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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
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“Can you make a pancake of Al Roker’s head?” Those words changed Daniel Drake’s life. Drake, a.k.a. “Dr. Dan the Pancake Man” (facebook.com/drdancake), had already developed a loyal following for his ability to pour pancake batter in the shapes of celebrities, toys, and characters from video games at his job as a short-order cook at Courtesy Diner. Then the Today show got wind of his talent. He blew up, as they say, and now, the 23-year-old is preparing to go out on his own.
How did you become a pancake artist? When I got my job at the Courtesy, I noticed I could put mouse ears on pancakes and get bigger tips, and make kids happy, too. Then I started to play around with smiley faces. Then, a co-worker and I figured out how to put a layer of batter down and leave it alone for a while, and then come back and put down more, to get a contrast in shading. The batter that goes down first becomes darker. And it just went from there. I also learned that with text, you have to do it backwards, because you have to flip it.
What are the most popular requests? A lot of folks want superheroes or their pets. My Little Pony and Hello Kitty are big—all the trademarked stuff. I’ve always done the Mario Bros. mushroom. It’s an ‘edible power-up,’ so it’s like a visual pun. It’s an extra life.
What are the strangest shapes you’ve been asked to make out of pancakes? There was a period where a very specific group of my friends came in three or four nights in a single week and asked me to do fine-art pieces. I did The Scream, the Sistine Chapel, Starry Night, and American Gothic. You can see them all on my Facebook page. They’re goofy, childish interpretations of the art in pancakes. And then for a St. Louis burlesque festival three or four years ago, I did a lot of breasts with pasties.
Do you use a smartphone to find images to help you? I do use a smartphone for reference. I hold it with my left hand while I pour the batter with my right.
Describe being on the Today show. I was working on a morning shift, and my phone started ringing. It was the Today show, and they asked me if I could make a pancake in the shape of Al Roker’s head. I made it, took a photo, and sent it to them. They said it was a big hit, and they would fly me to New York to be on TV. I got to meet the anchors. Matt Lauer swears a lot off-camera. On the show, I cooked all the anchors and Carson Daly, and then they started taking requests through Twitter. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so I did a pilgrim and a turkey and Kanye West in a Santa hat.
How did your appearance on the show change your life? When I got back, every shift I worked got busier and busier. It was awesome for maybe a week and a half. I basked in it. But after that, business ramped up, and every day was slammed. I didn’t have time or energy to come home and do the other things that I like to do. I put in my two weeks’ notice on Christmas Eve, but then I wound up deciding to stay a little longer. I was at the Courtesy for five years.
In early January, you got started with a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next step in your pancake venture, called the Dancake Van (dancakes.com). We’re asking for $15,000. That should cover a decent van, insurance, decals for the side, food, uniforms, and so on. We will make other food besides the custom pancakes, too; it will be like a diner on wheels with a celebrity pancake chef. We’ll be able to pack up the griddles and generator and everything and do private events we’ve been hired for. We can set up at your wedding, bar mitzvah, any kind of party, and make custom pancakes for the crowd.
Any other creative interests? I’m also in a band, the Psychedelic Psychonauts. We did a video for our song “Graveyard Blues,” filmed at the Courtesy Diner. We can use the van to transport the band’s equipment, and serve pancakes after shows—that will be so fun, people will never forget it.