A brightly hued, strawberry-topped religieuse pastry posed against a leafy green background.
One impossibly long tendril of octopus dredged in fluffy corn dog batter.
A blueberry jam and Earl Grey-flavored Cronut—this decade’s most famous pastry—split down the middle to reveal its impossibly thin, flaky layers.
It’s easy to mistake chef Dominique Ansel’s Instagram feed for that of a professional photographer. His eye for beauty has not gone unnoticed, either: at press time, the chef boasted nearly 368,000 followers.
Of course, Ansel isn’t just an influencer with a talent for picking the right filter. The New York-based chef, who helms a mini-empire of eponymous bakeries and restaurants in the U.S., London, and Tokyo, might be the most famous pastry maker in the world right now. While he first shot to international acclaim with the launch of his trademarked Cronut pastry in 2013— that’s half-croissant, half-doughnut—the chef is not one for simple gimmickry. Ansel, a James Beard Award winner, began his career at culinary school in France, before eventually moving to New York in 2006 to serve as executive pastry chef at Daniel Boulud’s paean to French cuisine, “Daniel.” While there, Ansel was part of the team that earned the restaurant both a third Michelin star and a four-star review from The New York Times.
Fast forward to 2011, when Ansel made the risky decision to leave and open Dominique Ansel Bakery in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Almost immediately, he began documenting the life of the nascent business and its skeleton crew of four employees on Instagram. “It was a way of communicating what I was doing every day for the bakery,” he says. To this day, even though his other locations outside the city have their own handles, Ansel has never separated his personal account from those of his New York outposts. “It’s all one,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time here. I live for the bakery.” His dedication to his craft, which was documented so beautifully on Instagram, certainly helped to bring in visitors in droves. They lined up to try his laminated and crunchy DKA pastry or madeleines, which were baked to order and served piping hot.
Ansel sometimes jokingly refers to his career as B.C. and A.C.: before and after Cronut. The success of the pastry launched the chef into a new echelon of the industry, and there’s no doubt that social media contributed to the dessert’s viral rise. “It definitely helped with communicating and sharing information much faster,” he says. “It was a new way of learning about new people and new things.” But he’s also quick to point out that the Cronut’s fame cannot be attributed solely to Instagram. The hybrid, in fact, took three straight months of recipe testing before its signature form and texture were deemed satisfactory. “We fry small batches every morning, we have to maintain the quality, and there’s a different flavor every month,” he says of the work that goes into prepping his signature item.
Another tenet of Ansel’s business practice is to allow each of his shops to maintain its individuality. On a macro level this means every location’s menu is different; more granularly, they each control their own Instagram feeds. “Every one has its own creations, every one has its own personality,” he says of the bakeries. “Our guests in New York, Tokyo, London, or LA are different. They like different things; they buy different things at different times.” As for the shops themselves, “They are like sisters, they’re not twins,” he says.
Ansel’s willingness to let his individual outposts control their social media is indicative of his own philosophy on Instagram. His photos are a pleasure to look at, sure, but more important, they are authentic. “What I do with my social media is very organic and very spontaneous,” he says. “I post a lot of things that I see, that I do, and that I love. There’s no structuring or thinking in a specific way.” His fans certainly appreciate his openness and willingness to document his progress: a recent post displaying final tests on an indulgent-sounding carbonara croissant garnered thousands of likes. “We worked on dozens of recipes to find the right ratios of egg to butter to flour,” he writes in the post. Video is also an important component of Ansel’s social media success: Many of his dishes are interactive and video allows viewers to witness the full creativity of the finished product.
While the majority of Ansel’s images feature near-perfect pastries or dishes—“I like beautiful desserts presented in a very artistic way,” he says—he’s not averse to posting dishes that are more tasty than eye-catching. “Yes, people tend to like prettier photos,” he says. “I think, for what we do as chefs, it’s important not to forget the flavor, the testing, and the things that make us remember food. Do good food before trying to do any pretty food.”
But back to the photos: Did Ansel really come by all this photography talent innately? As it turns out, the chef did benefit from a bit of professional help. Celebrated food photographer Daniel Krieger happens to be a friend of his. “When I started using social media, he showed me a few things, like playing with the light and where to shoot. And that made my photos much prettier, much faster,” Ansel says.