The Fork in the Road: Clare Smyth

In the latest of a series of interviews with top chefs for The Caterer, in which I examine the turning points that led them on their path to success, Clare Smyth talks about her journey to becoming the UK’s first three-Michelin-starred female chef

7718153Things happen by chance, and it just so happened that when I was 14 and working at a local restaurant in Northern Ireland, my head chef gave me a book on classical sauces. It was this book that ignited my interest in reading about fine food. It spurred me on to read more and more cookbooks and ultimately led me on my path to becoming a chef.

The very first cookbook I bought for myself was Anton Mosimann’s Cuisine à la Carte. From there I went on to read the Roux brothers and the more I read, the more I came to understand what fine dining was. That really inspired me and made me realise I wanted to be a chef at the top level.

As soon as I left school, I went to England to go to Highbury College in Portsmouth. I got an apprenticeship and worked four days a week at Grayshott Health Spa in Surrey. I was lucky enough to have a great mentor there and I remember him being really surprised by my knowledge given my young age. But everything I knew, I had learned from books.

After working at Bibendum and the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, Cornwall, for a while, I decided to go Australia for six months and did a number of stages at restaurants around Sydney. When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to get into a top kitchen. I applied for positions at most of the two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants and did trials at the Fat Duck, the Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, which had just got its third star. I knew from the moment I set foot in the kitchen that it was the place for me. I felt like I belonged right from the start.

It was by far the toughest kitchen I had ever been in. Gordon was there every day and the standards were incredibly high. It was like a military operation and almost like boot camp; you were either good enough or you weren’t. But I had expected it to be hard and that’s why I went there: I wanted to learn from the best. I loved the discipline; there was an energy about it that was just incredible and I knew that if I could handle it and thrive in this tough environment, I would be good enough to make it one day.

WORKING WITH ALAIN DUCASSE
After three-and-a-half years and working my way up from demi chef de partie to senior sous chef, I decided that I wanted to go and work in another three-star kitchen. One of the chefs I had always been drawn to was Thomas Keller, so I went to the US and did stages at Per Se and the French Laundry in 2004. After that, I knew I had to go and work with Alain Ducasse and I managed to beg my way into the kitchen at Le Louis XV in Monaco.

Working at Louis XV was the second biggest turning point in my career. Again, right from the moment I arrived, I knew it was where I was meant to be. I stayed for 18 months and it was an amazing place to work and a completely different environment from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The head chef, Franck Cerutti, was a really happy, gentle soul who would come into the kitchen every day with a big smile on his face. He was as passionate as Gordon during service – especially when something went wrong – but he was just a totally different spirit and very much himself all the time.

The brigade was much bigger, with 26 chefs, but we were like a big family and I’m still in touch with many of the chefs I worked with back then. The produce was phenomenal and some of the finest I have ever worked with to this day. And while the cooking was very, very classical in its roots and most things were cooked à la minute, the simplicity but precision of the cooking, coupled with the passion for the product, was simply incredible.

7718152RETURNING TO LONDON
When Alain opened his restaurant at the Dorchester in London, he offered me the position of executive sous chef. But at the same time, Gordon was opening his restaurant in Paris and asked me to come back to Royal Hospital Road as head chef. It was a difficult decision to make, but I knew I had to take the head chef position with Gordon – it was too good an opportunity to pass on. Alain was very angry when I told him and I remember feeling down about having upset the best chef in the world. But then one of the other chefs said: “You’ve just been offered jobs by two of the best chefs in the world – you have nothing to be down about!”

Until I started at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, I didn’t quite understand what would happen and the amount of pressure I would find myself under. I was the first woman in the UK to head up a three-Michelin-starred kitchen, so there was a lot of interest from the media. I knew there was also a chance I could be the first woman in the UK to lose three stars. I was never really confident about retaining the stars and it was something I was very nervous about for a long time.

I didn’t take holiday for the first two years, as I was so determined to make sure that every single plate of food that left the pass was right. It wasn’t until a few years after retaining the three stars that I started to feel comfortable. I slowly managed to find the confidence to put my own touch on the restaurant, to make changes and evolve things. When I became chef-patron in 2012, I began to feel like I could own the three stars.

Now, after eight years at the helm, I feel like I have done most things I could have done. I have been awarded an MBE, received five AA rosettes, three Michelin stars, won Chef of the Year and achieved 10/10 in the Good Food Guide. But on a personal level, I have a lot more I want to achieve. That’s why I am opening my own restaurant.

The Chef Shortage Facing the US Hospitality Industry

In my latest feature for The Staff Canteen, I speak to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about the chef shortage facing the US hospitality industry.

The topic of the skills shortage is hotting up both sides of the Atlantic. Even the USA’s finest restaurants complain that hiring has become incredibly difficult and there’s no solution in sight. It’s not just one single problem that’s to blame but a mélange of issues that are conspiring to put the industry at a crisis. Too many restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough people to work in them; pay is poor and the wage discrepancy between front- and back-of-house staff is putting people off working in kitchens. And then there’s the generation of those entitled millenials, who demand instant success and refuse to work their way up from the bottom. I spoke to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about how the chef shortage is affecting their businesses, why they think they’re having to face this crisis in the first place and what they’re doing to overcome it.

