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The St. Louis Cardinals’ distinctive logo begins to take form on the artist’s canvas—or rather—griddle.
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Paige Russell holds the portrait of her American Girl doll, recreated in all its edible glory, during a recent appearance of Dan Drake at a St. Louis eatery.
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Dr. Dan, the Pancake Man, works from a picture of a customer’s dog and a palette of brightly colored batter to recreate the pooch in pancake.
It’s a crisp, bright morning in the Central West End neighborhood in St. Louis. The Sunday brunch is just getting started at Evangeline’s Bistro and Music House. On stage, Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, a local hot jazz favorite, are tuning up a variety of musical instruments.
In the back left corner, artist Dan Drake is getting out the tools of his trade: a colorful palette of batter, spatulas, and a forty-dollar pancake griddle from Walmart. He’s ready to go to work as “Dr. Dan the Pancake Man.” The twenty-six-year-old St. Louis native is a world-renowned pancake artist. Dan’s unique artistry took shape around seven years ago, as he was working at the Courtesy Diner in St. Louis.
“As the new guy, I had to start at the bottom, but after a year or so, I moved up to short-order cook,” Dan says. “By then, I had the circular pancake thing down pat.”
He noticed that some of the other cooks were putting Mickey Mouse ears on their orders and gaining some notoriety.
“So, I thought, how could I go one step better, in hopes of some better tips?” he says. He soon developed a two-layered smiley pancake that earned a fifteen-dollar tip.
“That first tip gave me the motivation I needed to keep going,” he says. “If the first guy has given me this big of a tip, then someone else will too.” Dan soon had a small following at the diner, all of whom challenged him to expand his portfolio.
One of those customers challenged him to do the Super Mushroom from the Mario Brothers video game. The picture bounced around on the Internet for about six months, and was eventually picked up by Reddit. “Then it snowballed and went viral,” Dan says.
Next thing he knew, he was warming up his griddle at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and designing the pancake caricatures of Al Roker, Willie Geist, and the rest of the crew from the Today Show.
When he returned to St. Louis, interest in Dan’s art expanded beyond the Courtesy. “I got hired to do a Sunday brunch at a local café not too long after the Today Show, and that is when it hit me that I am now working as a pancake artist,” Dan says. After a six-year stint at the Courtesy Diner, he packed up his spatulas and headed out on his own.
However, Dan says he wouldn’t be as successful as he is without his business partner and right-hand man, Hank Gustafson. He said the two fortuitously met just before he went on the Today Show.
“We fit together like a hand in a glove,” Dan says. “Hank’s got the business part down, and I’ve got the artist thing down pat.” In 2015, the duo estimates that they did more than one hundred pancake gigs. These included everything from backyard birthday parties to a music festival in Bangkok, Thailand, and a handful of fraternity parties. Dan has more than 75,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he regularly cranks out pancake images of such pop culture icons as Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Darth Vader from the Star Wars saga. He’s even been commissioned by corporations, including Twitter and Nike, to do their logos in batter. Back at Evangeline’s, with a customer’s smartphone in one hand and a squirt tube of dark beige batter in the other, Dan creates a portrait of a brown terrier. “I think the popularity of this is that everyone can identify with pancakes,” he says. “I’m not working with caviar. As well, it’s a novelty, and people are always looking for something new and creative.”
The challenge for the artist is painting a reverse image of what he’s creating on his griddle. Once he’s finished filling in all the parts and layers, he flips it over.
“That’s what I call the magic moment,” he says. “I turn it over and then everybody is like, ‘Whoa, it really looks like something!’ They aren’t hiring me because the cakes taste or smell good; they are hiring me because of the flip.”
As for the road ahead, Dan and Hank are working on forming an entertainment conglomerate to include a comic book series and a CD of Dan’s original music. Their calendar is booked with pancake gigs deep into next year.
“I know it sounds cliché, but if you would have told me a few years ago, while I was flipping pancake challenges for my friends at the Courtesy, that this would be my full-time job, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Dan says. However, the artist is not resting on his spatulas. “I am confidently at a point where I can say I am good at this, but I haven’t mastered it,” he says. “There is still work to do.”