What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than by raising a glass of breakfast orange juice to the woman named World’s Best Female Chef, Dominique Crenn?
Born and raised in France – lucky her – Ms Crenn has lived in San Francisco since the early nineties – lucky her again – where she worked assiduously to to earn her stripes and refine her art in great kitchens with the best chefs, before opening the doors to her own two restaurants, Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn. In 2013 she won two Michelin stars, making her the highest ranked female chef in the USA.
All of which makes her something of a rarity in the USA and very probably across the fine-dining world. How many women can you name who are at the helm of their own restaurants?
Ms Crenn is coming to Tasmania in April 2017 to mentor some very lucky students on the TAFE Drysdale tourism and hospitality courses in Launceston. They should be getting used to such an extraordinary turn of events by now, because since 2016 the Great Chefs Series has brought incredible international names to the kitchens of TAFE.
So much so that as I type this I hear inside my head the French pronunciation of everything I write. Awncredeeeble. Hexxtrawdinerree. And my all-time favourite, baybee awnyons. I once heard a French chef say ‘baby onions’ on television and ovulated involuntarily.
But enough of my reproductive organs, and back to the awncredeeble Ms Crenn. There has been a lot of talk about the title of World’s Best Female Chef since it was bestowed upon her last year: whether it’s a patronising nod to a woman in a male dominated industry, whether it really means anything. To her credit, it seems that Ms Crenn has just decided to run with it and take the opportunity to have her say. About lots of things.
Chefs use celebrity for all sorts of causes. Ms Crenn has her own agenda and it’s a heartfelt and individual one. It’s clear that her ideas, imagination, values and ethics are at the core of what she does.
The food is about experimentation, it looks like art and it’s designed to inspire, not just those who will eat it, but those who have created it. One can see Ms Crenn relishes bringing a roomful of diners together and putting something extraordinary on the plate in front of them. Equally important, she makes it her business to bring a workforce together, treating them with love and respect, and bringing out the best in them.
There’s no room for ego in her kitchen, she says, in her TED Talk. Only her own. Then she says she’s joking. Then she says she isn’t joking. Playfulness aside, there’s no doubt this is a good balance at the top of the restaurant business, where a mix of decisiveness and authority is surely required, but also playfulness and a liking for risk, if exciting things are to happen. She’s the boss and it’s her reputation on the line every time a plate goes over the pass, but at the same time her kitchen clearly works by giving people license to grow. There should be no chaos in a kitchen, she says. In stressful kitchens, people don’t have a voice. Food is about energy, and where everybody in the kitchen touches the food, you must embrace who they are, encourage their creativity – and the food is so much better.
I like this thinking, as it resonates with my own (always my favourite way to judge someone’s thinking). As I stand in my kitchen each night creating what my loved ones will eat, I firmly believe that the dish is better when I have worked slowly, with my mind on how to combine the flavours and ingredients at exactly the right moment. The dish that goes on the table is for me an act of love, however humble, and I plate it up as such. If I’m lucky everybody eats most of what’s in front of them, and we chat amicably, as if we’re a happy family from the Mediterranean. It doesn’t always go that way, but when it does it’s a beautiful thing.
What’s on one of Ms Crenn’s plates is rather more mind-blowing than what’s on my own. One dish featured in a New York Times article, called The Forest, is like a miniature edible art installation, a tiny creation depicting a forest floor with sweets presented on a piece of tree bark. Almost too beautiful to eat. I wonder if the taste matches the expectation?
Curiously, there is little mention of what the food tastes like in the articles I’ve read so far! So if she whips up something for a press call in the TAFE kitchens in Launceston, I’ll be there with bells on and my own fork. Like all good chefs, however, she celebrates the producer, calling them the ‘rock stars’ of the food industry, and that’s always a good place to start.
But back to International Women’s Day, that Best Female Chef title and the celebration of women in what is a very male-dominated industry.
Ms Crenn has done plenty to bring down gender barriers. Her kitchen in Indonesia gave a team of fourteen women opportunities, confidence, backing and incredible experience in a country where they don’t have many chances.
Pitching herself to Jeremiah Tower in the nineties, one of San Francisco’s best chefs, she had no training or resume, just a love of food and more front than Harrods, as we would say in London. It was a concern to her that he had an all-male kitchen, she told him. He gave her a job anyway, and she resolved to do something about it herself one day.
Now her own kitchen appears to transcend gender barriers. Not only is it a mixed team, but much of what she does is about paying homage to the way in which men and women can inspire and communicate with each other, including her own father. It was he who first encouraged her to think that success is about what you do and how you conduct yourself, rather than about outer trappings and worldly goods.
Who knows what was intended by the World’s Best Chefs organisation when they created a World’s Best Female Chef title, but it seems they might have accidentally created a role model of considerable character. Ms Crenn appears to have owned the title and run with it in an elegant, thoughtful and articulate way all of her very own.
And as a role model she is perfect for the students who will encounter her here in Tasmania, students on TAFE courses who live in a quiet corner of the world, sometimes too quiet and with limited work opportunities, but which happens to generate some of the world’s most outstanding produce. Thanks to Ms Crenn’s generosity and the Great Chefs Series, they will now get to work with a risk-taking, uber-creative, daring chef who believes in bringing people together to create extraordinary dishes, and doing it from the heart. ‘It’s not about perfection, it’s about evolution,’ she says in her TED Talk.
That’s eight days of growing and evolution that those students will never forget, you can bet your baby onions on it.
Drysdale TAFE and Dominique Crenn present a degustation dining event at Drysdale in Launceston, Tasmania on 8th April. Reservations here.
More details of the Great Chefs Series and outstanding opportunities for diners, lucky locals in Tasmania and visitors, here.
Care has been taken to give credit for photos. Please contact me to discuss if you need to. Many thanks.
Main photo: Ed Anderson