he imagined still existed in the neighborhood. “I didn’t want to do anything classic,” he says. “All these people giving advice: cupcakes, sandwiches. I wanted a place where I’ll be happy. I didn’t want old-school—chandeliers, sculpture, gold everywhere. I wanted a place where you could get Parisian-quality pastry but it felt like New York. But I wanted the pastries to be creative and innovative—more like SoHo.” The previous tenant had been a showroom for a Japanese oven company. It left the ovens, and the renovation took seven weeks. “Then I opened the bakery. I remember peeling off the paper and seeing people outside and thinking, Oh, my God, there are people waiting for us.”
Part of the appeal of the new place was that he could take some of the habits of a restaurant kitchen and apply them to a daily bakery. “I wanted a place where I could do things that were seasonal,” he says. “I remember in December switching to apple desserts and people coming in and asking about strawberry desserts. And I would say, ‘Oh, no strawberries.’ And they would say, ‘Yes, there are some in the deli next to my house.’ Yes, there is some, but not ripe and sweet, and you’re not going to enjoy it. We have pumpkins, apples, and pears, some flavors of wine—try the new things. First, they were kind of upset, they don’t see strawberry tart. And a few weeks later you see the same people coming back.”
He looks from the glass-enclosed garden toward the kitchen: “As you can see, our kitchen is very small—small batches of everything all day long.” It is indeed tiny, hardly more than a galley with two stacked ovens. The feeling in his place, after the morning crush, is more Williamsburg than SoHo, glass and sun and constant baking smells, with several hipster types nursing one of our many period variants of espresso and steamed milk. “We bake things all day long. I want fresh-baked cookies all day long. They’ll wait, people will wait, ten minutes, and leave the bakery with a hot cookie, a fresh-baked madeleine—this is one of the stories of the life and the time of ingredients. No shelf life! We pipe them, put them in the oven, and we give them to you hot from the oven. It’s a moment in time. I remember going to the bakery, always getting hot bread, with my grandmother. It’s something I want to have. People will bake at night and put it on the shelf—and I refuse doing that.”
“Creativity” was his watchword—it is the watchword of his entire generation of chefs—and over time he began introducing variants on French favorites. His first was an updated version of the kouign amann. Despite sounding like the name of a battle lost by the colonial French in the Indochina War, the kouign amann is a traditional Breton butter cake, which Ansel learned from a Breton chef at Fauchon. “I was doing it at Fauchon, and I thought, We’ll make it flakier, lighter, and less sweet than it could be in France. I remember doing this as a snack for the staff at Daniel, and they were crazy about it.” The D.K.A.—Dominique’s Kouign Amann—was launched shortly after the bakery opened, and it was an immediate hit. “Now they go to France and they ask bakeries, Do you have a D.K.A., and they say, ‘What?’ ”
Nothing prepared him, though, for the reaction to his next creative act. “Someone mentioned, Maybe we should do a doughnut. And I was, like, Doughnut? I’m French, so I don’t have a recipe for doughnuts. But I have croissants. I can try to do a doughnut with that. I worked on the dough for about two and a half months. It is not croissant dough. And we thought, Fry it! Fry it in grapeseed oil! I said, It’s good. Let’s put it on the Mother’s Day menu. Someone from Grub Street”—the New York food blog—“was walking by and wrote an article about it.” By the same strange magic that guarantees the success or failure of a movie on its first afternoon, the post went viral before anyone had tasted the product. The Cronut was a hit essentially before there were Cronuts. “The next day, we had a good fifty people outside. People are coming, and, like, Can I have twelve, twenty-four? And the third day we had more than a hundred people. So, I guess, the first day I made thirty, and then fifty, and on the third day a hundred. Very early on, you realize you should limit the quantity.” Now, no matter how long the wait, no one can buy more than two Cronuts, nor can anyone, no matter what his credentials, cut the line. If the mayor or a Nobel laureate gets in line for a Cronut, he waits for his Cronut.
Ansel poses the question he is often asked: “Why did it become this?” His own theory is that it’s the ideal mixture of two separate yet familiar pleasures, newly joined into one good bite. “American culture grew up with doughnuts. Everyone likes doughnut; everyone knows what is a good doughnut. But Americans love croissants, too. Everyone has had a croissant at least once. Croissant inside a doughnut? It’s fun, it’s new! Unique and different! It’s in people’s minds very exciting.”
The commercialization, or, rather, over-commercialization, of the Cronut, which currently sells for five dollars, is something that Ansel has resisted. “It is like a lot of decisions I had to make very early on,” he says. “I had to be strict with myself, and tell myself what I was living. I didn’t want our creations to kill our creativity. The Cronut’s a wonderful creation, but I don’t want to turn my shop into a Cronut shop. People have approached me to mass-produce it, sell it frozen, put it in a box. Would it make money? Yes. Would it be good? No. Would I be proud of it? No. I would kill my own creation.”