Timothy_HollingsworthTimothy Hollingsworth is the chef proprietor of Otium, a new restaurant in Downtown that is redefining Los Angeles’ dining scene. The former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry, James Beard Award winner and erstwhile Bocuse d’Or competitor says laws and attitudes need to change for the industry to overcome the chef shortage.

Josiah Citrin, chef patron of the two-Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, meanwhile, says the skills shortage is nothing new. But the constant flow of information that is available on the internet coupled with a new generation lacking the determination to go through the ranks is making it worse.

Why do you think there is a chef shortage and skills crisis facing the hospitality industry?
Timothy Hollingsworth: I think it’s mainly because there is a change in people, with the millennials, who are very conscious of how they spend their time and how much they want to work. The old school mentality of working your way up for years, putting in extra hours and staging for free is gone now. I think I was the last of that generation. I was so passionate about what I do and so determined to succeed that I wanted to learn as much as possible and that meant that I was prepared to work as hard as I could even for free. That mind-set is gone now.

Josiah Citrin: I wouldn’t say there’s a chef shortage but rather a cook shortage. A cook and a chef are two very different things and there aren’t enough cooks for all the restaurants that are opening. Businesses are expanding so fast and there are more restaurants opening than people want to become cooks. This generation of people doesn’t want to work their way up from the bottom – they’re not interested in putting the time in and learning the trade, they want to go straight to being a chef and get to the top. People are more interested in promoting themselves online than they are in working They’re obsessed with celebrity but not the craft of cooking.

How have things changed from an industry point of view?
TH: Now there are a lot of labour restrictions that the industry has to deal with. Restaurants get in trouble for people working too many hours, minimum wage keeps going up and it’s much harder to maintain that same kind of work ethic. Even for the people who do want to work hard and perfect their skills, it’s more difficult because of all these laws and regulations. And then there’s the whole idea of the celebrity chef. People have this perception that being a chef is this amazing, creative, inspirational job when the reality is that – in addition to all those things – it is also an awful lot of hard work and a craft and art that you have to spend years to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and know how to make a dish. It takes a long time to develop those skills. What is lacking in cooks in the USA today is that foundation.

Josiah Citrin_CharlesParkJC: Everything is online and available all the time. Recipes are there for anyone to see and pictures of dishes are all over Instagram with way more emphasis on looks than flavour. You can see anything you want online, it’s all there – you don’t have to work with anyone, you don’t have to travel, you can do it all sitting behind your computer. People used to have to work with chefs at different restaurants, come up the ranks and learn their craft, now they just look online and think they can figure it all out that way.

How is it affecting things at your business?
TH: It’s difficult to train staff. We have to look at things in a very different way –it’s a different time and we have to adapt to it. I am responsible for the people who work for me, I’m responsible not just for their livelihood but also for their development. When they leave my restaurant they have my name on them and that has to mean something. It’s my job to teach them a certain level of standards, a certain set of skills, respect for their stations and understanding of how things work in different positions. They won’t learn as much because the system is not as good as it was before. But we are making it work.

JC: It’s really hard to find good people and inspire them to stay with you. People are always coming and going and it makes things difficult. The only way around it is by investing in a system that really works so people can come in and out of it. That’s how I run my restaurants. You have a few key people who stay and the system operates by turning people in and out.

What needs to be done to address this issue?
TH: It’s not just the industry that needs to change it’s the laws. We open at 5pm for dinner and close at 11pm – that is six hours. Chefs work for eight hours so with cleaning down your station and a 30-minute break, there literally is no time to learn the fundamentals of cooking. They are learning; they’re learning how to cook and do certain things but they’re not learning how to operate in a full circle.

JC: I really don’t know what can be done. It’s very complex. But it’s nothing new.  When I started Mélisse 17 years it was tough to get cooks. It hasn’t changed and it hasn’t improved and because food is so hot right now, more and more restaurants are opening effectively making the situation worse.

Chef Profile: Daniel Patterson

14190933703_2d39198096_kThere are chefs who cook and then there are chefs who, with their cooking, want to start a revolution. Daniel Patterson falls into the latter category. Not since the early 1970s, when Alice Waters at Chez Panisse forever changed California cuisine with her devotion to fresh and local produce, has there been a chef of more profound impact on the West Coast of the USA.

At his restaurant Coi in San Francisco, Patterson’s personal, cerebral brand of cooking has earned him two Michelin stars and a place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. And, more significantly, he has influenced a whole generation of chefs and helped to redefine contemporary California cuisine. He has been instrumental in the popularisation of countless culinary trends such as foraging, vegetable-centric dishes and serving tasting menus only, as well as using a ticketing over a traditional reservations system and showcasing bespoke, hand-crafted pottery with his dishes.

But Patterson is set to step away from the fine dining mecca he has worked so tirelessly to create to focus his attention in an entirely new direction. He is about to embark on arguably the most challenging project of his life: LocoL is a fast food concept with which he not only hopes to change the way people eat but also make a difference to parts of America that society has forgotten. But more on that later.

