Chef Dominique Crenn on Inspiration, Her Favorite Ingredient, and Discovering Australia
Chef Dominique Crenn was recently named our 2016 American Chef of the Year thanks to her astonishing success at her two San Francisco restaurants, the two Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn and the newer Petit Crenn. We caught up with the personable chef (also named the world’s best female chef )while covering 2016’s Margaret River Gourmet Escape, a celebration of Western Australia’s food and wine.
What was the strongest early influence in getting you into cooking in the first place? Your mother and cooking with her, or your father taking you to lots of international restaurants? Please explain why they were valuable. Also, what were your years working for famous chefs in France and San Francisco like? What did you learn from them?
My influence came from experiences I had when I was very young. I really loved how [3 Michelin star French chef] Olivier Roellinger and [3 Michelin star French chef] Michel Bras cooked. I liked the flow, and the pointed way of cooking, and the story behind the ingredients. I was looking up to them for sure.
An ingredient is like a color, a language, and when I am in front of an ingredient, I am trying to tell a story with it. [Chef Roellinger and Chef Bras] are two of France’s chefs who really used the ingredients around their area, who are not trying to craft their menu in a way that people [demand]. Rather, they said, “this is who we are, this is the story, and these are the ingredients we’re going to use.” That’s interesting to me. What Paul Iskov does [with Fervor, in Western Australia] is really cool.
What kind of food do you like to cook best? Why?
My favorite ingredient is the tomato. I don’t have a particular favorite dish, per se, but I like the umami of it. There is such variety of tomatoes, but it needs to be sweet, organic, and juicy. I think everyone should be thoughtful about the way they produce their vegetables.
How have you been able to run two restaurants in San Francisco and still maintain yourself as a chef?
I’m not a duchess! I try and schedule many events within the same months. I’m here [at Atelier Crenn] and my other place [Petit Crenn] every day, and I never forget the humility of being a cook. I will actually be back in Australia [in Melbourne] for World’s 50 Best in April, and am doing a chef’s series in Tasmania while I’m there.
What are your plans, hopes for the future?
I am opening a wine bar, Bar Crenn, next door [to Atelier Crenn] in April (fingers crossed!).
I am also coming out with a nonprofit campaign called “Root Project” for Haiti. Its aim is to revive the coffee and cocoa trees in the region [following the 2010 earthquake], and we’re getting lots of celebrities and chefs worldwide involved. It launches in January 2017, marketing the [seven year] anniversary of the earthquake.
I am also writing a memoir. It is not a biography; a memoir is written during a particular time and place in your life.
Why are you writing it now?
I want to speak about my experiences, but also communicate how I feel about the world. We need to keep continuing to have conversations about how we treat each other and about the state of the world. It’s crazy right now.
I am also working on a documentary. I want to get behind the camera, not always be in front of it, and produce things that matter. So, a lot of projects in the works.
How do you regard the Margaret River Gourmet Escape as a major gathering for chefs and vintners? What did you think of the Margaret River region?
I didn’t have any expectations. It’s nice to go to a place where you are free from thinking about the expectation. I was excited because I knew I was going to discover something I didn’t know. [Western Australia] was so lovely and beautiful, and people were just so great. The Margaret River Gourmet Escape is a great event.
Was it what you expected?
I had been to Perth before, but usually just in and out on my way from Indonesia, so I did not know what to expect. But I read all about Australia, and the kangaroos. This is a part of the world that is so removed that it’s almost like this secret island. It was great to discover that part of the world. The people are so cool; I really liked them.
What was your biggest takeaway from the MRGE experience?
We went to a party on the beach in a rental home with the chefs and I just thought, Wow, this is amazing. And it’s not even crowded here!
I think I went [to the Margret River Gourmet Escape event] to understand the culinary mindset [of the country] and how cool and laid back the people are. Everyone should be open to going [to Western Australia]. It’s such a unique place, and it’s so exciting to find that an area like this exists in the world. I told myself I want to buy a house in Margaret River and hang out with the kangaroos. And I love the ocean. It’s a beautiful coast.
Any major takeaways from your time in Western Australia?
I like the sense of design here – we went to COMO [The Treasury, in Perth] and it’s incredible what they’ve done there. And a few days before, I was at David Thompson’s Thai restaurant [Long Chim]. One chef in particular who has really tried to revive the indigenous ingredients from Australia was Chef Jed Gerrard at Wildflower – it was nice to see that. It’s the most interesting restaurant when someone really tries to tell a story through the food and their cooking, a story about the environment, and about the area. And the wine is great!
I was also hanging out on Rottnest Island [off the coast of Perth] filming quokkas, but I did not get a selfie. It’s so interesting how you cannot find them anywhere else in the world.