What It's Like to Cook with Dominique Crenn
Chef Dominique Crenn takes over a writer’s home kitchen, showing him how to simplify her wildly complex recipes while retaining their essence.
I am not sure what I expected when I challenged chef Dominique Crenn to cook from her new book in my home kitchen using only my knives and pans. But I do know why it seemed like a fine idea. I taught myself to cook by slavishly following recipes in compendiums by Alice Waters and Thomas Keller, but that approach floundered with newer books from modernist restaurants like Noma, Mugaritz and Manresa. Time and again, I swooned over the photos and then read a few recipes and concluded that a single dinner party would cost me a week and a thousand dollars. I began to wonder what these ultra-luxe cookbooks were even for—who was meant to buy them, and why?
Crenn’s book was the one that put me over the edge. She grew up in France, won Iron Chef America in 2010 and became the first female cook in the U.S. to receive two Michelin stars. Her cuisine blends classical French technique and high technology to create dishes of magical lyricism—poetic culinaria, as Crenn calls it—and if you’re picturing foams and gels and billowing mist and forest moss, you’re getting the right idea. I had one of the greatest meals of my life at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, and I came away desperate to know how she did it. So when I got my copy of Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste and saw those wildly complex recipes, I thought, Enough already! Let’s see you do this in my kitchen, and without all those helpers.
“Of course,” said Crenn, when I phoned to ask if she would consider such a demonstration. “Monday—I come at two o’clock, we can eat at six.”
Perhaps she had misunderstood. I told her, “That’s only four hours. You have to cook everything yourself.”
“Let’s pick a menu,” Crenn continued in her lovely French accent. “Maybe start with The Sea, and then Lobster Bisque and...Summer Squab? You can find all the ingredients? For everything? How about dessert?”
“No need for dessert,” I told her. “This isn’t a dinner party. It’s just about you cooking this stuff in a regular home, alone.”
“But food is to be eaten and shared. It does not make sense otherwise. Maybe the dessert also called The Sea. You can find all the ingredients? For everything?”
Off the phone, I fell into a state of confusion. The savory version of The Sea transforms the seafood platters made by Crenn’s mother in Brittany into a kind of hyperrealist evocation of a tide pool, with mussels and clams and raw fish on edible white sand, with edible sea foam and beachcomber’s flotsam that includes squid-ink meringues, fennel puree, candied lemon peel, smoked trout roe and saffron aioli. Similar deal with Lobster Bisque: inspired by Mom but reconceived as a tiny bowl covered with seaweed, through which a diner’s spoon must plunge to find the broth bearing hidden treasures like lobster tail, fried sweetbreads, gelled plankton, lobster brain and pickled pearl onions. And, Summer Squab: fermented kumquats surrounding a little gift package on a plate, so that you cut through raspberry wrapping paper to find seared squab breast with onion soubise, daikon-sake puree and squab-reduction sauce.
Throw in the aforementioned dessert and Crenn had chosen a menu involving 34 distinct sub-recipes and multiple pieces of equipment that I do not own, like an immersion circulator, a vacuum sealer and a dehydrator.
As for the ingredients, they fell into three categories: first, the expensive and time-consuming to procure, like Maine lobster, marrow bones and sweetbreads, for which I drove all over San Francisco with an ice chest; second, the still-more-expensive, dangerous-sounding and unavailable, even in San Francisco, such as sodium hexametaphosphate, for which I placed a $250 Amazon order; and, third, the hyper-esoteric-even-on-the-Internet, such as sake lees. I finally gave up on this last category of ingredients and decided their absence would have to be part of the challenge to Crenn.
On the day in question, 2 p.m. came and went—then 2:30, 2:45. As my wife left to run errands, I told her there was no chance we’d be eating at 6.
Then, at 3 p.m., Crenn breezed into my kitchen wearing impeccable French casual—sailor shirt, faded jeans, white Comme des Garçons Converse—and trailing her pastry chef and Iron Chef America teammate, Juan Contreras.
Smiling a movie star smile and radiating confident control, Crenn tied on my favorite blue apron and asked, “You can read the recipe to me, for Lobster Bisque?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just the ingredients for the broth. Tell me what they are?”
I did, and then Crenn got to work: She sliced vegetables for the broth, then put them in a pot to sweat. Meanwhile, Contreras killed and poached the lobsters, pulled out their brains, cut off their tails and threw the carcasses into the pot for the broth—a step not in the cookbook. Crenn then cut the legs and wings off the squab and, in another departure from her own recipe, seared them in a Lodge cast-iron Dutch oven.
Over the next few hours, I gave up trying to count all the ways in which Crenn and Contreras were diverging from her cookbook. Instead, I just enjoyed the sight of pots simmering on every burner, knives flying and conversation remaining always friendly and off-topic.
At 5:45 p.m., my daughter Audrey waltzed in from basketball practice. She barged into Crenn’s work space, made a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and asked, “What’s up?”
Crenn smiled, then offered a spoonful of a mysterious orange liquid. Audrey slurped and said, “Yummy! What’s that?”
“Lobster brains and tomatoes,” Crenn replied. Turning to me, she asked, “Six o’clock still good to eat?”
“Are you kidding?” I asked.
I texted my wife, and she texted back that she could be home by 6:10.
I told Crenn, and she paused as if to let time pass. Then she began multiple operations simultaneously: deep-frying sweetbreads, adjusting the seasoning of her sauce, searing squab breast and, in yet another adaptation, squab liver.
At 6:08 p.m., my wife walked through the door. At 6:10, Crenn set down four plates of The Sea stripped to its essence: mussels, clams, nearly raw fish, edible sand and sea foam and absolutely none of that beachcomber’s flotsam. Precisely 15 minutes later, she delivered a bisque without pickled onions or that seaweed veil over the top of the bowls, followed by squab wrapped in a raspberry veil but without fermented kumquats or daikon-sake puree.
But here’s the thing: The Sea still evoked a shoreline stroll, the bisque remained an unctuous dream. As for the squab, suffice it to say that my daughters still talk about Crenn’s onion soubise as if it did not accompany pigeon liver.
Crenn petted our cat until we finished eating. Then she ran off to the soft opening of her new restaurant, Petit Crenn.
I felt like a dolt. Of course it was not possible for a single person—or even two— to cook a menu from Atelier Crenn in a home kitchen in a few hours. If it were, Atelier Crenn would not have its Michelin stars. Crenn was too classy to say that to me, so she found a polite way to communicate it by coming into my home, cooking a lovely meal for my family and showing me that her cuisine is more about poetics—beach walks, hidden treasures, gifts—than ingredients and technique, which must remain flexible in response to availability and context.
Throwing a dinner party from Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste would therefore seem to involve the borrowing of ideas: identifying the essential vision in a few dishes, stripping out superfluous components, trusting everything to come out fine. I might even try this myself someday, though I doubt the results will be the same.
San Francisco–based writer Daniel Duane is an F&W contributing editor and the author of How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession.