How I Knew I Wanted to Become a Chef

A food-critic friend, a mind-boggling meal, and the best sandwich in the world.

Crenn, in 2017. Photo: Chance Yeh/Getty Images
Crenn, in 2017. Photo: Chance Yeh/Getty Images
Crenn, in 2017. Photo: Chance Yeh/Getty Images

My father had a best friend who was a food critic, which is a very good best friend to have. Albert Coquil wrote for a big regional newspaper in Brittany called Le Télégramme and reviewed restaurants all over the country.

There are different kinds of food critics. There are the ones who revel in the takedown, the cruelty of mocking a kitchen found not up to scratch. There are the ones who know nothing about food and just like to make jokes, and the ones who come in with a political agenda. A restaurant may be cut down to size for being too expensive, too female, too different, too much, none of which may have anything to do with the food.

And then there are the critics like Albert, who know everything about food and restaurant culture, but wield that knowledge responsibly and with a generous heart. Albert never indulged in the takedown. He knew how much work went into even a failing restaurant and still insisted on treating it with respect. If he thought a restaurant wasn’t good enough, he simply declined to review it. This omission delivered a gentle message to the chef, who understood implicitly what it meant.

We were lucky; Albert often took my parents with him when he was reviewing. Even luckier, they sometimes took me. Occasionally, we would go to somewhere fancy in Paris, like Le Taillevent, the three-starred Michelin restaurant in the 8th arrondissement, founded in 1946 and named after the first French chef to have written a cookbook. “Taillevent,” the alias of Guillaume Tirel, was a cook to the Court of France in the fourteenth century and published a compendium of recipes called Le Viandier.

I loved these esoteric facts, and I loved the posh outings. But even more than these things, I loved going with Albert and my parents to the restaurants of Brittany, many of which had Michelin stars, where I was able to see local ingredients given the star treatment. One of these outings was to Jean-Pierre Crouzil, a Michelin-starred restaurant named after the owner. Everything I ate that night summoned the flavor of Brittany: shallots, reduction, lemon, vinegar, seaweed, mussels, oysters, langoustines — in short, the ocean. I remember marveling at how all the disparate elements on the plate had a purpose, coming together with a seamless complexity. I had eaten good, plain food before, and I had eaten at fancy restaurants. This, however, was something else; food that was simultaneously surprising and deeply familiar. I had no idea this could even be done. I was completely and utterly fascinated.

I was also fascinated by Albert’s job, and as we ate, I would bombard him with questions. How did he go about reviewing a restaurant? What were the criteria? How did he decide if an experience was good, bad, or indifferent? Albert, who, in spite of being very well-known, was still very kind, gave my questions long, patient thought. He told me some funny stories about how his presence in a restaurant could throw a kitchen into turmoil. He relived some of his greatest meals. And then he said something I would never forget: that when he reviewed a restaurant, it was less a question of whether he liked or disliked the food than it was about trying to understand the chef’s story.

When I thought about my conversation with Albert, I couldn’t understand what he’d meant. A chef’s story can’t make up for a bad meal, after all. Although the idea that the chef’s point of view — where he came from and what he was trying to say — dictates everything from the quality of the service to the ambience of the restaurant to the composition and execution of the menu sort of made sense, it sounded very theoretical to me. You could have the fanciest restaurant in the world, Albert said, but if its mission is to turn out high-end dishes by rote — to throw out just another grilled turbot — nothing on the plate will sing. What, I wondered, might a plate that sang in the way Albert described look like?

I was 14 years old and didn’t know what to do. I loved school, although I got bored very easily. I liked literature. I loved philosophy. I didn’t like math. I was good at English. I didn’t like German. I was good at sports and continued to compete on all sorts of teams. I got nervous before exams, but was generally good under pressure. I loved cooking and I still loved Starsky & Hutch.

For a while, I imagined I might become a photographer. I’m very visual and I liked the idea of fixing a moment in time — of capturing an instant and preserving the memory forever. A photographer is almost the exact opposite of a chef; once enjoyed, a good meal, like a good stage play, can never be revisited, whereas a photograph can live on forever. And yet a good meal shares the properties of a photograph to the extent that it is focused entirely on a passing experience. Creating a good menu, like taking a good photo, is about trapping your guests in the moment.

