South African chef Kirsten Shaw has been offered the culinary job of a lifetime – working as executive sous chef for all of Chef Dominique Crenn’s four US restaurants, including the three-Michelin starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.

Chef Kirsten has worked around the world, including in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, and has recently been working in Paris while holding a series of pop-up restaurants. She spent the last year working on a trainee visa at Atelier Crenn, and was due to leave when her visa expired. However, Chef Dominique invited her to come back as an Executive Sous Chef for all three (soon to be four) restaurants under her name. “The opportunity for growth in this position is unprecedented for me, as I will be working as a mercenary chef, coming in to replace, work with or head any of the kitchens in need of assistance,” she says. “Dominique Crenn is a real inspiration. Professionally she drives and motivates her team, she is undoubtably talented, and a real artist. She visualises what she would like, and brings the right people and components together to create a magical dish.”

Chef Kirsten first discovered her love for cooking when, after attending university in England, she moved to Vietnam to pursue a teaching job. “I truly discovered the magic of flavour associations and feeling almost out of breath after a meal. It was transcendent. From there, I realised I could make other people feel as good as I did, and a new creative world, with infinite possibilities opened up to me. From there, I spend all my weekends (and money) in Vietnamese and Thai cooking classes until I realised it was time to take it to the next level, and invest in a culinary education at the age of 25.”

She returned to South Africa to study at 1000 Hills Chef School in KZN, where her Hot Kitchen Lecturer Jade was a true motivation – “a force of nature, compassionate and committed to each student.” After studying, her first job was in France: “I started my career in a 2 Michelin Star restaurant in the Loire Valley in France. The Hotel and restaurant were gorgeous, the chef a self-taught culinary master in French technique, but an absolute tyrant in the kitchen. It was a true eye opener to what a traditional French kitchen really was. I must have cried every Sunday for 18 months without fail. I learnt the hard way. They like to break you down, rid you of your childish aspirations, and build you into a machine. I hated it but I stuck it out, I knew I had to do the time. It was really when plates hit the pass, that I realised how fortunate I was to work in such a stellar environment.”

“From there, I needed a breather and a mentor. I was hired by Eric Guerin, a Michelin star awarded chef I wanted to work with him, not because of his Michelin status, but because he was a spokesperson for condoning violence in the kitchen. He spoke out against famous chefs who had reputations for physical and emotional abuse. I looked to him for personal inspiration, I knew I never wanted to be one of those chefs who ruled with an iron fist, yet I had been shown no other way.”

“The restaurant – Le Jardin des Plumes (the Garden of Feathers) was hidden away in Giverny, in Normandy, home to Monet and Renoir, impressionist painters who sought inspiration through natural sources. We looked to do the same. Our plates were Eric’s canvases, and we wove a deep interpretation of the local area. After two years, I headed for Paris, working at a funky up and coming bistro, as their grill chef. The ‘Grill’ at this point was an understatement, it was a three-meter-long open fire pit, with French rotisserie and smoker. We sent out over 200 covers a day, grilling anything from arm length long John Dory’s to perfectly manicured pigeons. It was the most physically demanding chef job I have had to date.”

“After four years of high-pressure French restaurants, I escaped and took to the seas on a large sailboat, enjoying the carefree environment, the fresh air, fishing and cooking enormous tuna and Mahi Mahi off the back of the boat, swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a calm day, exploring Caribbean produce and the island way of cooking.”

Chef Kirsten believes that minimising food transformation and waste are food trends we shouldn’t ignore. “We are becoming more aware of our environmental foot print, and as part of a consumer industry, it is our responsibility to lead in the right direction.”

And her advice for young, ambitious chefs who’ve just started in the industry? “Stay humble. Be open and kind. Chef school is obviously a vital part of your education, but go into each new kitchen with an open mind, like a clean slate, and be prepared to soak up very small detail you see, whether it’s a hand gesture that saves time, or the way the fridge is organised. Every chef appreciates a keen eye, even if it’s not always verbalised.”

 

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