12824198654_f0b1c458e3_zFor now, diners will still have the chance to experience Patterson’s food at Coi for the next four months. His renowned cooking style comprises a unique blend of obsessively sourced, fiercely seasonal ingredients and modernist cooking techniques that results in dishes with incredibly clean, pure flavours. “What I look for is that extraordinary moment in the lifespan of an ingredient; that time when it’s just full of flavour and energy,” he explains. “Technique is really important but it’s always in service of making things more delicious and never for its own sake.”

Leaning heavily towards vegetables, dishes such as carrots roasted in coffee beans with raw carrot and mandarin juice, and roman mint (see recipe); or frozen whipped rhubarb, olive oil and spring herbs beautifully showcase a mutually giving relationship with the Bay Area’s surrounding land. But his dishes not only capture a sense of place, they also speak of memory and emotion.

“In 2005, my mother-in-law died of cancer,” Patterson reveals. “She lived in a very remote place in the Sierra Nevada. When she passed away, I drove up to be with the family, who were all grieving but, of course, they still needed to eat. For three days I cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone in the house and to this day it was one of the most powerful things I have ever done. I felt extremely connected to why you feed people in the first place and I understood why I love to cook: you can make people feel just a little bit better, more comfortable. It is that sense of calm that I wanted to capture in my restaurant.” Indeed calm is what defines Coi. The word Coi (pronounced quoi) is an ancient French word meaning “quiet” or “tranquil” and it is fitting of both Patterson’s restaurant and food. But it is also fitting of the man himself, who, despite being tall and seemingly imposing, has a humble, quiet and mindful demeanour about him.

Patterson was born in Massachusetts; his father was a lawyer and his mother a French history teacher, who instilled in him the meaning of eating well. “My mother was very into cooking way before it was cool in the 1970s, and we never had junk in our house,” he recalls. His pivotal food moment came aged 14 when, while spending the summer in the South of France, he ate a turbot dish at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “That was the moment when I realised what restaurants are capable of in terms of transporting you to a different place or state of being,” he says. “That moment wasn’t just about the flavour, it was about a level of deliciousness and refinement that I had never experienced before.”

Patterson opened his first restaurant – Babette’s in the small, historic town of Sonoma in California’s wine country – in 1994, when he was just 25, never having been to culinary school, which he insists had both its drawbacks and advantages. “For a young cook a big thing is having a mentor; I never did and I always wanted one,” he says. “What you learn is not just about cooking, it’s about team work, how to handle produce, how the seasons flow through a menu. When I opened my first restaurant I didn’t really know anything. I had to figure things out for myself.” He adds, however, that this helped him find his own voice. “I didn’t feel very influenced by what was around me and, looking back on it, that was very fortunate for me. It was hard and slow but I learned to trust my instincts and to make decisions about what’s delicious based on specific products and techniques; and to develop a way of cooking that involves a from-the-ground-upward view of how you construct flavour.”

During his time at Babette’s, Patterson was named Best New Chef by national magazine Food & Wine. The success led him to move to San Francisco, where together with his then-wife Elisabeth Ramsey, he opened Elisabeth Daniel in 2000. There, the accolades continued, including a nomination for Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Awards in 2001.

12823737943_f79b469cb6_zIn 2005, Patterson gained national attention for writing an article in the New York Times entitled ‘To the Moon, Alice’, in which he challenged Bay Area chefs’ tendency to copy the Chez Panisse mantra of letting ingredients speak for themselves. This, he argued, results in self-righteousness over produce and a lack of creativity, complexity, or technical finesse. By the time Coi opened in 2006, he had found his unique style and voice and the restaurant became an instant success, gaining its first Michelin star in 2007 and its second in 2008.

Over the years, Patterson has created a growing restaurant portfolio under his company DPG, which in addition to Coi comprises five locations, including modern neighbourhood restaurants Alta, and Aster in San Francisco; and Plum Bar + Restaurant, and Haven in Oakland. Each has its own executive chef managing the day-to-day running of operations and all of his restaurants serve elevated, modern American fare, with ingredient-driven cooking at their heart.

Come January next year, Patterson will hang up his whites at Coi, when Matthew Kirkley, the former head chef at Chicago’s two-Michelin-starred L20, will take over as executive chef. The decision to move away from Coi, he says, wasn’t one he made for himself but primarily for his family and other businesses. “I have a lot of responsibilities to a lot of people and when I balanced everything on measure, it seemed that this is what I needed to do because there was going to come the point where I would just fail everyone completely,” he explains. “I have had an incredible career, I have been able to cook the food I want to cook and be successful with it so I feel very fortunate and grateful for what I have achieved. I have no regrets.

“Matthew is young, driven and incredibly talented and shares our same values of hard work, humility and dedication to craft. The style of the food at Coi will change but the soul of the restaurant will stay the same.”

Patterson will continue to be involved in all of his restaurants but will concentrate his efforts on LocoL, a joint fast food venture with Los Angeles-based food truck aficionado Roy Choi of Kogi fame. A play on the words local and loco (crazy in Spanish) LocoL aims to revolutionise fast food by offering a more wholesome approach. The credo is serving healthy food that is as cheap and addictively delicious as a McDonald’s burger. So far, Patterson and Choi have raised just short of $130,000 through a crowd-funding page to help cover initial operational costs and have signed leases for two locations, which are set to open in Los Angeles at the end of this year, and San Francisco early next year. In time, they hope to expand across California and beyond.

