For Chef Dominique Crenn, the past year has been a whirlwind of firsts. Her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, earned a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. She’s planning to open her first bar, Bar Crenn, at the start of 2018. And this month, she’ll celebrate two more major firsts: visiting the Cayman Islands for the first time and participating in Cayman Cookout.
So how is she planning to commemorate her first trip to the Cayman Islands? Let’s just say Crenn won’t be your typical tourist. She doesn’t plan to swim with the stingrays, soak up the sun on Seven Mile Beach or belly up to the bar at Guy Harvey’s Grill.
”I want to be very thoughtful about the environment I’m going to be in,” she muses, “and do a lot of research and embrace the area.” She wants to dive beneath the surface of the usual visitor experience, to really get at the heart of the Cayman experience. “I’m excited to meet the people of the Island and try to understand their story, and the way their everyday life [is], and the history of it. That’s what is important. And eat the food of Cayman,” she adds. “That’s what I’m excited about.”
That cerebral approach to food, travel and life writ large is typical of Crenn. Her Atelier Crenn restaurant in San Francisco earned two Michelin stars in 2013 thanks to its mix of inventive techniques and thoughtfully curated experimental plates. As firsts go, this one was a special milestone: Crenn became the first female chef in the United States at the helm of a restaurant with two Michelin stars.
In the years since, Crenn has opened a second restaurant, Petit Crenn, with Bar Crenn on the way. And her own star has risen, too. In 2015 she released her debut cookbook, Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste, a stunning visual representation of some of her most surreal and inventive dishes. In 2016, San Pellegrino awarded her the title of Best Female Chef. She’s made appearances on the popular Netflix series “Chef’s Table” and Bravo’s “Top Chef,” and even recently starred in a commercial for New York Life Insurance Company.
When she travels to Cayman, she’ll bring plenty of culinary cred — but more importantly, she’ll bring an open mind.
“I believe that as a chef, when you are invited somewhere, you have to bring your knowledge, but don’t bring the food that you’re cooking,” says Crenn. She recalls a trip to Guana Island, a small island off the coast of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. There, she says, she collaborated with local growers and fishermen to create a unique farm-to-table meal — one that tested her own abilities as a chef.
“I used all the produce that grew on the farm there, and there was some stuff that I’d never used before,” including conch, breadfruit, local herbs and more, she remembers. “It was lovely, because we had coconut and banana, but not the banana that we’re used to here [in the U.S.]. It was very inspiring, and that made it richer for me.”
She hopes to recreate that experience, Cayman style, during her stint at Cayman Cookout, with local fish and the exotic ingredients indigenous to these Islands. “You have to embrace where you are, and be adventurous. Be inspired and inspire others. That’s the road that we are taking.”
After all, she says, there’s more to food than just eating to survive. “I’m not just doing a dish to do a dish. There needs to be a meaning behind it,” she says. “From the plating to the ingredient to the vessel, and to the people that cook, there is always a story behind it.”
In the story of Crenn’s life, women have always played a huge role. The chef credits her own mother and grandmother for instilling in her a passion for food — and for teaching her to savour it in a thoughtful way. Crenn grew up in Brittany, France, marinating in a culture that reveres fine cuisine. Food-wise, she says, “Everything has had a purpose, ever since I can remember, and food was a very important part of the discussion. My grandparents both were farmers, so my mother lived on the farm. It’s about not just feeding yourself but understanding that we have to produce things and we have to take care of the planet.” The list of her favourite dishes from home would make any foodie’s mouth water: apple tarte tartin, fish roasted over fire, tomato salad. To this day, Crenn says, her mother makes the best cauliflower dish she’s ever tasted. “Every time I go back to France, I always ask her to cook about 10 different dishes for me, just to remind me of the taste I grew up with.”
Having strong female role models (she also names French politician Simone Veil and Mother Theresa as inspirations) helped guide Crenn into success. So it baffles her that women often don’t get their due in the kitchen — herself included.
“I’ve been talked down to, I’ve been pushed, I’ve been harassed, all of it,” she says. “It’s unfortunately part of the culture, but it’s not just the industry. It’s part of the culture in general, everywhere. The way that women and men are looked upon is really sad, and things need to change.”
In the meantime, Crenn says, those sexist incidents in her past help fuel her. “At the end of the day, I know and I knew my value. I know who I am and who I was at the time. It’s something that allowed me to forge my way to today, and to have a voice — to know that things happened to me but those things didn’t bring me down. They give me much more strength.”
And to female chefs struggling to reach their own goals, Crenn advises they do the same.
“To anyone who wants to come to the industry, especially other women: Just know where you want to go. Be who you are, and be confident. Trust in education and lead by example. That’s what I would say to them.”
Meet the Other Women of Cayman Cookout
Cayman has several fierce female chefs of its own. Here’s what you need to know about the other women of Cayman Cookout 2018.
Chef Jennifer Dodd: As sous chef for the entire Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, chef Dodd has a lot on her plate. The chef, who honed her skills in Canada before moving to the Islands, spends her days overseeing all things culinary, including managing a team of 20 people to perfect the dining experience at the Ritz. This year, you’ll find her working at Cayman Cookout’s pavilions and cooking demos.
Chef Melissa Logan: When it comes to Cayman Cookout, chef Logan says, the real question is, “What isn’t she working on?” Overseeing pastry and dessert operations at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is a big job, especially with a major food event on-site. But Logan, whose career has taken her to Las Vegas, Maui and Great Exuma, is up to the tasty task. One of the many projects on her slate right now: devising a “Cinn-ful Sundae,” a deep-fried cinnamon bun doughnut ice cream sundae, with ice cream flavours like chai apple pie and smoked maple bacon.
Author: Ciara Ebanks
Photographer: Photos Courtesy of Ed Anderson