When Chef Dominique Crenn scheduled time for the cover photo shoot and to talk with me, I let out a squeal of delight. (I get excited about every conversation with a chef, but you can ask my office pals—a squeal is a step beyond.)
And it just got better from there: The planned 20-minute interview grew to 90 minutes, and Dominique talked at length not only about the inspirations for her restaurants but even more intimately about her passions, her world-view, and the inspirations that have led her to expand beyond serving great food to doing great things for the world. The story takes you into the heart and humility of this poet turned chef.
Reporting is always more real, stories more engaging, when the conversation turns personal. So here’s a personal story from me: As I write this, I’m recovering from a serious allergic reaction that resulted from eating just two bites of a dish that had come into contact with oil used to prepare shellfish.
This was not my first shellfish rodeo. A lobster dish in Arizona about 10 years ago was the first allergy alert. This wasn’t even the second, but it has certainly been the scariest. I say that not because of how sick I became, but because of how adept the restaurant appeared to be at preventing this kind of cross-contamination issue.
It’s a restaurant with a reputation for excellence: A semifinalist for James Beard Best New Restaurant when it opened, the chef has been a semifinalist for the regional James Beard Best Chef award for four years running, and the staff—particularly the waiter serving our table—was totally attentive to the fact that I have a shellfish allergy.
Our party of seven—all professionals working in the hospitality industry—were also aware of my allergy because, with every plate served, the waitstaff pointedly told me if it was shellfish-free. A plate of bacon-wrapped dates was presented with the proclamation that it was free of any shellfish association. Moments later the waiter rushed out, distraught to have to share the mistaken communication: The food had been prepared in the same oil as shellfish.
I remain convinced that this particular restaurant and its staff are as proficient at preventing cross contamination as most. But more must be done. The Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization estimates 15 million Americans have food allergies, and that number will only grow as 1 in 13 children now have food allergies. The most common foods that result in reactions are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
It’s not that we need to take those foods off menus; it’s that we need to take more stringent precautions to address cross contamination. As Dominique asserts, evolving how we think about issues of concern is the future of food.