Take Five with Chef Dominique Crenn, the Bay Area Favorite On”The Next Iron Chef”

San Francisco's Dominique Crenn dukes it out on "The Next Iron Chef.'' (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Of the 10 competitors set to do battle starting 9 p.m. Oct. 4 in the second season of the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef,” only one is from the Bay Area.

With competitor Nate Appleman, late of San Francisco’s A16, moving to New York earlier this year, that leaves only competitor Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Luce restaurant as the hometown favorite.

That’s just fine by this gutsy 44-year-old French woman, too. She’s never been one to back off from any challenge. Indeed, Crenn, who was told early on by French cooking school administrators that she’d never make it as a chef because she’s a woman, has always held her own. Not only did she go on to cook at one of the most illustrious restaurants of its time — Stars in San Francisco — but she also became the first female executive chef in Indonesia.

Tune in to see if she has what it takes to join the ranks of Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and Michael Symon as an “Iron Chef.”

I had a chance to preview the first episode — albeit without the ending included (say what?) — and all I can say is the production values have really gone up from the first season. There’s even more flash and pomp this time around.

Last week, Crenn and I talked by phone about her experiences on the show, one of the bizarre ingredients she ended up with, and the weird dynamics she experienced while competing with Appleman.

Q: So how did you get involved with “The Next Iron Chef”?

A: When I was in New York, the producers approached me. I was cooking for the James Beard Foundation, and cooking for the press. They flew me to Los Angeles to cook for them. And then they asked me to be on the show.

Q: Why did you want to do the show?

A: To be honest, I didn’t really want to at first. (laughs)

Weeks before that, I was approached for “Top Chef.” I think it was for the “Masters” show.  I don’t really watch TV. “Top Chef” seemed more like a drama, while “The Next Iron Chef” seemed more about food and getting together with chefs who have unbelievable talent. It seemed more credible and interesting.

Q: Had you been a fan of the “Iron Chef” shows before all of this?

A: My favorite is the Japanese “Iron Chef” show. I watched it all the time in the 1990’s. Those chefs were amazing. You really saw their pedigree. And you saw things you’ve never seen before. You saw Ron Siegel (now executive chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco) win. Plus, it was funny.

But no, I had not watched “The Next Iron Chef” before. I just got cable two days ago!

Chef Dominique Crenn gets last minute instructions from commentator Alton Brown. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Q: I know you have a very competitive spirit. Did you also compete in sports when you were younger?

A: I used to play soccer. I used to kick some ass! (laughs) It’s a man’s world again — the soccer world. I used to play soccer with men a lot.

I also did judo for many years. I was a runner; I did the 200-meter. I’m very competitive, but really with myself. I love to win. But it’s more than winning. It’s pushing the envelope. It’s not about failing or succeeding; it’s about trying your best.

Q: On the premiere episode, it looks like Chef Appleman is acting a bit condescending toward you. What’s up with that?

A: People have mentioned that to me. He’s a great chef. I was at the same station as him. When you are together at a station, it’s about sharing, and you care for each other in terms of space. Maybe it was his way of competing with me. But I have nothing to say about it. I was just focusing on what I had to do.

Some people on the show were calm and respectful, and didn’t put anyone else down. Maybe some others thought, ‘I’m the shit! I’m going to win.’ It’s OK to think that, but that’s not where I’m coming from. There’s a lot of ego in this industry. You just have to rise above it.

Q: The hardest or most surprising thing about doing the show?

A: As a chef in a restaurant, when you create dishes, it sometimes takes weeks. You have to get the right balance, the spices have to work, the vegetables have to go together. In competition, when you are thrown something you have never cooked with, you have to be very quick on your feet. But that’s what this show is all about.

Q: So without giving too much away, you had to cook with a rather unusual ethnic ingredient in the first episode. Did that throw you for a loop?

A: It’s a terrible ingredient. I felt like I was the only one stuck with something frozen and dehydrated. It was like a sponge. I had never cooked with it before, and I had never eaten it before. But I knew about it. I have friends who grew up eating it, and they all don’t like it. No wonder! It takes so long to cook, and it’s very rubbery.

Q: So will we be seeing this ingredient spotlighted on your menu at Luce anytime soon?

A: Never!

Q: Do you want to do more TV in the future?

A: You will see me again, but not on a show where it’s a competition. I am working on some ideas. I would like the show I do to be more about education, but fun. It would teach people about buying locally and sustainably.

Q: I know you’re having an invitation-only viewing party at Luce on Oct. 4, when the show premieres. Uh, should we read anything into the timing, since you’re having the party so early on in the show?

A: No. We’re doing it then just because it’s the premiere.

Q: Are you satisfied with how you did on the show?

A: Oui. I had a lot of fun. I’m happy with it.

More: Read my profile of Chef Dominique Crenn that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.


More: Read my “Take Five Q&A” with Chef Ron Siegel, the first American chef to defeat an “Iron Chef” in the original Japanese show.

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