TartineChad-DP-RC-ReneRedFor Patterson the initial idea for LocoL stems from a charity programme called the Cooking Project, which he runs in San Francisco’s notoriously rough area the Tenderloin. Dedicated to teaching kids and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds basic cooking skills, its ultimate goal is to help them connect with real food. “A lot of these kids grew up on fast food and industrial food so they don’t have the skills to feed themselves well,” Patterson says. “What I have realised is that living in America, more than a cooking problem, we have an eating problem. People don’t know the taste of real food anymore.”

LocoL’s menu will include burgers, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, “foldies” (a cross between a tortilla and a quesadilla) and bowls of pasta or rice with meat or vegetables, with prices between $2 and $6 as well as a 99c section offering healthy side dishes that “won’t fill you up but will the take the edge off if all you have is a $1”.

But Patterson doesn’t really want to talk about the food at LocoL. “It’s grandmother cooking. It’s slow-cooked stuff and deep, comforting flavours,” he says, almost dismissively. “I wish people would stop focusing on the food so much,” he adds, revealing that as the project has progressed and as he and Choi have moved closer towards opening their first outlet in Watts, one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, he has come to understand that there is a much bigger issue at stake than just feeding people.

“The biggest cliché about America is that it is the land of opportunity, where anyone can succeed no matter what their background. But the reality is that it is a land of opportunity only for some people, while for others the deck is stacked against them in a way that makes it almost impossible to surmount,” he says.

“We have run into failure after failure trying to open this restaurant in Watts because there are no services in place, there is no infrastructure, no investment. It is like a rotten onion and with every layer you peel away it gets worse. Structural discrimination in America is so big in our culture and there are communities that are actively being starved of resources. ” With this in mind, for Patterson the most important aspect of LocoL is no longer the food but the human element of his restaurants impacting the community they’re in by creating jobs and giving people a chance at making their own success. “We have an opportunity and we are taking it very seriously,” he insists.

Of course, the project may seem idealistic to some. But Patterson is leaving one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants to cook fast food in one of America’s poorest communities and he wants to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. This is his revolution.

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting the thecaterer.com.

Daniel Boulud wins International Achievement award at the Cateys

Daniel Boulud_courtesy_daniel_kriegerIconic chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud has been awarded the International Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Cateys, the UK’s top hospitality awards run by The Caterer magazine.

Daniel is one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, whose Dinex Group spans across three continents, with restaurants across the USA, Canada, Singapore and London, where he opened Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2010.

After growing up in France, where he worked with some of the country’s most prominent chefs, including the late Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard, Daniel moved to the USA in 1982, where he became the private chef to the European Commission in Washington DC.

A move to New York, saw him hold positions at some of the city’s most renowned restaurants, including executive chef at Le Cirque, before branching out on his own in 1993 to open Daniel, his flagship restaurant that would go on to win three Michelin stars. From here, is empire grew at a pace: he gradually opened more casual restaurants around New York and the USA, before expanding internationally.

CateysThe author of nine cookbooks and the recipient of multiple James Beard Foundation awards as well as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government and the Chef of the Year award from the Culinary Institute of America, Daniel Boulud was honoured with his award at the Cateys, which took place at London’s Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, this evening (Tuesday 7 July).

Other winners on the night included Sat Bains, chef proprietor of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham, who won the Chef Catey this year; legendary chef Nico Ladenis, who received the Lifetime Achievement award; Karam, Jyotin and Sue Sethi of JKS Restaurants, who run the Michelin-starred Indian restaurants Trsihna and Gymkhana; and former Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson, who got the Newcomer award for his first solo restaurant House of Tides.

You can see the full list of award winners from this year’s Cateys at The Caterer.

El Celler de Can Roca’s ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’ to premier at the Berlin film festival

Below is the trailer to ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, a documentary film showcasing brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, owners of the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, and their decision to close their restaurant for five weeks and go on a road tour.

Directed by Luis González, the film recounts a tour which last summer travelled to six cities – Houston, Dallas, Mexico City, Monterrey, Bogotá and Lima – in four countries in the Americas to prepare nearly 50,000 dishes for more than 2,700 people. Up to 56 new and different dishes were created and adapted to Texan, Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian cuisine. Some 200 ingredients and 29 wines were used for each menu in each country.

In addition, the Roca brothers trained more than 7,000 cooking students and selected 13 of them to receive a training scholarship at the kitchen of El Celler de Can Roca, which is currently ranked number two in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Joan Roca said: “For us, this crazy decision has meant weighing the anchor of our restaurant for the first time in search of the mild weather of the South and making our dreams come true in real gastronomic paradises. We have enjoyed an extraordinary professional and personal experience, which has been intellectually rewarding and allowed us to grow as a team.”

Josep Roca added: “This tour has been a real challenge, a bold decision, an act of courage draped in responsibility and code of ethics. An opportunity to continue to learn, seek inspiration and be true to the training we have received and we can share with so many catering students in the places we visited,” explained Josep Roca.