My parents believed in the importance of education, but beyond that they were pretty relaxed. My brother and I weren’t expected to become lawyers or doctors. As long as we were settled and happy, we could do what we liked. Or rather, we could do what we liked within the constraints of the French educational system. The protocols governing higher education back then were so strict and narrow that you could find yourself, at the age of 15, making decisions that could potentially govern what you did for the rest of your life. This is exactly what happened to me when, in my mid-teens, I decided to drop math. It was a decision based on what seemed like sensible criteria — I wasn’t very good at math — but it had the bizarre consequence many years later of effectively ruling out the possibility of my becoming a photographer. In France, if you want to become a high-ranking politician, you have to attend the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. And if you want to become a successful photographer, you have to attend a school like the École Nationale Supérieure Louis-Lumière, for which you needed a degree in math to gain entrance. There was often only one route into any given profession, and if you didn’t take it, there was no other way in.

My father, I think, would have been pleased if I’d decided to follow him into politics, or gone in my mother’s direction, toward finance, but neither of these things interested me. My main interests, apart from sports and photography, were running around outside on the farm and cooking. Neither of these enthusiasms, however, seemed to fit what my parents would have called a proper job, that is, something professional rather than vocational. I would have to keep on thinking.

It was something I’d like to have discussed with my grandmother. While my brother had stopped hanging out on the farm in his early teens, my enthusiasm for the place never wavered, right up until the day, three years earlier, when my grandmother had been admitted to hospital. The first time we visited her we got a terrible shock. She appeared to have shrunk, her six-foot frame tiny under the blankets, her strength whittled down to an unimaginable frailty. I don’t remember what I said to her that day — all I remember is worrying about my maman and asking if she was okay — but I do remember she knew I had come into the room. At 11, I couldn’t really process her death and didn’t grieve for my grandmother in any recognizable way. But memories of my summers on the farm became more precious. I had always looked up to her as a strong woman who wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do, and whose advice to me had been “be yourself.” In those fraught days of adolescence, I needed her strength and confidence to help me figure out what being myself actually meant.

I can’t say my grandmother was an obvious feminist role model. That kind of language would have been alien to her and she ran her farm alone out of necessity, not choice. Over the years, however, her toughness had seeped into me, as had her no-nonsense approach to running a business and the grace with which she managed her staff. My grandmother was kind, but she knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to give a command. When, eventually, I ran my own kitchen, I realized I had a leadership model reaching back into my earliest memories.

But in the meantime, I still didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. In spite of my chats with Albert and all those enjoyable trips with him to review restaurants, I had never fully connected the experience of eating good food with the job of the person who created it. I could barely name a chef, let alone differentiate their styles. Apart from my enthusiasm for my mother’s home cooking, I had no idea of what my individual tastes might be, or what could be achieved outside of classic French cooking. That all changed one evening in my late teens, when I was on vacation with my parents in the south of France. We had dinner reservations at Michel Bras, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the remote village of Laguiole, 125 miles north of Toulouse. I was excited to be going to such a celebrated restaurant. But I had no real idea of what was coming my way.

We got to the restaurant in the late afternoon, with the golden light bouncing off the windows. Inside, there was a sense of quietness that went deeper than the mere hush of the dining room. The restaurant was located in a small hotel that Bras had inherited from his parents. As a child, he had grown up in the hotel’s restaurant kitchen, where his mother, unusually, had been the chef. Before Bras took over, the restaurant had been known by the name of the hotel — Lou Mazac. In 1982, after it was awarded its first Michelin star, it was known by the name of the chef. Ten years later, Bras would open another eponymous restaurant that would become one of the great dining destinations of the world, a structure of glass, granite, and chrome that sat on a plateau with stunning views over Aubrac.

That night at the hotel, I got to taste Bras’s recently invented signature dish — the gargouillou de jeunes legumes — a medley of vegetables, plants, herbs, and flowers that involved up to 80 distinct elements and that came to him, he has said, during a run in the countryside in June 1978.

The author, in 1970. Photo: Courtesy of Dominique Crenn

It’s not just that the gargouillou used ingredients in a way I had never seen in cooking before, in a direct reflection of the land around the restaurant. Or that it featured touches that would become standard, such as the smear, or the “spoon drag,” the technique of spreading a sauce across a plate. It’s that the gargouillou did something I didn’t know was permitted in fine dining: replacing the traditional meat or cream-heavy dish with stalks, shoots, leaves, and grains in an explosion of color, flavor, and texture. The plate in front of me that evening was like nothing I had ever seen. It was simultaneously as light as a feather and groaning with ingredients. Edible flowers! Vegetables so vibrant they were almost neon! Endive, chickweed, salsify, pink radish, chervil, nasturtium, and Welsh onion. It was mind-boggling to imagine how Bras had managed to assemble all these elements into a unified whole, but they were somehow perfectly balanced, a microcosm of the natural world on the plate. As I ate, I marveled not only at the taste of the food and the joy of the presentation, but, as Albert did, at the story that was being told by the chef. For the first time, I understood what he’d meant when he’d said the experience of eating in a restaurant was about more than the cooking itself. The entire experience seemed to me somehow poetic.

