Throughout the year we’ve talked to some incredible artists that have worked in a variety of mediums. From those who’ve done murals that make Los Angeles pop to those whose oil paintings and chalk drawings can be seen in galleries around the world. Today, we’re talking to the team behind the only art that pairs well with a side of syrup. Yes, Dancakes is all about creating amazing, have-to-see-to-believe-art out of…pancake batter.
Daniel Drake was doing anything to make his job at a diner interesting when pancake art took his life down an unexpected path. Then, thanks to the business savvy Hank Gustafson, Dancakes went from something insanely cool to look at to a well-oiled machine. Along the way, they picked up a creative crew and we even got to talk to Ben Daniel and Dana Baldus about the underdog triumph of Dancakes, batter mistakes, and just how they’re continuing to grow their pancake art empire.
Kendra: When it comes to Dan and Hank, where do you feel each of you would be today without the other? Because it seems as if you’re the perfect pairing of creative bliss and business know-how.
Daniel Drake: I often joke that without Hank I’d be in an alley somewhere, wondering what might’ve been! I’m a bit of an eccentric and I read a lot of books on metaphysics, and I can’t help but look at me and Hank as a naturally successful creative union. I have a lot of very strange ideas and Hank has the pragmatic wisdom needed to help me bring them back to earth and figure out how we can make them happen. Simon Sinek, the author, and motivational speaker talks about such pairings in his book, Start With Why, suggesting that great organizations have a “Why” guy – someone with vision – and a “How” guy – someone with the discipline to bring that vision to life. Hank is definitely my “How” guy.
Hank Gustafson: So I would definitely not be doing anything close to what we do with Dancakes. Before I met Dan I was working for my father’s construction company full-time. He had every intention of having me take over the “family” business. I would work both on the field and in the office, which is how I learned how to run a business. I met Dan near the tail-end of my construction career and once Dan got attention for the pancake art via Reddit and Today. I saw he was struggling to figure out how to structure a business out of the newfound demand for pancake art. People would call asking him if he did events and he would say “yes” and figure “how to” later. I stepped in as a friend to help him and it was rough in the beginning but we both slowly figured out how to streamline to process and make Dancakes what it is today. P.S. My dad is now super thrilled in what I do and tells his friends any chance he can haha!
Kendra: When people think of art and food, their minds often gravitate towards desserts or those fancy plates in expensive restaurants that would never leave you full. Pancakes though? Not so much. How does it feel to play a critical role in bringing a new form of creativity and art into food?
Daniel Drake: Oh, it’s surreal! If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be playing a “critical role in bringing a new form of creativity and art into food,” I’d have laughed at you in disbelief. I am so grateful to social media, and the universe as a whole, for putting me into such an unpredictably fantastic niche. It’s also very liberating to be sort of on the forefront of a creative medium because it can grow any number of directions. Sometimes it’s intimidating not to have a road map of possibilities laid out…but usually, it’s a good thing. Who knows where pancake art will be in a few years?
Hank Gustafson: Pancakes is a food most people have eaten, made, or at the very least are familiar with. Having done hundreds of events over the years and meeting many different people, one thing that a lot of them bring up is that they remember either their parents or grandparents making simple pancake art for them when they were kids. Mickey Mouse ears, dinosaurs or hearts.
Kendra: More so than the pancake art, which is amazing, I freaking love the origin stories of each and every member of the Dancakes team. It’s like a beautiful underdog movie in many ways. All these creative minds were wondering what else life had in store and then bam, pancakes! With that, if you had to pick a notable underdog to create an official Dancake out of that best represents your particular origin story, which would it be and why?
Daniel Drake: That’s an interesting question. I had to think about it for a little bit, but…Anthony Bourdain. I felt quite a kinship with him. I feel like I got lucky and pulled into the spotlight earlier than him, but if not for this viral pancake art development, my life would’ve looked a lot like his. I probably would’ve bummed around, done drugs, lived dangerously, and then, assuming it hadn’t killed me, written a book about all my mistakes (I’ve made plenty already, anyway). Bourdain was 44 before he became well-known for writing Kitchen Confidential; I was just a schmuck at a diner whose creative spark accidentally landed me a whole new career.
Ben Daniel: Ben Hogan. One of the greatest golfers of all time, possibly the best, even Tiger Woods says he strives to get to the place of control and consistency that Ben Hogan possessed. He had no reason to be as good as he was, he spent many years as a club pro and couldn’t cut it on the tour. So, he spent years dissecting his swing, finding his mistakes and correcting them until he became one of the greatest golfers that ever lived. He’s a testament to the grind and hard work it takes to get good at anything and the idea that any skill can be learned and improved if you’re dedicated to putting in the hours it takes to get there. Someone once asked Ben Hogan what to do about the blisters he was getting under his calluses from spending so much time on the range. His response? “Make them go to the bone.”
