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SF Chef Dominique Crenn Transforms Memories Into Food at Harvard

Harvard University's annual Science & Cooking public lecture series brings chefs from around the world to lecture on the intersection of science and cooking. And Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal is on the scene. This week: Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and her chef de cuisine Christopher Bleidorn on the “Metamorphosis of Taste.”

Dominique Crenn at Harvard, October 13, 2014
Dominique Crenn at Harvard, October 13, 2014
Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

"Life is too short and you need to follow your dreams," Dominique Crenn told the audience at last night’s Science & Cooking lecture at Harvard, recalling her decision to open Atelier Crenn in 2011, partly spurred by a near-death experience in 2009. "I was unhappy, and I wanted to do something with meaning." Crenn and her chef de cuisine Christopher Bleidorn provided the sixth lecture of the season in Harvard’s popular public series, speaking about the metamorphosis of taste, which they explained through videos and discussion of two of their cooking techniques: making a 64-degree egg into a translucent sheet and creating carrot "jerky."

Before getting into the particular techniques, Crenn spoke a bit about the philosophy behind her restaurant, stressing that it’s "not just a restaurant" and about "more than food." The creativity of the menu, which is written as a poem, is driven by memories. Each line of menu poetry refers to a course in the elaborate tasting. "I remember an oceanic feeling," one course is titled, immediately followed by: "Here, the earth proffers its juicy, vermilion gifts." The restaurant also pays homage to Crenn’s late father, and she notes that the name Atelier Crenn is more a reference to him than to herself. His artwork decorates the restaurant

Anything can happen at Atelier Crenn.

Crenn likes to hire "children" to work at Atelier Crenn — not children in the literal sense, but people who are filled with a child-like curiosity, perfect for the "no boundaries" and "no prejudice" way of life at Atelier Crenn. "We like to learn new things," she explained. "Anything can happen at Atelier Crenn. There’s no rules." She paused. "We pay taxes, though." Laughter.

The idea of metamorphosis manifests itself in many ways at Atelier Crenn: the transformation of a memory into a dish, the physical creation of a dish, one seasonal menu into another. "The main thing that’s important to us is understanding taste and flavor," Crenn said. The difference between the two? Taste is just a simple, physical sense while flavor involves other sensory input, including taste, odors, and even the emotions, including memories, attached to the experience.

To delve into this territory, Crenn and her team play with techniques that allow them to bring ingredients to different, unexpected places. While a regular carrot might taste fine, a carrot made into "jerky" over a three-day process transforms into something new and can maybe tell a story.

Bringing Ingredients Further

In the tradition of the ever-popular 60-something degree egg,  in which an egg is cooked at precisely 61 or 63 or 60-something-else degrees Fahrenheit for a long time to achieve a specific texture, Atelier Crenn makes egg "sheets" out of 64-degree eggs. That’s where the yolk gets a custard-like consistency, Bleidorn explained. After it cooks for about two hours (enough time for pasteurization to occur), the egg is pureed into a pudding-like texture. "Basically pure cholesterol," noted Bleidorn, laughing. At that point, the egg can be spread thin — cooked at a lower temperature, it would be too runny, and at a higher temperature, it would lose the translucence. The spread egg is sealed in plastic with the air removed and rolled out into a sheet before being cooked at 72 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-30 minutes, which allows the already-denatured egg to reset into a translucent sheet that can be used for noodles ("Gluten-free!" joked Crenn) or a variety of other applications. It’s just one example of how the Atelier Crenn team takes certain ingredients and "brings them further," said Bleidorn.

‘Playful’ Carrots Require Days of Work

"Vegetables are the new meat for me," Crenn said last night. While not a vegetarian, she’s interested in exploring vegetables more, and when she told Bleidorn that, she recalled that the first words out of his mouth were "Let’s make a jerky." Thus the carrot jerky was born. The recipe took about a year to develop and still evolves constantly.

Vegetables are the new meat.

First, the carrots spend two hours in a calcium hydroxide bath, an alkaline solution that reacts with the carrot’s pectin to create a second "skin." Next, they’re stored in a salt and sugar mixture for three days, which adds seasoning but more importantly draws out a huge amount of moisture. After this stage, the carrots are very pliable but still crunchy and raw-tasting. Then they’re cooked in a solution of sugar and spices to infuse as much flavor as possible and brined in a ginger and orange tea before being bagged and boiled for three or four hours and dehydrated for 30 minutes to three hours (depending on size). They’re glazed with sugar and cayenne, delicately wrapped with a thin twist of orange rind, and served on a branch with moss (don’t eat the branch or the moss.) The result is a chewy and "playful" carrot, said Bleidorn.

The lengthy process isn’t unusual for the team; they focus on cooking things slowly, which they believe preserves more flavor and integrity of the ingredients. "We’re gentle when we cook," said Bleidorn.

As is the Atelier Crenn philosophy, the idea of jerky is one of nostalgia, at least for Bleidorn. "He grew up on jerky; I grew up on foie gras," commented Crenn, a native of France. It’s not just about the memories of the Atelier Crenn team, either. "We also want to trigger memory to the customer for them to have a deeper sense of themselves."

Dominique Crenn and Christopher Bleidorn at Harvard October 2014

The Harvard Science & Cooking lecture series continues next Monday, October 20, with Ferran Adrià on "Decoding the Creative Process." The event is free but ticketed; tickets are available at Harvard’s box office beginning today, October 14, at noon. More details can be found on the Harvard website.

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore Street, , CA 94123 (415) 440-0460 Visit Website