Meet the most exciting chef in America today (who just so happens to be a woman).
With two Michelin stars under her belt, French-born Dominique Crenn is a force to be reckoned with. Her food is highly modernist and innovative, yet deeply nostalgic, ethereal and lyrical; in place of a traditional menu, meals at her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn begin with a poem on a slip
Chef Crenn made her first appearance at Cayman Cookout in January 2018 – the only female chef to headline this year’s event. Between a dynamic beachfront cookery demo and an exclusive tasting lunch, she sat down with Flava…
Since topping San Pellegrino’s 50 Best list in 2016, you have become an unofficial spokesperson for women in this industry. Is this something you embrace?
I’ve been pretty outspoken about these issues for the past twenty years, so for me it’s not anything different or uncomfortable. I appreciate these awards are trying to put forward women’s voices. It’s a platform – I can use it to discuss the things that matter to me
Do you find it strange that some of your restaurant’s policies – like staff sitting down to eat together and paying them a living wage – aren’t the industry norm?
Sometimes I go into another kitchen and there is no camaraderie, you feel the tension. I can’t work like that; we spend like 14 hours a day together, after all. I promised myself that when I was at the top of a company I would do something different. My focus is to build my company and create a space where people can be the people they want to be, to help them grow and succeed. Somewhere very respectful – not just in terms of gender, but also race and religion. Everyone is treated the same way in my company, each voice matters.
You didn’t have a conventional chef’s training and didn’t go to culinary school. How has that affected your progress?
It hasn’t been easy. It took me years to be where I am today, and I’ve been always looked at as an outsider. I did things differently. Some people who weren’t interested in me 20 years ago, now they want to be my best friends. I’m sorry, but I will give my time to the people who deserve it.
Do you think the industry is becoming more equal?
I do see things changing. I am hopeful. Atelier Crenn is about 60 percent women. Bar Crenn is half and half.
How familiar are you with food in Cayman?
It’s my first time here. I know it is a melting pot of different kind of cuisines. At Cookout I’ve been using conch, lobster, things that are reminiscent of the place – that was important to me.
Congratulations on your new venture, Bar Crenn. Can you explain the concept behind it?
Initially I wanted to open a wine bar and celebrate the small winemakers doing the right thing for the soil and the planet, and with that I wanted to do the French classics. Then I was cooking at the Elysée for the French president and I was in the kitchen with Guillaume Gomez [Chef des cuisines du Palais de l’Elysée]. They were making all the classics. I turned to Guillaume and asked to put his recipe on the menu with his name and he said “Sure.” Then wrote an email to Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, all those great chefs, asking them to consider donating a recipe, because I wanted to celebrate the masters. The answers came back: “Yes, yes, yes.” So, Bar Crenn is an homage to French cooking. That’s a part of my culture and I think it’s very important not to forget about what inspires you.
For someone so passionate about French cuisine, what made you choose to settle in America?
Well, I fell in love in San Francisco. It is also a country on its own, a place of freedom. Also, a place of winemakers and some pretty amazing farmers. I wanted to ‘get dirty’ with them – to find out what they’re doing and why the soil is like this. You can go back to understanding your surroundings there and the craftsmanship behind the produce.
How do you source produce ethically?
It can be a baffling question sometimes. I don’t really use meat on our menu, I make my own vinegar and butter, and avoid the big industrial farms. Always local when the quality is there. But you have to make some choices. For example, I have used beef from Japan – I refuse to use beef from San Francisco because the quality is not there. I can use products to promote craftsmanship from other parts of the world. Ultimately, I’m not writing a menu because a customer wants it; I’m writing because I believe it’s the right way.
Do you believe high-profile chefs should use their positions to advocate causes?
We definitely have a responsibility to affect change and make sure we educate others. Food is at the core of society – where it comes from, who’s growing the food. I love anything sustainable and hope we will still be able to enjoy the same fresh produce we have today in the future. I mean, the idea of eating food in pill form or a powder… that would be the end.
What do you make of today’s culture of food intolerances and specialist diets, clean eating, etc.?
We have to look at the way food has been produced for the past 50 years. A lot of these allergies and intolerances come from what we’ve been eating. Like when you look at a box of cookies, it’s kind of scary what’s in there. If you put chemicals in your body, it’s going to have an effect… our systems are going to become more sensitive. We have to be more conscious about what we’re eating, where it’s come from, and sometimes cut down on the consumption. Everything in moderation – that’s the name of the game.
Tell us about the experience of making the “Chef’s Table” documentary…
When they approached me, I didn’t want to do it at first. I was so afraid to get distracted, as I was still building a team at Atelier Crenn and making sure we had the right people. They kept trying and finally sent me the episode about Massimo [Bottura, the award-winning Italian chef] – he’s a friend of mine, and I liked the way they’d done it.
There was no direction, nothing, just following me for a month. It so happened that they focused on my dad, my upbringing and memories, which was good because what I realized is that I never went through the loss of my dad. After he passed away 1999, I kept working without letting myself think about it and let go. “Chef’s Table” allowed me to become free again and understand the beauty he had brought into my life. It was a very emotional, cathartic experience.
What is the focus of your recipe development currently?
How to take a product and bring out its best without manipulating it too much. At the end of the day, it’s a gift that’s been given to me by the planet. I don’t want to mask it; I want to bring it to life again in how I treat it.