And Jordi Roca said: “With enthusiasm, willingness to learn and much modesty, and above all, as a professional and personal challenge, we have taken our entire team to another continent. Latin America has a dream store cupboard of fruit, spices and, obviously, the best cocoa in the world. It’s been a real inspiration.”

‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, produced by BBVA will premier at the Berlin International Film Festival on 10 February.

Chef Profile: Dominique Crenn

This is an extract from an article I wrote for the first US edition of FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

On Dominique Crenn’s right forearm is a tattoo of a young girl gazing up at a winged piglet swooping past her flowing hair. “Pigs can fly,” the chef explains, giving the proverb a French twist. “It’s a reminder that you can do anything you want in life. Anything is possible.”

Dominique – beautiful, tall, and slender, with pixie-like hair, large, dark eyes rimmed in kohl, and a natural feminine elegance about her – is sitting in the dining room of her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Since opening the space in 2011, she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA, Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.

Dominique’s food is a personal rendition of her memories and feelings, her love of nature, and her consciousness of the environment. Imaginative, fiercely seasonal, and sustainable, her tasting menus are a showcase for her creativity, which takes diners on an unapologetically emotional journey through flavors, textures, and scents. “We think of an experience, a memory or emotion, and try to recreate that with our food,” she says.

Walk in the Forest A case in point is her signature dish, ‘Walking Deep Inside The Woods.’ Inspired by childhood walks through the forest with her father, it comprises a lightly burnt pine meringue, edible soil made from basil and pumpernickel, a variety of wild mushrooms – sautéed, puréed, pickled, and dehydrated – as well as hazelnut praline and foraged herbs. Through robust, yet delicate, flavors and textures, the artistic plate evokes the sense of the forest, its dampness, earthiness, and sweetness, transporting the diner deep into the woods. “It’s sweet and savory, that’s what life is about,” she adds.

Growing up in France, Dominique was raised between the “luxury of Versailles” and the “ruralness of Brittany” by her adoptive parents, who introduced her to the joys of fine food at a very young age. While her mother taught her the secrets of rustic home cooking, her father, a prominent politician, took her to some of the country’s top restaurants when dining out with his best friend, Albert Coquil, a famous French food critic. “I had my first tasting menu when I was eight or nine years old and I loved it,” she recalls. “I decided then that I wanted to be a chef.”

After graduating from university in Paris with a degree in economics and international business, Dominique moved to the USA in 1988 to follow her dream away from the ‘old school’ ways of French kitchens. She first trained at the Stars restaurant under the tutelage of celebrated San Francisco chef, Jeremiah Tower, whom she credits with making her the chef she is today. “His philosophy was very much in line with what I thought a kitchen should be. He was about sourcing the best ingredients and creativity but also about involving his team in the process.”

Following stints at restaurants including Campton Place, 2223 Restaurant, the Park Hyatt Grill, and becoming executive chef at Yoyo Bistro at the Miyako Hotel, she moved to Indonesia in 1997, to become the country’s first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel Jakarta, where she headed up an all-female brigade. However, after less than a year, her stay was cut short by the country’s political unrest.

Dominique returned to California in 1998, working at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach for eight years, and then at Abode in Santa Monica, before returning to San Francisco in 2007 to head up Luce at the InterContinental Hotel, where she gained her first Michelin star in 2009. Although she had the freedom to cook her own food, pushing boundaries by combining classic European ideas with modern techniques, she felt that her hands were tied in the corporate environment of a hotel restaurant.

The decision to go out on her own came after a life changing moment in 2009, when a freak accident nearly ended Dominique’s life. “I fell in my bathtub and almost sliced through a main artery in my leg,” she reveals. It was then that she got her tattoo and really started to take her career into her own hands. “I decided to open my own place, a place that would be more than just a restaurant. It would be my house, my living room, a place where I wouldn’t do what was expected, but where I would do my thing.”

She opened Atelier Crenn as a homage to her father, who passed away in 1999. Modeled on the studio he painted in and showing some of his works on the walls, it is a workshop of the culinary arts, a modest, homely space where diners come to share the chef’s personal creative expression. The restaurant is small and intimate, seating just 40 people, with a formal yet relaxed atmosphere, no tablecloths and an open door into the recently renovated kitchen. Her cuisine, entitled Poetic Culinaria as her menus are written like poems, brings together the ethos of farm-to-table cooking, as she works directly with her producers, as well as international influences inspired by her travels, and contemporary cooking methods, which have seen her food described as molecular gastronomy. “I hate that term,” she snubs, however, refusing to be pigeonholed. “I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in evolution and with that in mind I have to embrace new techniques. But I’m not a molecular chef.”

Molecular or not, Dominique’s inventive menus tell stories and a dinner at Atelier Crenn is nothing less than a truly memorable experience. Throughout the night, she racefully moves in between kitchen and dining room, greeting customers and guiding them through the journey of her menus, which comprise a parade of beautiful, tiny dishes that not only please the eye and entice the palate, but also provoke the mind.

