The Cronut Effect: America's Hybrid Obsession
Food hybrids are the current gastronomic craze of the moment thanks to the viral popularity of the Cronut, a mashup of a donut and a croissant, invented by NYC-based baker and pastry chef Dominique Ansel. Before inventing it, Ansel had a prestigious but much quieter career as a pastry chef at Daniel, racking up a James Beard nomination before opening his own shop. But it wasn’t until he combined these two desserts that Ansel was catapulted to national celebrity. When it came to inventing the Cronut for Ansel, it was more about improving the American donut than anything else: “You know, I'm not a very big donut fan actually. I remember making a joke to the team that we don't eat many donuts in France; we eat croissants instead.”
Cronut mania has spurred hundreds of knock-offs around the U.S., and inspired chefs to come out with their own hybrid items (the ramen burger, the cuffin, et al). The question of the hour seems to be: what will be the next Cronut?
Bakers, chefs and restaurateurs are all scrambling to answer it.
In Boston, shortly after the Cronut’s emergence, Griddler's produced a “bronut” - a mash-up of donut and burger that's become their most-asked-about item (even though it's not always on the changing menu). Boston Nightlife Ventures CFO (Griddler’s parent company) Brett Fodiman tells us, “Once we saw the spark of the Cronut, we were like wow, this certainly could be us.” Fodiman’s next hybrid project is a croissant dog, once he finds a high-quality pastry to make it with.
But aside from the hybriders of the post-Cronut era, eateries that have been mashing up foods for years are now getting some extra attention. Psycho Donuts in San Jose and Campbell, CA, a spot that's been 'donutizing' food items since opening in 2009, recently rolled out its latest creation, a Dannoli - a mash-up of donut and cannoli. “I remember when I first heard of the Cronut, I thought it was a great idea,” head chef Ron Levi tells us. “I'm not sure how or why it went berserk, but I'm happy for chef Ansel that it did.”
Philadelphia’s PYT has also been experimenting with hybrids for some time now with its “Burger of the Week” (its lasagna burger recently gained some national attention) and other mash-ups like a taco with a bacon shell. Owner Tommy Up muses on the subject of inspiration: “I credit Kanye West for the Cronut phase. On Yeezus, he raps, ‘In a French a** restaurant, so hurry up with my damn croissants.’ So maybe the Cronut guy is listening to Kanye, and was passing a donut shop...that's how these ideas work. That's how you get a bacon taco.”
We’re not sure about the Kanye-Cronut connection, but it’s certainly true that other hybrids influence hybrids. PYT recently unleashed a “Spaghetti Burger” partially inspired by NYC’s ramen burger, which also stole the national spotlight recently. The dish features spaghetti noodles in place of a bun. “More chefs are daring to color outside the lines, and the public is now catching up to what some of us have been doing for years,” Tommy explains.
NYC's David Burke (David Burke Townhouse) is something of a hybrid OG, and has been mashing up dishes in a gourmet setting for decades (pastrami salmon, cheesecake lollipop). His take on the current madness: “I think experimentation is always good. I think the people that are behind the kitchens are always looking for new ways to drive customers and stay stimulated with new recipes.” Burke piqued the gourmet world's interest in food whimsy, and to some extent, high-end junk food.
It's also undeniable that when it comes to hybrid foods, fast food has had a sizable influence of late. “I think it works both ways, and we borrow from each other,” chef David Burke tells us. “Fast food borrows from fine dining and vice versa." One of the most conspicuous hybrids in the last year was the Doritos Locos taco at Taco Bell, which was a regular taco with a Doritos shell. The item is now the most popular in the brand’s history and is in its third incarnation. “I do think that the Doritos Locos taco is a great idea - I’ve had that," Burke tell us. "That happened to be a good idea because you’re adding texture and bulk, which is what they want to do, and it adds some different flavors.”
Meanwhile, PYT’s Tommy Up might have a bone to pick with the taco giant. “We did the Doritos Cool Ranch Chicken Burger two years before Taco Bell caught on to using Doritos, " he says. "That idea started when my chef and I were at a nightclub and saw Doritos in a vending machine, and we were hungry. I asked him to remind me the next day, and that's how that whole thing started. Taco Bell never returned my call.”
Regardless of who's influencing who, hybrids are having their tipping point moment at every level, from fast food to the gourmet sphere. And while it's impossible to explain why the Cronut in particular sparked such hysteria, the reason why people love these combination items is kind of a no-brainer. Ramen burger inventor Khizo Shimamoto tells us: “I think because ramen is hot right now and burgers are just burgers, everyone loves them, and you put the two together and it’s just an explosion.” A bystander waiting in line remarks, “We’re really big on ramen and we love burgers, so we’re just interested to see what it’s going to taste like.” For Ansel the explanation isn't much different: “It's simple - it's the best of both worlds. We all love that!” Chef experimentation and diner curiosity are intersecting at just the right moment.
Stay tuned for a round-up of must-try hybrids around the U.S.