feminine food

Friday, February 1, 2013
By Amy Reiley

I never thought of the food that chefs present as specifically masculine or feminine. It makes sense that a chef’s food is shaped by their personal aesthetic and, of course, that aesthetic will be influenced by gender, among other thing. But recently, I had a meal that was most decidedly feminine. It makes me wonder if the food I’ve typically experienced in restaurants has all been masculine. Are female chefs taught to cook like a man?

The meal that caused this ponderance was cooked by Chef Dominique Crenn of Michelin two star-rated Atelier Crenn. Those familiar with Crenn’s cuisine are probably nodding sagely. Crenn approaches food as an extension of her written poetry, (or perhaps the poetry is an extension of her cooking…?). Whichever came first, essentially, Crenn views the two as one and the same in so far as her menus are concerned.

I realized, after the fact, that my dinner at Atelier Crenn may have been the first tasting menu I’d ever experience that was designed solely by a female chef. I’ve had courses of dinners presented by some of America’s most prominent women chefs but I don’t think I’d ever before had a full tasting menu–or if I had, it was not remarkably different than any other tasting menu in my overindulged past. Which brings me back to my original point–is the average female chef adopting a masculine sensibility?

Crenn is clearly a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes under the spell of her intimate San Francisco restaurant to make this abundantly clear. The style of eating is tasting menu only with two offerings, essentially the short and the long menu. We went for the long menu, although I use the term menu loosely here. Instead of a description of dishes, or even a hint of what is to come like “fish,” “soup,” “dessert,” there is merely a poem, written by Crenn, with each line representing a course.

As with the tasting menus of many of the nation’s best restaurants, the presentation of each course is visual poetry. But unlike some of the other prominent chefs’ work, Crenn’s presentations are not created to imply or direct the diner on how the dish should be eaten (a pet peeve of mine). Instead, a delicate puff will be nestled in branches of a cut log like a little woodland creature. A slice of squab might be served on a slab of slate. A dish of mushrooms might resemble a forest on the plate. This is how a meal will evolve at Atelier Crenn.

What was more interesting to me about my experience at the hands of Chef Crenn than the presentation of her dishes was the feeling with which I left the restaurant. Despite indulging in her full blown, show me all you’ve got menu, I didn’t feel overindulged after Crenn’s meal. I did feel sated but energized, comforted and inspired. And I slept like a baby that night, a rare occurrence for me after a serious gastronomic experience. Is it all because Chef Crenn is a woman?

I’m not implying here that Dominique serves smaller portions because she’s a lady. (To be completely accurate I should mention that I didn’t clean my plate with every course.) But a better measure would be my brother, who has been talking up Crenn’s restaurant for over a year. A diner who can typically put away twice as much as I would eat at a typical meal, he has never left a meal at Atelier Crenn without reaching satiation. It is the way Crenn puts a menu together that allows a diner to enjoy without grossly overindulging.

And overindulgence is exactly the reason I’m not a fan of drawn out tasting menus. Yep, that’s right. I don’t like those 12-20 course “experiences.” I don’t need to see every skill, every trick the chef has acquired through the course of their career in the span of one sitting. And I often feel that tasting menus are designed to showcase the chef’s prowess without consideration for how the experience actually feels for the end user, the audience, the diner.

Is it because she’s a woman that Crenn’s menu seems to keep the customer in mind, taking them on a gentle journey with subtle dynamics, rolling to a gentle close? Women are known as caretakers. Is this the natural role of a woman in the kitchen? Unafraid to throw out the influences of the male kitchens in which they’ve worked, would more female chefs take on this sensibility in the kitchen?

I’m really not one to generalize or classify by gender–as in, I try not to dismiss an annoyance as “a man thing.” And if my boy wants to play with Barbi, why not? She’s a pretty cool broad, now that she’s kicked Ken to the curb. But studies have shown that, whether it’s nature or nurture, there are definite distinctions between the majority of men and women. And, although I’d never considered it before, I think those differences have colored the culinary scene. I’m not trying to take a feminist stand–heck, I just think everyone should eat well. But perhaps the feminine approach can create a holistically more satisfying experience. Certainly, if Dominque Crenn is the standard by which feminine food can be measured, chicks rule!

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