Interview with Chef Dominique Crenn: A Culinary Poetfeatured
What does the first female chef in the U.S. to earn two Michelin stars eat for lunch in between multiple interviews, a photo shoot, and creating gastronomic works of art?
The answer is fish tacos. And don’t forget the guac and chips, please.
It is often said that chefs are the celebrities of San Francisco, and as I sat across Chef Dominique Crenn, seasoning our tortilla chips to perfection, it felt strangely reassuring to see an A-lister like Crenn chowing down like us regular folks. Don’t get me wrong, Crenn is still a rock star, one hundred percent. Like all stars, she exudes an energy and charisma that fills the room…and she somehow manages to make a grey hoodie look stylish.
Plus she’s totally badass. You don’t get to be the leader of a 2-star Michelin kitchen without being badass.
To really dive into the mind of this chef, I decided to test out a new interviewing technique and busted out the colored Sharpies:
While Dominique humored my unorthodox ways, I asked her a few burning questions:
What was your earliest food memory?
Tomato. I picked a tomato out in the garden and I put in my mouth, and that was like an epiphany. It was like a revelation of what the world should be. It’s my favorite vegetable. I was four or five. And that was it, I was bothering my mom to do tomato salad. Her tomato salad…I still crave that taste. It was really simple, just fresh tomato, vinaigrette with shallot, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, a little bit of thyme, and that’s it. It’s all about the tomato and the acidity and sweetness. There was something about the tomato that was kind of amazing.
If your best friends were coming into town to visit, where would you take them?
I would do Bar Tartine for sure. I’d take them to Zuni also. Rich Table, State Bird Provisions, Flour + Water, and for a fine dining, nice meal, Benu. That’s where I would take them. I could also take them to Commonwealth, and sit at the bar. The food is great. But they have to go to Zuni. I love to get oysters over there. There’s a wine bar next door called Hotel Biron that I like too. It’s very industry driven, and you can go there and just have a glass of wine and some cheese. It’s great. As far as going out at night, I’d take them to St. Vincent for a wine bar. Bar Agricole has great cocktails, maybe I would take them there. Otherwise, I like to go to my friend’s restaurant called L’ardoise. It’s a little French bistro on Noe and Henry, next to Duboce Park.
Guiltiest food pleasure?
Chocolate. Dark chocolate. I love Côte d’Or. It’s a Belgian chocolate with hazelnuts. The best in the world.
In between tacos and doodling, Crenn jumps up to greet her cheese purveyor who has come to drop off the goods for this evening’s cheese plate.
She is warm and gracious, just as she is when she comes out each night to meet and greet guests at their table. It is this same kind of sincerity that comes through in Crenn’s food – which isn’t easy considering its modernist slant.
Too often, food that makes use of molecular gastronomy, or food that is highly composed (“tweezer food”) can seem fussy or worse, sterile. Atelier Crenn, however, successfully uses modern techniques in a convincingly organic way that celebrates the essence and beauty of nature and her ingredients.
The menu at Atelier Crenn reads like a poem, and each dish tells a story. It takes a small leap of faith to embark on this culinary adventure, because you’re not quite sure what “Birth” will actually translate to when it hits your plate. Rest assured, journeying through the tasting menu is pure delight, and “Birth” is as revelatory as it sounds.
I could leave it to your imagination, but like most of Crenn’s creations, you’d never guess – you’d never even be able to dream it up. The dish features a nest of corn silk that has been dehydrated and flash fried. It sits on top of a luxurious duck mousse, and nestled in the center like tiny eggs are little pearls of emulsified corn juice and duck fat that have been frozen with liquid nitrogen. Puffed rice, a hint of chamomile, a few leaves of basil, and a twig of chocolate sprinkled with porcini dust complete the vision.
I told you, you’d never guess.
Chef Crenn’s food is a reflection of who she is. It’s intellectual, it’s playful, it’s highly technical. It is graceful and beautiful, in a wildly creative, exciting, edgy, totally badass way. It is utterly delicious, but it is more than just sustenance. It is an evolution in how we think about food. It is art. It is culinary poetry.
Dominique Crenn will be one of the 50+ internationally-renowned master chefs, culinary personalities, and wine and spirit producers featured at the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival. Set in the lush island paradise of O‘ahu, the festival will showcase wine tastings, cooking demos, excursions, and tasting events with dishes highlighting Hawaii’s bounty. As part of the festival’s blogger contest, I’ve been paired with Chef Crenn for an interview (SF represent!). Here’s what she had to say about her participation in this year’s Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival:
What dish will you be preparing for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival?
They want me to do a beef dish, so I thought it would be nice to use beef as an ingredient, but to create a dish that speaks to where I am. I’d like to recreate a sense of Hawaii using local produce. I want to cure and ferment the beef, and since they have a lot of seaweed, shrimp, and other seafood in Hawaii, I may do some kind of crustacean broth.
Is there a particular ingredient that you are looking forward to using?
The Hawaiian seaweed, for sure. I love it. I’ve spent a lot of time in Brittany, France, so seaweed is what you smell every day. Here in California you get a lot of great seaweed and, I don’t know, seaweed is just so interesting because it’s wild also. I love the flavor of the sea. I love to taste that. You can use it in different applications. It can be fried, it can be put in a broth, we do a gel with plankton right now. There are a lot of things you can do with seaweed. I want to be connected to the sea, so I use it as a connection from earth to sea.
What is the inspiration behind this dish?
We’re going on an island, surrounded by water, so when people eat the dish, I want them to feel that there is water around them and experience all the flavors of the island. I am recreating the island in one dish. I don’t know what it’s going to turn out to be yet but that’s the idea behind it.
I’m also excited to learn more about the local produce. I think that produce is going to taste totally different than if we had it in California. It is going to reflect and be reminiscent of where we are.
Have you made this dish before?
I’ve made certain aspects of it. I have a dish right now called “Flavors of Brittany”. It’s a seafood dish with all the flavors of what I remember of what Brittany is all about. There is seaweed, there is crustacean, there is some bone marrow in it. So when I think about Hawaii, I’m trying to go back to the coast of Brittany also. I can find some similarity, and maybe do a dish that I have done before, but thinking about it terms of Hawaii too. I have to do this for like 200 people so it can’t be too new, you know?
What have been people’s reactions to “Flavors of Brittany”?
People have said that they feel like they’re in Brittany, like they’re in France. I think it’s going to be interesting to really understand what the flavors of Hawaii are. I want to really evoke the memories of someone who lives in Hawaii, but create also something new that they can relate to. You know, when you eat something, you look at the dish and you’re like, “Oh, wow, what is this?” And then you put a bite in your mouth and somehow it triggers something in you that’s connective.
Is there anything in Hawaii that you are looking forward to doing aside from the Food & Wine Festival?
I definitely want to go to different farms and get to know people over there. I want to understand their way of thinking and philosophy. People think Hawaiian cuisine is one dimensional, but I think there is much more to it. I would like to know what they’re thinking, where they want to go, and what speaks to them. I’d like to learn about it.
I hope you all enjoyed this profile on one of San Francisco’s favorite chefs!
Please VOTE FOR ME and send me to Hawaii so I can tell you all about the festival first hand! Maybe I’ll even be able to do a follow up interview with Dominique poolside…with mai tais in our hands. Mahalo & rainbows!
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SF Chefs 2013 Tasting Tent [Slideshow]
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