As a woman who has succeeded in a very male-dominated industry, Dominique is unsure why there aren’t more female chefs cooking at her level. “There are some amazingly talented female chefs in this country, who are much better cooks than me,” she says. “But I don’t know why they haven’t gone the way I have gone.” She adds that chefs of a certain status have a responsibility to encourage women in the kitchen. “But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be drawn into the gender bias. I don’t want people to look at me as female or male; I just want them to appreciate what I do.”

Looking ahead, Dominique is hoping to publish her first book, which “won’t be just another coffee table book with pretty pictures, but something that will raise issues and inspire dialogue.” She softly hints at a project on the East Coast as well as a second San Francisco restaurant, a space that will bring together the community, “that’ll be a restaurant but not a restaurant, a home but not a home, with croissants, cocktails, art, books, music—something that has never been done before.”

With so much happening, however, Dominique remains grounded and focused on keeping Atelier Crenn constantly evolving. The final question remains: Will she make history as the first woman outside Europe to gain three Michelin stars? “I think it’s possible,” she smiles, looking at her tattoo.

Follow Dominique on Twitter @dominiquecrenn and @ateliercrenn

Chef profile: Ludo Lefebvre

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting thecaterer.com

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Ludo Lefebvre is pretty badass. With his full-sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scruffy facial hair and sly smile, he epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll chef. But the surly exterior is misleading and underneath he’s surprisingly mellow, easy to talk to, honest and fun.

He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t care too much about saying the wrong thing and, refreshingly, doesn’t take himself too seriously either. There’s no trail of emails from his publicist demanding questions in advance, there’s nothing he refuses to discuss, and we’re given a generous four hours for the interview and photo shoot – an eternity in Los Angeles celebrity terms.

We meet at Trois Mec, his restaurant in Hollywood that has taken LA by storm. Voted by Zagat as one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, it may be a far cry from the temples of haute cuisine Lefebvre grew up with, but by breaking all the rules of what a high-end restaurant should be, it is right at the forefront of a new movement of fine dining that is redefining LA’s restaurant scene.

Trois Mec, French for three dudes, opened last April in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, two of the LA restaurant community’s biggest names, who together run Animal and Son of a Gun. Trois Mec is a mainstream restaurant with the sense of a secret underground supper club. Hidden away in an inconspicuous strip mall behind a petrol station, it is housed in what was previously a cheap pizza joint. The original yellow ‘Raffallo’s Pizza & Italian Foods’ sign remains, along with a piece of paper stuck to the door stating: “Closed. No more pizza”.

Once inside, however, the remnants of the past are no more and the space is modern, clean and elegant. There are just 24 seats, no tablecloths and a counter lining the open kitchen. You do not reserve a table at Trois Mec – you buy a ticket online at 8am sharp on the alternating Fridays the restaurant releases its tables. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner – $97 (£59) per person for a fivecourse set menu, including tax and tip. Wine is paid for on the night, with a full pairing priced at $49 (£30).

Although Trois Mec may seem like it’s trying very hard to be different and trendy, Lefebvre’s reasoning behind the concept makes complete business sense. The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs (Angelenos are notoriously flaky, but if they’ve paid in advance they’re almost guaranteed to show up) and the strip mall location means low overheads, which allows Lefebvre to make his dinners affordable to a wide audience. “High-end restaurants are expensive and there aren’t enough people to support them. I want to be accessible – I want to cook for everybody,” he says. “Besides, high-end restaurants can be boring, too. These chefs take themselves so seriously; they’re not cooking for their customers, they’re cooking for the press, for Michelin stars. High-end restaurants are vehicles for chefs’ egos. I know that because I have been there too.”

THREE-STAR MENTORS
Lefebvre got his first job in a professional kitchen at 14 and, right from the start, spent his formative years working under some of the most renowned chefs in France. His apprenticeship was spent with Marc Meneau at his then three-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espérance in Vézelay, Burgundy. From therehe went on to work with Pierre Gagnaire, who first encouraged him to “experiment with spices and unusual flavour combinations”. After serving in the French army as personal chef for the French minister of defence, he joined Alain Passard at L’Arpège.

“All of them were very different,” he says. “Marc Meneau was very classic, Pierre Gagnaire very modern, and Alain Passard, he was the first chef to cook vegetables. Now everyone is doing it. What I learned from all of them was the importance of consistency. Every day is a new day, but the food has to be the same – it has to be as good as the day before. Being creative is easy; being consistent is so difficult. To find the best ingredients every day and to manage your team and get the best out of them, that’s what makes a great chef.” He goes on to say that running a kitchen is much like running an army. There have to be rules in place, he insists, adding that his kitchen at Trois Mec is run in the “traditional French way”. “I am very strict. I push my chefs a lot.”

COMING TO AMERICA
Lefebvre moved to the US in 1996, when former mentor Meneau organised a job as chef de partie at L’Orangerie, one of LA’s, and indeed the country’s, most acclaimed French restaurants. “It was always my dream to live in America,” he says. Despite speaking hardly any English, he was promoted to executive chef within a year and overnight became one of LA’s most celebrated chefs, gaining a reputation for combining old world simplicity with exotic new world flavours.

