DANCAKES is the brainchild of Daniel ‘Dr. Dan’ Drake and Henry ‘Hank’ Gustafson, two young sons of Saint Louis, MO just trying to make their mark on the world. They have become Pancake Art Rock Stars who are internationally famous and in demand for their incredibly artistic pancakes. You read that correctly: pancakes! And yes they’re edible.
Where are you from? Growing up, what did you geek out on? What comics, tv shows, movies, characters were you into?
I was a military kid with parents that divorced when I was three or four. I was born on a base outside of San Bernardino and moved around a lot, but most of my roots are in St. Louis, where I still live. I was a pretty nerdy kid, I guess, and my folks introduced me to ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ when I was super little. I was always fascinated by sci-fi and fantasy, and, more than that, by a really good story. I played a crapload of Final Fantasy once I discovered it. When I was a little older I moved into things like the ‘Dark Tower’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but the love of faraway worlds and imagination has always been a big part of me. I credit a lot of my motivation for making art and music with being so exposed to all of this fantastic source material. The concept art, the music, the writing, all of these left their mark on my developing brain and when I make stuff it’s like those old runes get mixed up and spat out into something new.
What are you geeking out on now?
‘Saga,’ the Brian K. Vaughn / Fiona Staples graphic novel that I was late to the party on. Top notch writing and crazy inventive art. That, and ‘Horace and Pete’, Louis C.K.’s experimental new show. Art that makes you feel stuff, that’s where beauty lives. It would be cool to make people feel stuff with pancake art someday but for now I’m just coasting on the novelty of it.
In 2008, Dan was flipping burgers in a greasy-spoon dive restaurant. Tell us how you went from that to creating Dancakes?
A combination of happenstance – being in the right place at the right time – and boredom, really. I made a smiley-face pancake to try and increase my tips and the guy I served it to gave me $15 right off the bat. Brian Regan, the stand up comedian, told Marc Maron in an interview I listened to that he ‘accidentally’ killed it the first night he did stand up, and that’s probably why he kept doing it. It’s a similar story for me. I definitely wasn’t anticipating such an immediate return on my goofy attempt, but I got it. So I kept making smiley face pancakes and slowly figuring out the medium. Eventually, a photo of me making a Mario mushroom went viral and I ended up on the Today Show. Honestly, most of it just feels like…I dunno, fate. Like it was thrust upon me and the only reason I’m still doing it is because the universe keeps insisting that I do. It’s the path of least resistance, you know? It’s easier to be a pancake rock star for me right now than it is to get the world to listen to my music…but I’ll get there.
The Avengers Pancake Art
What do you attribute to your success? Was there anything in particular that you felt catapulted you into where you are today?
I feel like just saying ‘I got lucky’ is a cop out way to answer this, but it’s how I feel most of the time. Maybe that’s humility talking. But, you know, like I said before, it’s not like I expected to immediately receive a reward for trying this art out. I was in the right place – working as a fry cook – at the right time, with the right idea, and there’s no way I could’ve predicted where that decision would ultimately lead me.
Open-mindedness, I guess. More than anything else, it was the fact that I didn’t already have a plan for my life that allowed me to take advantage of this weirdo opportunity I got. I wasn’t in school, and I wasn’t in debt. I didn’t have any kids. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I liked the idea of being famous, of being a rock star or a published novelist or a cartoonist or SOMETHING, that I wanted to make ART and be FAMOUS for it, but I had no real map of how to get there and that was ultimately the best thing I could’ve asked for. If I’d had a map, maybe I wouldn’t have embraced pancakes so easily. I was actually a little resentful of the pancake fame for the first year or so after the today show; I was really intent on making my band successful and it frustrated me that something I’d paid no mind to was overshadowing something that I’d poured my heart into. Once I finally got over that, embraced the pancake art gig, and focused my energy on it, things started to get better, fast.
You have over 37,000 followers on Instagram. How has your life changed since the creation of your company?
Mostly, it’s just more fulfilling. We’ve finally worked our business up to the point where I’m working about as hard and about as often as I did when I was at the diner, but it’s so much more rewarding to do something like this for money – something intellectually challenging that people celebrate you for doing – than it was to flip burgers. I’m taking home a little less money than I did at the diner, but that’s only because my manager and I set ourselves a low salary and pour the vast majority of our profits back into the business. We have some really cool plans in the works that are gonna take some investment to get done, but we’re being smart about the money so there’s some very real possibilities there.
It’s deeply empowering to be at the helm of a successful, unique business, and to be at the top of the class in a new and exciting field. It’s so much more than the social media following and the money. It’s new challenges every day and the tools and resources to meet and accomplish them. I couldn’t be happier with the direction things are going.
How did you learn how to craft pancakes into such amazing creations? Is this something you taught yourself over time? Were you an artist at one point?
