Dominique Crenn: too many cooks committing suicide. Let’s humanize our kitchens

04-04-2019
Dominique Crenn, French-American chef from restaur

Dominique Crenn, French-American chef from restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, 3 Michelin stars. Photo from Brambilla/Serrani

The following interview summarises the most important excerpts from the conversation between Dominique Crenn andRyan King on the stage of Identità and some questions Gabriele Zanatta asked her right after that, in the backstage 

Dominique Crenn is one of the chefs who left the strongest mark on the 15th edition of Identità Milano. The 54-year-old French-American mentioned several aspects she holds dear. Secondary themes, but not less important for the restaurant industry.

She made almost no mention of techniques, processes or recipes. Instead, she denounced climate change («The world is in a critical condition and we’re all responsible, in our own small way»), the overflow of plastic («If you have a cocktail, don’t use a straw. If you make a croissant, don’t wrap it in plastic paper»), she addressed gender issues («My dream is a world in which chefs are chefs, regardless of their gender. A world in which men and women have equal opportunities»). The following interview is focused on another topic, on which almost all of Crenn’s lesson was focused: the wellbeing of cooks and waiters.

Dominique, you opened your talk with a tribute to Luciano Zazzeri, the Tuscan chef who passed away on March 18th. Did you know him?
I dined at his restaurant in November 2007. I still remember the adventurous road to get there. We spotted this cabana by the sea. Hello chef and he smiled, kindly. Right after that, he cooked the best calamari I have ever eaten in my entire life. He touched my heart. I went back to San Francisco with that image in my soul. It changed my life. When I heard of his death, I felt so upset.

The tribute to Luciano Zazzeri (1956-2019), chef at La Pineta in Bibbona (Livorno), at the beginning of Crenn’s lecture

The tribute to Luciano Zazzeri (1956-2019), chef at La Pineta in Bibbona (Livorno), at the beginning of Crenn’s lecture

An isolated episode in the kitchen?
I wouldn’t say so. Last year, I lost another dear friend, Anthony Bourdain. Only a few days ago I read that, over the past 3 years, chefs’ suicide rates worldwide have increased by 25%. I’m on this stage to celebrate cuisine, but also to point out the dark sides of our profession.

Which are?
In general, we no longer write letters, we no longer call friends, pick up books, we don’t pay attention and are no longer curious. And cooks live in a state of disconnection even more than others. The situation is getting worse and worse because the pressure keeps on increasing. We tend to push, we don’t want to stop, ever. And we’re more and more disconnected, or disengaged.

What are the remedies?
In my restaurant I try to make everyone feel safe: our HR staff meets our cooks daily. We organise meetings and cultural trips, yoga sessions, football matches. There are many opportunities to stay together. We’re all unique, we all have our own story. We must make an effort to listen. And show our true side, without pretending to be what we’re not.

Crenn with Fine Dining Lovers journalist Ryan King, on the stage of the Auditorium

Crenn with Fine Dining Lovers journalist Ryan King, on the stage of the Auditorium

What’s the work rhythm like at Atelier Crenn?
Cooks work 8 hours per day, not 16 or 18. I want my guys to have a life outside too, to have a work-life balance. When we are together, sense of respect, family spirit, and love must always prevail. It’s so rewarding to see the smile on everyone’s face. My parents taught me this.

How do you select your staff?
We never look at CVs, we’re not interested in them. And we never ask questions on food or technique: our aspiring cooks will learn those later. During the interview we mostly want to understand who’s in front of us, if the candidate has humanity. We explain that each one of them has a name, that it’s important to say ‘good morning’, to ask ‘how was your day?’. And that they will work with many different people, and that diversity is a value.

A few days ago Carlo Petrini explained that restaurants should abandon the military model that Georges Auguste Escoffier adopted for kitchen brigades. 
I agree, I don’t believe in brigades at all. There must be a chef, for sure. But everyone else must be treated equally, at the same level, with no hierarchies or strict ranks. The nice thing is that this approach creates no disadvantage. We treat people well, we laugh, dance, we make good food and we still have 3 Michelin stars.

Crenn is about to open the first coffeeshop without cups: "If you really love coffee, bring your mug from home"

Crenn is about to open the first coffeeshop without cups: "If you really love coffee, bring your mug from home"

What would you reply to those who say that a cook must just cook, not give opinions on topics that go beyond his profession?
Nonsense. Cooks must think, before cooking. The latter cannot exist without the former. It is your attitude, more than your aptitude, that will determine your altitude. 

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


Sections

Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world