“It was good and bad,” he says, suddenly looking serious. “I was only 25 and very young in my head. I had so much to learn about life, about food and about how to manage a kitchen. Being a chef is not just about cooking – it’s about being a leader and making an example. It’s about teaching your cooks how to cook. At 25 you don’t know enough about cooking to be responsible for teaching somebody else.” This was followed by two years at Bastide, another of LA’s most distinguished French restaurants, cementing Lefebvre’s status as one of the city’s top chefs after he became the only LA chef to receive the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award at two restaurants.

LUDO BITES
But after Bastide closed for refurbishment, Lefebvre decided not to return and famously became the chef without a restaurant, running a series of pop-ups called Ludo Bites. “The idea came from nowhere,” he shrugs.“I really wanted to buy my own restaurant but it’s very, very difficult. It was very stressful for me to find the right location. Landlords wanted to take advantage of me and everything was very expensive.”

Ludo Bites started after a friend, who owned a bakery-café called Breadbar, asked Lefebvre to help put together a dinner menu. Instead, he took over the space for three months. “It was a big risk for me because it was totally different from the froufrou, high-end restaurants I had come from. It was fun and very accessible, but it was a big challenge for me to get it right,” he says.

The pop-up was a runaway success, dubbed a “transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene” by the city’s most feared food critic Jonathan Gold. What started as a menu of simple small plates soon evolved into an elaborate chef’s tasting menu and reservations were so sought after, Ludo Bites once crashed the Open Table website. “After the success I realised that the business model was very good for me. It was just like renting an apartment,” Lefebvre says. He continued to run the pop-ups for five years, between 2007 and 2012, in nine different incarnations across LA and once in Hawaii. Ludo Bites was turned into a cookbook, a television show called Ludo Bites America, and an online series called Ludo Baby Bites. Branded the pop-up pioneer, Lefebvre became a celebrity. And after appearing on a number of TV shows, including Top Chef Masters, Hell’s Kitchen and Iron Chef America, he joined the judging panel of ABC’s culinary reality show The Taste, which premiered in the US in January 2013 and in the UK earlier this year.

REDEFINING FINE DINING
Lefebvre has said that his favourite restauant in the UK is Dabbous, and that is probably the closest thing London has to Trois Mec. Like Dabbous, Lefebvre’s food adheres to a philosophy of simplicity where the ingredient is the star of the show. Techniques and theatre happen in the kitchen, but what’s on the plate is understated, delicate, playful, interesting and, most importantly, delicious.

With Lefebvre, a simple plate of potato pulp is elevated with butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion soubise to delicious effect; a dish comprising thin slices of avocado covering crab ceviche has an intense citrus boost and added crunch from buckwheat popcorn. Service is down-to-earth but informed. Waiters seem to outnumber guests, yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with French rap music in the background. In many ways dining at Trois Mec feels like being a guest at Lefebvre’s home. “I want people to feel like they’re in my house,” he says. “Trois Mec is about hospitality, about looking after the guest. There are too many casual restaurants now and I think people want more refinement.”

Indeed, Trois Mec cleverly embraces the essence of a fine-dining restaurant and combines it with casual dining by rejecting the usual formalities. “With Trois Mec I have the freedom to do what I want,” Lefebvre adds. “Of course I would love to have a Michelin star, but I’m not living by that and I’m certainly not following their rules.” However, he does bemoan Michelin’s absence in LA (the guide discontinued its LA edition in 2009, saying there was no real food culture). “LA has changed so much and there are so many amazing restaurants here now,” he insists. “New York is all about high-end, established restaurants, but LA is all about variety and young chefs and Michelin should be here.”

Lefebvre has a point – LA’s food scene is undergoing a phenomenal awakening and Lefebvre is a driving force who has helped to move it forward. Now chefs like Ari Taymor of Alma, Miles Thompson of Allumette, Josef Centeno at Orsa & Winston and Curtis Stone at Maude are all delivering tasting menus that offer high-quality ingredients and accomplished cooking in an informal setting and at an affordable price. “A year ago nobody was doing tasting menus. Now lots of chefs in LA are doing them,” Lefebvre says. “I guess it’s nice to be copied.”

This article was first published by The Caterer. Please visit thecaterer.com to read the full version.

Michelin launches guide to Brazil

Michelin is set to launch a new guide to Brazil next year as the company continues to expand its portfolio of international restaurant and hotel guides.

The inaugural Michelin guide to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo will be published in March 2015 marking the French tyre group’s 25th international guide book and the first in South America.

In a statement Michelin said the guide will explore “Brazil’s subtle, diverse gastronomy, which is rooted in a rich culinary heritage based on a wide range of local products of outstanding quality”.

“We are especially delighted to launch this new edition, which is unmatched in the history of the Michelin guide,” said Michael Ellis, International Director, Michelin guides. “The Brazilian gourmet dining scene has been developing steadily in recent years, led by particularly creative chefs. The country has also become a very attractive destination for foreign chefs who are curious to discover products, traditions and cooking styles unlike any other in the world.”

Although the new guide will be too late for football fans visiting this year’s World Cup in Brazil, it will launch in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics taking place in Rio de Janeiro.