Yes, I’m self taught. I’ve thought about taking caricature classes or studying classical art, but those things always cost money and the thing about art is that you’re only ever going to get good at it by DOING it, even if you have a trained professional giving you tips. Besides, a lot of things can be learned on YouTube for free now. But, yeah, I’ve always been drawn to art, in general. Not just drawing and painting, but writing and music, too. I think it all comes back down to ‘communication’. I love to communicate. I love to trade ideas, and illustrate concepts, and I always have, and I was blessed with a mother who was ceaselessly nurturing and encouraging of my artistic tendencies. Interestingly, I’ve gotten much better at drawing since pancake fame happened if only because it puts me in the position to stare at a lot of faces and draw a lot of different things on a daily basis.
You create everything from epic Star Wars pancakes to Ninja Turtles to DC & Marvel Characters to Pixar favorites to so many more!! How do you decide what to create? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Some things, like the videos you mentioned, come from a genuine love for the source material. I decided to do the Pixar video (which took quite a while to make) after seeing and loving ‘Inside Out’ and realizing that Pixar has given me a whole lot of feels over the years. It’s a lot easier to motivate myself to make epic collages when I really love the source material. But we do a lot of one-offs and standalone pancake videos, too, usually coinciding with holidays, or pop culture happenings. Sometimes things just make sense, from a business standpoint – social media videos are our entire advertising strategy. It all depends.
Pixar Pancake Art
How long does the average Dancake take? We’ve seen videos of you doing commissions on the fly at various conventions, but how long does it take you to master something like your Star Wars cakes?
That depends on how realistic I’m trying to make something. The closer to realism you get with pancake art, the more colors you have to mix and the longer – and slower – the process from creating them tends to be. The Star Wars video we did wasn’t exactly realism; I used black batter for linework, which simplifies the process considerably. Still, I probably spent between 15 and 20 minutes on each cake. On the other hand, with something like our Game of Thrones video, I abstained from using black lines and tried to deliver higher fidelity portraits. Those each took between 30 minutes to an hour, not including the time it took to mix colors.
Star Wars Pancakes
Is there a special batter that you use? Any secret ingredients you can let slip? Are there different flavors?
Nope, nothing too secret. I like sharing my process, anyway; the more people who love pancake art, the brighter my future. We use a restaurant quality, just-add-water pancake mix at a medium-thin consistency, and we do most of our coloring with icing gels or baking gels, which are used in confections and colored icing. You don’t need to use much to get rich, vibrant colors. Though, yeah, we’ve been experimenting with some pretty cool new coloring methods and are finding ways to get blues and greys from blueberries, pinks from strawberries, etc. We just started offering these flavor/color combos to private clients, too, and I’m pretty excited about it.
You’ve been on several tv shows (such as the Today Show), but where else can we see your work? Do you travel a certain convention circuit? Can companies hire you for an event?
Obviously you can find us online, but you can’t really eat those pancakes. It’s way cooler live. And, yeah, anyone from anywhere can hire us, provided that they’re okay with paying our travel expenses. The farthest we’ve traveled for a live event is Bangkok, so, you know, sky’s the limit (I wonder if we’ll ever make Dancakes on Mars?). We’ve teamed up with a couple of event companies this year, too, so you’ll be seeing us around at colleges and conventions at lot more often. And with every event we do, we get better, we find cooler equipment, we save more money for new ideas and directions to grow in. This year has been the best so far and I don’t expect that to slow down.
What’s the hardest or most challenging piece you’ve ever created? What made it so difficult?
I get this question a lot and it’s always hard to say, because I feel like I raise the bar on myself on a semi-regular basis. With patience (and seven years of practice) most things are pretty straightforward now. I’ve done a couple of ‘Starry Nights’ that were pretty complex. But, you know, once you figure out how not to race the griddle you can take as long as you need.
Human faces took me a long time to master. It’s very, very easy to screw up the features on a human face, to lose bits of their character with tiny errors, and you usually can’t tell you’ve messed them up until half an hour later when you flip the pancake. I think my portrait of The Rock took me four or five tries on different days before I finally felt like I’d done him justice. But now, and especially after doing that ‘Game of Thrones’ video, I’m just…better, I guess. More confident. Make yourself do stuff you’re not sure you can pull off, and then keep trying it until you pull it off, and you’ll be better. And be patient with yourself.
Game of Thrones Pancake Art
What has been your most favorite piece that you’ve ever created?
Right now, it’s the portrait I did of Bernie Sanders. I took my time on it. I respect the guy, and I wish we’d had a way to preserve pancakes at that point. I got a rush when I flipped it over, ‘cause I knew I’d knocked it outta the park.
What are you working on now? Can you give us hints to what your next creations will be?
Let’s just say we did some mad science and figured out how to transcend the transience of the medium. As for our next creations, I don’t even know that one. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Where can people find you next?
Well, we do a sunday brunch here in Saint Louis at Evangeline’s Bistro in the Central West End, but other than that we’re all over the damn place.
You’ve been very generous with your time! Thank you for this interview, and we look forward to seeing your next creations!
Be sure to check out the various Dancakes websites: