When I first met Dominique Crenn, it was while dancing to 90s RnB on the dance floor at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants after party. Moving around us all with lots of laughter and smiles, eyes sparkling into the early hours of Thursday morning, she was a far cry from the focused, formidable person, her jaw set in a line, that I then interviewed the following Saturday afternoon.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. We were about two and a half hours out from a mammoth ten-course degustation Crenn was about to put on with assistance from Drysdale TAFE students in Launceston as part of the Great Chefs Series; and Crenn isn’t beating around the bush when she talks about the task at hand. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says. “The students have been amazing, but I just want to make sure it all comes together.”
She hasn’t set an easy challenge for herself. The morning of the dinner, Crenn decided to change the menu after some of the produce she had hoped to use wasn’t up to scratch. “We had some sea urchin, but we had to throw them away because they are not good. We had to change the menu, very fast.”
There’s no hypocrisy with Crenn; only what she believes is the truth. If she thinks your question is bullshit, you know it; and in response to a potentially sensitive question, she tells it to you straight while looking directly into your face.
Despite the severity with which she sometimes answers questions, there’s no doubting Crenn’s warmth, and patience with the students who have the rare opportunity to work with the two Michelin-starred chef.
“I told [the students], it’s not about my recipe, or what I teach you; you guys gotta cook, so you gotta get into it. You gotta understand and you gotta be a part of the story tonight,” Crenn says. “But it has to be organised. Yes, we had ideas, we went to the market this morning, we have some [produce that is] not to our liking. But we started yesterday, the prep list,” Crenn says, assuring us, and possibly herself, that all will be well.
“The first day I came, I gave them the menu, and I told them to take it home, to read it, and to understand their weaknesses and their strengths, and come back the next day and tell me which part they would be [strongest at]… You have to mentor them,” she says with a smile. “You know, chefs at that level, they’re all just so excited.”
And come together it did. Despite some nervousness from a young and inexperienced team, the food was delicious: Grilled abalone with oyster cream and egg yolk jam; smoked salmon roe and koji cream, and super fresh salmon served with salt-baked turnip. Dominique had been in Tasmania for a mere two days and had figured out how to get the best out of the local produce… there’s no denying her talent and ability.
“I’m just trying to understand a little bit about Tasmania. Trying to understand the produce here, and incorporate a lot of things to tell a story… Make it all come together. ”
The fact Crenn could rise to the challenge isn’t a surprise given the accolades she and her team have achieved. Dominique is the first woman to receive two Michelin stars for her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco; she won World’s Best Female Chef at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016.
The latter title, however, is something she’s in two minds about, stating that the awards are “political”. Certainly, the fact the organisation feels the need to highlight the world’s best female chef rather than simply having an award for the world’s best chef is something that doesn’t sit well with me as a female reporting on the food industry.
Crenn is gracious about it. “It’s a platform. We still need to continue the conversation, and I hope in two years there will not be any of this [Best Female Chef] on the list… [but] I think [chefs] need to support each other and I think it’s all about the balance. It’s aspiring for young chefs and young women for sure.”
Despite her obvious strength and presence, Crenn’s restaurants in San Francisco tell a soft narrative – one of warmth, family and emotion. Adopted as a baby by a French couple, Crenn and her family lived in Versailles, where Crenn was influenced by her mother’s fantastic cooking and her father, a well-known French politician, taking her out to Michelin-starred restaurants from a very young age.
Very close to her parents-and in particular, her father–Crenn’s establishments are greatly influenced by her memories of her family. This is evident from the art on the walls, to the Kir Breton cocktail she serves at Atelier Crenn that her mother often used to serve guests back at their home in Brittany.
“Memory, smell, [are] experiences that I try to recreate as a dish,” Crenn says. “There is definitely a story behind each dish that we do at Atelier. It could be walking through the forest with my father and picking up blackberries, wild mushrooms and herbs [and then creating] a couple of dishes out of those ideas…It’s very interesting. When you go back to memories, memories bring people together.”
This underpins the ethos of all of Crenn’s establishments. As well as the sophisticated Atelier Crenn, there is a more casual-style eatery, Petit Crenn, and also Bar Crenn, a bar focused on brilliant wine. Crenn says that regardless the setting, her food is about emotion and simplicity; it’s about telling a story that’s relatable.
“It’s very simple. It comes from the heart. Everything I cook, and my kitchen cooks, starts right here,” she says, gesturing to her heart. “’High end food’, I actually don’t like that term. I think what we do is more a story. It’s all about extracting… the best flavour from the ingredient that we’re using.
“When you think about food, food is not just cooking something. If you’re conscious and responsible [as] a chef, there’s a story behind it. Anything that you do in life, if you’re an artist, there’s a story behind it… You have to be personal. Food needs to be personal and to be able to connect with the diners, especially at that level.”
Of course, it’s no wonder that Crenn is so concerned with narrative. Aside from her talents in the kitchen, she is a passionate poet–which she incorporates not just into her food and her restaurant fit outs, but into the dish descriptions on her menu. “It used to be the line [that came before the dish],” Crenn says. “Now they are pretty connected.”
“Since the age of four, I got into poetry. For me, poetry is words, and words matter. [Writing poetry is] a way for you to understand what’s going on with yourself, but also to understand what’s going on in the world, and bring your own take on that, your own curiosity, your own question,” Crenn says.
“And it’s a dialogue with myself and myself, but also with the people that come in and eat the food. And food, poetry, these things come together. What’s more beautiful than to write a poem? It just makes sense.”