One has to be careful with that sort of statement, I know. The word “poetry” sets people off, even when it’s used in strict context. Calling a restaurant poetic is asking for trouble, and yet that is how it appeared to me that night. It wasn’t just the beauty of the food and the head rush of fresh flavors. It was the tempo of a dining room in which service was an almost Kabuki-like spectacle of grace and movement. The restaurant felt like an invitation to slow down and pay attention. Decades before the slow-cooking movement took off, it was there in the little restaurant in Laguiole.

Years later, friends tried to persuade me to accompany them on a trip back to Michel Bras — Chef Bras had become world-famous by that time — but I wouldn’t. I was afraid of interfering with the memory. Of all the restaurants I visited in my childhood and adolescence, it was Michel Bras that I remembered most vividly and it was the chef himself to whom, early on in my cooking, I would make the most references. I don’t mean that I tried to cook like him. Rather, that I tried to think like him. Michel Bras taught me about integrating the world around you — nature, the poetry of the outside — into your cooking.

The only other chef who struck me with similar force in those years was Olivier Roellinger, whose restaurant in Cancale, Brittany — although very different from Bras — made a similar virtue of putting the world on the plate. If you walked around Cancale before dining at Le Relais Gourmand, the history of the town, a fishing port known as the oyster capital of Brittany, you would soon see, was relived on the menu. Those two chefs offered me a vision of what cooking might be that wasn’t just going to cooking school and learning the dishes. It was about reflecting the integrity of your surroundings. It was about making the ingredients speak to the experience of being alive and reveling in the life of the natural world around you. I knew how to cook, but this was something else. It combined the storytelling element of photography with the physical pleasures of the natural world and the stringencies of a conventional profession. It hadn’t occurred to me before that being a chef might be a possible or even a desirable goal. Now I started to wonder.

I was making sandwiches. It was my job for the summer during my last year of high school and I was phenomenally good at it. I’d had summer jobs before, the worst being a sales assistant in a department store, where I stood around all day trying not to go mad with boredom, and the best being helping out in the kitchen at a tennis club. Toward the end of high school, my maman heard about a job through her connections at the city council, making sandwiches for low-income kids at a summer camp. And there it was, the perfect fit.

My favorite sandwich, then as now, is a perfectly cooked baguette with a touch of butter, cornichons, maybe a slice of cheese or saucisson, or a little smoked fish. The classic, in other words. The key to a sandwich is the bread. The bread is the connecter and it should be as fresh as possible; a crisp, crusty baguette is heaven on Earth. The other thing to remember when you’re making a sandwich is that less is more. When I made sandwiches that summer, I was careful to layer the flavor. I knew it was crucial to take care of every ingredient and understand it had a place in the mix. You can’t just slice the bread and throw any old thing in there. I made sandwiches that summer as if my life depended on it, and news of their quality spread. By the end of the season, the staff at the summer camp would queue up to get a sandwich every lunchtime alongside the kids.

It wasn’t merely the creative labor of putting together the ingredients I enjoyed, but the feeling I got from the idea I was nurturing others. The whole experience threw into relief just how much greater the pleasure of cooking was than, say, the satisfaction I got from studying.

On the other hand, I wasn’t about to just run off to join a kitchen — not least because in France, no such romantic pathway exists. Had I turned up at the service entrance to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris offering to peel potatoes with a view to becoming a chef, I would have been yelled at to go away and come back in ten years, when I’d paid my dues slogging through cooking school and a bunch of lowlier restaurants. I couldn’t see a future for myself in an office, but neither could I see any immediate way to becoming a chef. I could have applied to cooking school at that stage, but from the earliest age my parents had drummed it into me that you didn’t get anywhere in life without a degree. And so while I dreamed of the gargouillou, I applied to study economics at a university in the city. It might at least buy me a few years to judge whether my enthusiasm for cooking was a phase.

I wasn’t a terrible student. I was still bad at math, but I liked looking at the broader picture of economic theory, which if you squinted hard enough was as much of an art as a science. I was diligent, as I always had been with schoolwork, but for the first time in my life I also had a lot of age-appropriate fun. Before college, a lot of my friends had been older than me. Now I kicked back and went out with kids my age just to have a good time.