Dana Baldus: That’s a good question… it’s hard for me to settle on one person, but I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who made it in their career without the need for higher education, who instead worked their way up in their industry. My mind goes to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs… anyone who took the non-typical route and innovated regardless; who were crazy and creative enough to dream big, chase that dream and change the game because of it. I always thought I had to go to college despite not feeling like I needed to, so I’m beyond thrilled that I was given the opportunity to take on the world’s silliest job, and sillier still, to excel at it. Because why not? Life is ridiculous, might as well enjoy it– especially when it hurls you into the pancake circus.
Kendra: I think most of us hear drawing with batter and think, well…cartoons, right? Which yes, you all do a wide variety of animated characters but minds are equally as blown with the detailed work you do on actual human faces like the late Stan Lee, John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert, and even Jimi Hendrix. How much trial, error and cake batter goes into perfecting human faces?
Dana Baldus: Faces are insanely difficult to replicate accurately because of our obnoxiously face-obsessed brains. There are 7.5 billion of us running around, and we have brains built to tell even the most similar of faces apart. This is great for humankind, but for a portrait artist in a clunky medium like pancake batter…? Oof. It took me a long time to understand the intricacies of depicting specific faces, and it still feels like there’s a lot of trial and error. From the fact that adding in one additional wrinkle can take someone from looking forty to looking sixty, to the curious occurrence that making someone’s features even a millimeter out of place can, at best, make them look like someone else, and at worse, come off as offensive (“Hey, my nose isn’t that big!”). Luckily, with our artform, mistakes are delicious… so sorry that your portrait looks more like Joe Biden, but please take your free food and enjoy your face!
Ben Daniel: I always tell people, “You know how they say it takes 10,000 hours to master something? In this case, it’s 10,000 pancakes.” As with any skill you will never be perfect and you should expect to make mistakes, lots and lots of them. The trick to it all is learning to see your mistakes, to see where you can improve. I guarantee you that every pancake I flip over I immediately see what could have been better, even the ones that I think are great are not perfect, and they never will be. I probably won’t tell the person whose face I just drew what those mistakes are, but I will take a mental note, and as long as I can see my mistakes I can fix them and improve. If you aren’t able to see your mistakes you’re going to have a bad time.
Daniel Drake: Honestly I probably ought to sketch faces out more often before I draw them! I usually knock portraits out on the first go. I’m very lazy, and pancake art can be kind of unforgiving if you don’t do everything right the first time. Once you get a system together and start to learn how much contrast and what kinds of colors go into making a realistic portrait, it becomes just another pancake. I will say, though, that it took a lot of failure and uncertain experiments to get as good as we’ve gotten. You just have to sort of throw yourself at a task over and over again, over time, and eventually, you kinda figure it out.
Kendra: Just as I was thinking about pancake art and how it only lasts until the first bite, I came across Permanent Pancakes. That’s something that is coming soon…how soon and can you tell us more about that?
Daniel Drake: Yeah! We’re very excited about this. We’ve been doing some experiments to meaningfully preserve our pieces for almost five years, I think. One of the most common comments we hear from our fans and guests is that our work is too beautiful to eat, so we’ve been brainstorming a preservation method to accommodate this. In the last few months, we feel like we stumbled upon a dependable system, drying the piece, sealing it, building a frame and sinking it in resin, and we can now confidently manufacture pancake art for walls that will, conceivably, last forever. I have just recently hung my own work on my wall at home for the first time in my life! It’s an amazing feeling. We’re extending our studio to include an area for producing more of these pieces so that we can get into gallery showings, and maybe even tour with some of our most popular pieces.
Kendra: Other than creating pancakes that’ll last forever, what else is on the plate for Dancakes as we head deeper into 2019, and soon 2020?
Daniel Drake: Well! We’re going to be releasing a home pancake art kit, so that’s a big deal. That’ll be out before the holidays this year. I’m currently trying to talk the team into a Dancakes food truck or restaurant. We’re looking into doing regular, proper classes, doing a Bob Ross-style web series, podcasts, all kinds of stuff. I’d also like to write a book about how we’ve gotten where we are, and find a literary agent to help promote it and tell our weird, zany story. Life is short! I want to do it all.