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Friday, September 25, 2009

Luce's Dominique Crenn Brings High Hopes (and Cheekbones) to 'The Next Iron Chef'

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 2:36 PM

click to enlarge Dominique Crenn: One of 10 chefs competing for the top spot. - DOMINIQUECRENN.COM
  • Dominique Crenn: One of 10 chefs competing for the top spot.
If you like rooting for locals, get ready to cheer on Dominique Crenn, chef de cuisine of Luce in the Intercontinental Hotel. The glamorous, high-cheekboned San Franciscan is on the 10-competitor roster of The Next Iron Chef, which premieres Sunday, October 4, on Food Network. And there's a Bay Area bonus: joining crotchety Jeffrey Steingarten and feisty Donatella Arpaia on the judge's panel is Oakland resident Anya Fernald, director of last year's Slow Food Nation and currently director of Live Culture Co., which put on the recent Eat Real Fest in Jack London Square. (When the series was shot, Nate Appleman was still wearing an A16 apron, but the show's publicity now identifies him as a New Yorker, chef-partner of the upcoming Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria there.)

Crenn's biggest fan may be Esquire magazine's influential John Mariani, who named her a Chef to Watch in his Best Restaurants of 2007 and Chef of the Year in his Best Restaurants of 2008, as well as naming Luce the best new restaurant in San Francisco in Bloomberg News.

When she was 18 months old, Crenn was adopted by a French couple who raised her in Versailles, outside Paris. "I was accustomed to good food," she told SFoodie. "My mother was a great cook who took me to the farmers' markets. My father's best friend was a well known French food critic, and I hung out with them a lot, going to many restaurants. From the age of 8 I knew that I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to go to cooking school, but I ended up getting a bachelor in economics. But during the summers I cooked in little restaurants, and learned."

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1988, Crenn approached Jeremiah Tower at Stars, who took a chance on her. "That night I was on the grill with the sous chef. Stars was doing 300 to 400 covers a night. At 3 p.m. every day we'd be given a menu, and at 4:30 there'd be a tasting. You could do what you wanted to do -- there was an ability to create things."

She remained at Stars for two years, and over a decade in S.F., cooking at the Park Hyatt Grill, Campton Place, 2223 Market, and Yoyo Bistro. In 1997, she moved to Indonesia and became the first female executive chef in the country (at Jakarta's Intercontinental Hotel). After a number of years in Los Angeles, cooking for celebrities including Antonio Villagraigosa, Al Gore, Sharon Stone, and Sidney Poitier at the Manhattan Country Club, and opening the well-reviewed Abode restaurant in Santa Monica, Crenn returned to San Francisco.

SFoodie got to watch the first episode of The Next Iron Chef. Almost, anyway - the producers snipped off the elimination footage, in which Crenn appears to be one of three chefs at risk. Competitors first had to cook a signature dish in 45 minutes using an ingredient specially selected for them. And then, for the elimination challenge, create a "fearless, risk-taking" two-course tasting menu using a challenging ingredient, from an array that included grasshoppers, cockscombs, and durian.

SFoodie: How did you come to be on The Next Iron Chef?

Crenn: I was in New York to cook dinner at the James Beard House, and to teach classes at De Gustibus cooking school at Macy's. They approached me to do an Iron Chef Battle, which was with Michael Symons, coincidentally the winner of the previous The Next Iron Chef series. [Though filmed before The Next Iron Chef, Crenn's battle is scheduled to be televised in 2010.] And after that they asked me to be part of this show.

Did you know any of the chefs?

I had a lot of respect for Jose Garces, and Brad Farmerie's place [Public, NYC] has been one of my favorite restaurants for a long time. I knew Eric Greenspan [The Foundry] from L.A. I'd heard a lot of good things about Holly Smith.

In the initial episode, Nate Appleman was edited to look like a villain -- rudely dissing competitor's dishes, disagreeing with people.

I'd never met the guy before. He was very aggressive. But I have nothing bad to say about Chef Appleman! We were all very collegial. I was more in competition with myself than with the other people. I was trying to be away from all the drama.

The judges seemed to be in competition with each other.

Absolutely, that's what I felt. There are three different palates right there in front of you. Somebody's going to like it, somebody's not going to like it. What's going to happen?

When they presented you with apples for the first challenge, were you happy?

I love apples, but you don't have that much time. I was inspired by my mother's coquilles St. Jacques -- she used to do them all the time. I'd love to have paired apples with a roast chicken, but how can you roast a chicken in 45 minutes?

When you got stinky tofu as your "fearless" ingredient, it seemed you had it in the bag, because of your year in Indonesia, where it's popular -- and then it was switched to sea cucumber.

Yes, I was happy when I saw the stinky tofu, because a Chinese-Indonesian chef I worked with in Jakarta introduced me to it. I was going to fry it and coat it with honey and serve it as a sort of lollipop, and then stew it as a main course. I'd never worked with sea cucumber before!

What are your favorite dishes to cook?

Rabbit with pruneaux, Madeira, and wild mushrooms. I love to cook and eat beef tongue. And a simple roast chicken. With apples.

Favorite restaurants in S.F.?

I love Daniel Patterson at Coi, and David Kinch at Manresa. I go to the Tenderloin to eat Vietnamese food. And I love eating roasted chicken and roasted porchetta from the stand next to Blue Bottle at the Saturday farmers' market at the Ferry Building [Roli Roti] -- out of this world! And I go to The Alembic on Haight -- great food.

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Meredith Brody


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