Instead, he has become its caretaker. “We keep the constancy, and we serve the line—we go serving hot chocolate and hot baked madeleine to the people in line,” he says. “We have security because, think about it, when you have a line of people it attracts solicitors, homeless people, and others who might harass our customers. So we have security.” He is alive to the irony of having a pastry item so successful that it is necessary to hand out, free, other pastry items to the people waiting for it, as he is to the irony of having to hire a private security force to protect his supplicants from other supplicants. “It’s New York,” he says, with a pilgrim’s pride in his adopted city.
At last, a Cronut is obtained—one is kept every day for quality control, and in this case sacrificed to a late-rising writer—and it is intensely sweet, interestingly textured, almost unbearably rich in “mouth feel.” It is not only worth waiting in line for but, in a sense, only worth waiting in line for; you would grow a little ill if you could stuff down as many as you like. This is a quality it shares with Ansel’s more recent inventions, such as the frozen s’more, which puts an ice-cream center sprinkled with chocolate wafer flakes inside a marshmallow coating, all held on a fragrantly smoked willow-wood stick; or the Magic Soufflé, which, magically, captures the density and loft of a chocolate soufflé in a form that doesn’t fall. They are all studies in how far the envelope can be pushed before the envelope tears. If the pretzel croissant still has something of the flavor of the “Sex and the City” nineties—a certain self-conscious cuteness, a reversion to teen-age tastes—the Cronut tastes like now. Like the NoMad roast chicken—its skin padded with a mixture of foie gras, brioche, and black truffle—or, at a pop level, like the hamburgers at the Shake Shack, they are densely blinding tastes, which, like so many prized tastes, from white truffles to durians, sit right on the edge of being slightly sickening.
What, finally, can account for the phenomenon of the Cronut and its crowds? The Marxist, or, anyway, materialist, explanation is the most arresting. The huge rise in the cost of raw materials for baking, of which Maury Rubin speaks, means that either you lower quality or you keep it high and present the results as a special, once a week, wait-in-line treat. The fetishized hybrid comes about when a commodity that’s been around for a long time suddenly jumps up in price. Back in the excessive eighties, it was said that muffins and bagels had grown ridiculously big precisely as a substitute for real material goods: you couldn’t buy a house, so you bought a big muffin. Now you can’t buy a house or an apartment and your internship doesn’t actually, you know, pay. So you get a croissant that’s fried and sugared and filled and glazed.
But a semi-Freudian explanation may work better: when something gets forbidden, whether sex in the Victorian era or desserts in our own, it becomes fetishized. As with nineteenth-century men obsessing about women on bikes in bloomers, a sensual overcharge surges when it is displaced from its real arena of animal pleasure to an adjacent area of virtuous exertion—or, in the case of the Cronut, of avant-garde-type experiment. If tomorrow we found out that fried dough was healthier than kale and broccoli rabe, the supply would grow and the line would fade. Sanity is always soporific. This is why mildly reformist social democrats, however sterling their records of success, rarely make the face of the currencies they have saved. The truth will not set us free. It is too tedious to do that. The truth is a cup of coffee and a boiled egg on plain white toast. Fantasy is a croissant in love with crystal salt, or, better, a fried and filled croissant sold in the early morning and costing hours in lost sleep.
And then at the heart of the competition between the pretzel croissant and the Cronut, with or without its trademark, there is an interchange of transatlantic illusions. Maury Rubin, like so many of us, still believes in Paris and its pastry in ways that Paris pastry no longer believes in itself. The little bakeries he trained in, the traditions he learned, are, as Dominique Ansel notes, vanishing in their place of origin. Ansel, in turn, believes in a vanished New York—he thinks that he is in the middle of the art world when pretty much all that is left of the SoHo art world is Ansel’s bakery.
Seen from sufficient distance, the arc of invention is simple. The transfer of the artist’s mode of thought from pastry to plates has now returned from plates to pastry. In Carême’s pioneering time, the pâtissierinvented, and empowered the kitchen chef. Now the kitchen chef empowers the pâtissier in the little storefront to treat every day’s baked goods as though they were tonight’s special. Carême would have welcomed the Cronut line, and been welcomed in it. One sees him outside, waiting for hours, furiously scribbling new ideas for pièces montées—perhaps a triumphal procession in pastry, with a temple of Art and Appetite made of pretzel croissants, blessed by Love in the form of three or four crusty Cronut Cupids, smiling down, for novelty’s sake. ♦