Meeting Two of the World’s Best Female Chefs in Zürich

Felix Santos and Dominique Crenn on stage at Chef Alps 2017. Photo copyright: Chef Alps/Nadine Kägi.

A few months ago in Zürich, Switzerland, I had the chance to meet with two fascinating women who have earned the title of “World’s Best Female Chef” — the 2016 winner, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in the United States and the 2017 winner, Ana Roš of Hiša Franko in Slovenia. These chefs have worked tirelessly over the years doing something they love, and along the way, have established themselves as international leaders in the world of fine dining.

What brought them both to Switzerland at the same time? Crenn and Roš were visiting Switzerland as guests of Chef Alps 2017 — to share their experiences, cooking philosophies and some of their famous dishes onstage before a live audience. During this event, I had the chance to talk with both Crenn and Roš about their career trajectories that led them to becoming the World’s Best Female Chefs.

Female Chefs – Not Always Recognized

Let me begin by saying that the term “female chef” rubs some people the wrong way (e.g., see this January 2017 article, We Once Again Ask Why There Is a ‘Best Female Chef’ Award, from Eater.com). Why is this term used? Well, the world of gastronomy tends to be a male-dominated industry. Fewer female chefs are typically recognized as being “the best” in comparison to men working in the same profession. Here are a few recent examples from Switzerland and beyond:

  • Among the 47 Swiss restaurants listed among “Les Grande Tables de Suisse,” only one of the chefs is a woman.
  • In Europe, the Michelin Guide awarded three stars to 19 restaurants in 2016 — just two of them were led by female chefs, as reported by CNN.
  • The list of the top 100 chefs in the world for 2017 from Le Chef – a French magazine about chefs de cuisine – includes two women.

With numbers like these in mind, it did not go unnoticed at Chef Alps 2017 that one-third of the guest chefs were women — three out of the nine chefs. In addition to Crenn and Roš, the talented Antonia Klugmann of L’Argine a Vencò in Italy, also presented her amazing dishes on stage during the event. It was a remarkable opportunity to have such incredible talent all in one place — men and women.

Dominique Crenn – World’s Best Female Chef 2016

In San Francisco, California, Dominique Crenn oversees two restaurants: Atelier Crenn, her signature restaurant, and Petit Crenn, which offers a more casual dining experience. She is currently in the process of opening Bar Crenn, a new wine bar. In the United States, she has the distinction of being the first female chef to earn two Michelin stars.

When she took the stage on the first day of Chefs Alps 2017, she told us that “Food is art, life is a poem.” This French-born chef usually writes a line of poetry for each dish served on the menu. It’s a practice in homage to her father, who had a great appreciation for art.

Chef Alps 2017 – live and on stage: Moderator Susanne Viegener, Guest Chef, Dominique Crenn, and Chef Alps Ambassador, Chef Franck Giovannini. Photo copyright: Chef Alps/Nadine Kägi.

For female chefs, she said she would give the same advice to them or anyone else — you have to go through life with confidence and desire and be who you want to be. “Life is not about gender,” she said. “Obviously, there is a problem right now, but you have the power… To make a better world for yourself and for the future.” She added that, “Female is the future, without being too political, but it is. It’s all about balance.”

During her time on stage, Crenn prepared a shot glass of swordfish bone marrow with passion fruit. She served this alongside a bouquet of fried potato strands seasoned with mulled vinegar and seaweed, for a stylized version of fish and chips.

“Fish and Chips” from Chef Dominque Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Photo copyright: Chef Alps/Nadine Kägi.

The presentation Crenn gave at Chef Alps 2017, in its entirety — which includes her live cooking demonstration of the dish pictured above — is now available on YouTube (see below).

After her presentation, I joined several other journalists to talk with Crenn. She talked about how she has never attended a culinary school. Instead, her on-the-job training took place in restaurant kitchens. I found her to be warm, confident and professional. Here are a few things she shared with us:

  • “Everything can be eaten” — Crenn loves trying to cook with an entire plant, such as the stems of parsley or the leaves and flowers of tomato plants.
  • Inspiration is everywhere — She told us that she finds inspiration in everyday activities, whether visiting a museum, seeing a movie, talking to someone, travel, a memory and more.
  • Cooking in Indonesia — When she moved to Indonesia in 1997, she became the nation’s first female executive chef during her tenure at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jakarta.

To learn more about Dominique Crenn, I recommend the following articles:

Ana Roš – World’s Best Female Chef 2017

On the second and last day of Chef Alps 2017, the current winner of the World’s Best Female Chef also graced the stage: Ana Roš of Slovenia. For her cooking demonstration, she prepared tripe in duck jus, topped with cheese and wild nettle chips — flavor combinations I never would have imagined together on a plate. Another autodidact chef, Roš exuded energy and excitement on stage, talking in an animated way about her experiences working in Slovenia, her home country.

Tripe cooked in duck jus with cheese and nettle chips, a dish from Ana Roš. Photo copyright: Chef Alps/Nadine Kägi.

Prior to becoming a chef, Roš was a member of the Yugoslavian national ski team and studied international diplomacy. Ultimately, she decided to forgo her original plans and embark on a career in gastronomy, taking over the restaurant — in Kobarid, near the Austrian and Italian borders — of her partner’s parents. With a focus on regional foods, Hiša Franko (Franko’s House) has arguably become the most well-known restaurant in the country.

Guest Chef Ana Roš from Slovenia, on stage with Moderator Susanne Viegener.

On stage, she cooked “beef tongue dressed up by the sea” — thinly sliced and marinated in salt for several hours, served with a Slovenian version of dashi, made with seaweed and the heads and bones of sardines. A consistent theme in her cooking seems to involve marrying the alpine flavors of the Soca Valley with the Mediterranean flavors of the Adriatic Sea. The presentation given by Roš at Chef Alps 2017 is also now available on YouTube (see below).

When I had the chance to meet with Roš following her presentation, I was struck by how frankly she spoke about starting her career as a chef. At the beginning, around the year 2000 when she took over the kitchen of the restaurant, she told us she felt weak, and wondered, “Where should I start?” She found that she needed to accept her failures, as there were many of what she described as “tragic moments” during those early days. I asked her what kept her motivated during this time, and she stated simply and directly, “Money.” I appreciated her honesty.

Today, her restaurant is booked out months in advance, and her business helps to support the local economy by purchasing ingredients from regional producers. Her previous work in diplomacy helps her in finding solutions and creating a good atmosphere in her kitchen, plus she speaks five languages. She told us that she has continued her work at Hiša Franko because, “Slovenia needs her more than foreign countries.”

To learn more about Ana Roš, I recommend the following articles:

Dominique Crenn and Ana Roš are two chefs that entered the profession in very different ways and with their own unique style, but both with the same drive and passion, and with no culinary training other than their professional experience. Cren gained valuable knowledge working at various high-profile restaurants to eventually branch out on her own and become a successful, internationally acclaimed chef. In comparison, Roš ascended almost immediately to the position of head chef, and after years of hard work, has brought worldwide attention to her restaurant in Slovenia.

Chef Alps 2017 highlighted the good work of Crenn and Roš, who have earned the title of “World’s Best Female Chefs,” giving us a glimpse of their exceptional cooking skills and a chance to hear their stories. No matter what your opinion of “the list,” you cannot deny the tenacity, creativity and leadership of these talented women.

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