I loved to go dancing and there was no club in late-1970s Paris like Les Bains-Douches, a modish venue in the center of the city built on the site of a ninth-century bathhouse and with a door policy that would have put Studio 54 to shame. Inside we went wild, dancing all night before jumping into the Moroccan-tiled pool in the middle of the club, only drying off as we walked home in the early morning sun.

After three years, I graduated with a decent bachelor’s degree, not a single element of which had really excited me. Meanwhile, my interest in food hadn’t abated. For the first time, I tentatively mentioned to my parents my interest in becoming a chef, and it was met with baffled silence. Over the years, my parents had noted the enthusiasm with which I tackled any cooking project and the thrill I got from something as simple as shopping in the market. They had heard me give Albert the third degree and knew that I loved discussing food as much as politics. But they were also at a loss. I suspect that, consciously or otherwise, they may have felt that a passion for cooking should be fitted in around a conventional career — like my father’s passion for painting — rather than be a career in itself. They never pressured me to reconsider, and, whatever I did, they said, they were behind me 100 percent. But I could tell that they didn’t really understand. To them, it looked like a risky career path.

It was risky. I didn’t know how to go about becoming a chef, but I knew that in France at least, it would be difficult. I started calling culinary schools. They were uniformly discouraging. How about going into management, one suggested. Women do very well front of house, said another. I wondered if things might be different if I applied to the famous cooking schools in Lausanne, Switzerland, but the response from those schools was equally lukewarm. Women did all the drudge work of cooking at home, but when it came to restaurant culture, the role of the chef as artist was reserved for men.

I don’t know what I expected exactly. I had lived in France all my life and knew the way the country worked. The conventions governing institutions, particularly those regarded as gatekeepers to French patrimoine, including language, literature, and cuisine, are chiseled into stone and fiercely defended. There are the way things are done and have always been done and will be done, god willing, evermore. In the entire history of French cooking, only 20 female chefs have been awarded Michelin stars, and still today I have never been so aware of that fact.

I was angered by the response of the cooking schools. My parents had raised my brother and me to believe we could do anything, and for the first time I found myself at a disadvantage for being a girl. If I’m honest, however, a tiny part of me was also relieved to find my way in France blocked. All through my teens I’d dreamed of going to America. Every movie, every pop song, and advertising image from the United States reinforced the idea that it was a country in which anything could happen. And as I entered my 20s, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the wrong place.

This wasn’t just about becoming a chef. And while I might not have known exactly what I was looking for, I had a hunch I’d never find it in France. Had the culinary schools welcomed me with open arms, I suspect a small part of me might have been horrified. It would have given me no pretext to leave.

I don’t meant to be flippant in regard to culinary schools. But I think to be a master of the culinary arts it’s necessary to study the history, philosophy, and politics of food. If you want to be a chef, or even a manager, then you should have that academic background, and the sad thing is, it’s not always a big part of the culinary education. And then to actually learn to cook? I think you need to be working. Most cooking schools, to my mind, are a waste of time and money. You learn better on the job.

So, the summer after graduating, after the cold reception from culinary schools, I started to self-educate. I read The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s brilliant Enlightenment-era philosophy of gastronomy, in which he famously stated: “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” I started reading culinary magazines and learning about food culture outside France. I read with interest about California cuisine and its reconstitution of rustic French cooking. I read about a chef named Jeremiah Tower, an early champion of the organic movement, who left Chez Panisse, the iconic restaurant in Berkeley opened in 1971 by food activist Alice Waters, to start his own restaurant, Stars. Tower, I noted, hadn’t gone to cooking school, either.

Once I decide on a goal, I like to move fast. I knew what I wanted. Why prevaricate for decades trying to get there? If I stayed in France, I reasoned, my only realistic course of action would be to beg for an apprenticeship at a kitchen, but the chances of my rising from there to own my own restaurant, or even to run my own team, with less than several decades’ experience, seemed extremely slim.

In France, I couldn’t see a way forward. There would be no shortcuts, no loopholes, no chance of slipping the net or rising above my station. If you were young, inexperienced, and on top of that a woman in the French culinary world, there simply wasn’t a space for you.

I would have to find another way. I had an Iranian-American boyfriend at the time who I’d met in Paris and who, the summer of my brother’s wedding, told me he was moving back to San Francisco. I didn’t know anything about San Francisco, other than that it wasn’t too far from L.A. It hardly mattered, and I jumped at the chance to travel with him. I had no job, no lodging, no friends, and no visa, but I didn’t care. Whatever San Francisco was, it had one major advantage over all my other options: It wasn’t in France.

From REBEL CHEF: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn and Emma Brockes, to be published on June 9, 2020 by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Dominique Crenn.

How a Restaurant Critic Inspired Me to Become a Chef