Michelin’s move to launch into South America comes after S. Pellegrino announced its inaugural Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list last September. Two Brazilian restaurants featured in the top five: Alex Atala’s D.O.M. and Helena Rizzo’s restaurant Maní, both in Sao Paulo. But whether they’ll make the elite list of three Michelin stars remains to be seen.

 

 

Beneath the Whites: Dominique Crenn

dominique crennDominique Crenn is the chef-patron of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Growing up in France, she moved to the USA in 1988 to work at a number of restaurants in California before making history in 1997 by becoming the first female executive chef in Indonesia. She returned to the USA and eventually opened Atelier Crenn in 2011, where she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA and Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.

What’s your earliest food memory?
Eating tomatoes in my aunt’s garden in Brittany when I was four. It was the best thing that God ever created.

What’s your favourite smell?
Lavender.

What’s your idea of comfort food?
My mum’s roasted chicken.

What’s your favourite cookbook?
The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

What do you never cook without?
Fish sauce.

What’s the worst thing people can do to food?
Being careless. Not knowing or caring where their food comes from and not respecting the cooking process.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
We by mistake double-charged a customer and then found out via Twitter that it was a Michelin inspector!

Have you ever kicked someone out of your restaurant?
Yes. They came into the restaurant with an attitude right from the start. They had brought this big bottle of bad Cabernet Sauvignon and were rude to my staff so I asked them to leave. They wrote a very bad review on TripAdvisor but I didn’t care. I am very protective of my team and there has to be respect.

When are you happiest?
In my dreams.

What makes you sad?
Dishonesty.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
My impulsiveness sometimes gets me into trouble.

What would your superpower be?
Save the world! I would fly around and stop bad people from doing bad things, like Superman and Superwoman in one.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Chocolate.

What’s the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? And would you eat it again?
Sea cucumber. And no, I will never eat that again.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?
Sunny side up or en cocotte.

Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Vladimir Putin – I would have a lot of questions for him.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
Atera in New York.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?
Quique Dacosta in Dénia, Spain. I admire his mind, his knowledge, his thoughtfulness and his genius. He has created something that is unique and personal.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?
To the 1940s when everything was going on – all the writing, the music, the cars and the war, which changed people.

Follow Dominique and the restaurant on Twitter @dominiquecrenn and @ateliercrenn

Artist Henrietta Graham talks about her Great British Chefs series of paintings

Henrietta GrahamHenrietta Graham is a UK-based artist, who has been successfully exhibiting and selling her works internationally for the past 20 years. She is currently working on a series of paintings entitled Great British Chefs, which has seen her depict some of the country’s most celebrated chefs, including Michel Roux Jnr, Sat Bains and Michael Caines. Henrietta is hoping to turn her works into a book of the same title and took the time to tell me a little more about her exciting project

What’s the idea behind the Great British Chefs book?
Quite simply to paint and sketch some of the greatest chefs and kitchens in Britain today. And to write about the extraordinary culinary journey that they have created over the last four decades. British gastronomy has experienced a meteoric rise during that time; we have become a nation of devotees to the restaurant and the once humble chef has become a well-respected even venerated figure. This book is both a tribute and an exploration into how the British culinary culture has evolved.

albertWhere did the inspiration for it come from?
The idea did not appear as a complete concept but was more an organic culmination of thoughts and experiences that made the book an ambition. For example I was taken to the Waterside Inn as a child and was shown the kitchen where I met Pierre Koffmann – the imagery blew me away. Years later my studio was around the corner from Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine in London and I started sketching there, which was 10 years before the book’s genesis. I just kept meeting chefs, then I made more meetings happen and really just wanted to paint everything I was witnessing.

ainsworthHow many chefs will be featured and who are they?
I am at 50 now and would like this to be the final number – but seeing that I said that at 25, who knows. To name a few of the chefs so far: Raymond Blanc, Albert Roux, Pierre Koffmann, Brett Graham, Clare Smyth, Gary Rhodes, Jason Atherton and Ashley Palmer-Watts.

Can you describe your style of painting?
I am a representational oil painter – if that is brief it is because there comes a point when as a painter you realise your work should do the talking!

john williamsHow is each of the paintings different and individual?
They are as different and individual as all the chefs are from one another and I have tried my hardest to really capture the essence of each chef.

How do you capture a chef’s individual style and personality?
Observation! I have spent hours and hours in kitchens with chefs. I really try to pick up on subtle nuances and I really listen to try to get the measure of who I am working with.


Sat BainsDo you paint from photos or do they come and pose for you?

There is an element of posing on occasion, however, I want very often to capture a split second in time – during service for instance – and therefore take hundreds of photographs and then sketch and put a composition together in my studio. Each painting takes months, sometimes years and they are very often larger than life so I think my chances of doing that in situ would be impossible.

Who was the most challenging chef to paint?
They all are but if you really want a name then it would have to be Brett Graham. I have started four paintings of him and none seem to capture him so I have recently spoken to him and I’ll be back in The Ledbury soon to see if I can get it right the fifth time.

After the book on British chefs – would you consider going international?
Yes. In fact I have started and I have painted Rene Redzepi and Daniel Boulud.

Who would you most like to paint in the future?
Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Massimo Bouttura and it would be incredible to get Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca all in one huge painting.

Follow Henrietta on Twitter @henriettagraham