Diary of a chef: Kay-Lene Tan

Published on 1 May 2019

Photo: 2018 Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship winner Kay-Lene Tan in Slovenia

Melbourne chef Kay-Lene Tan has been living the dream over the last month, travelling the world and working at three of her top restaurants as part of the Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship. A pastry chef at Tonka, Tan was the 2018 recipient of the Scholarship which sends young hospitality professionals around the world to learn from their heroes and further their career. She shares some of her trip notes after completing stages at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Hiša Franko in rural Slovenia.

See yourself travelling the world and learning from your heroes? Apply for the 2019 Hostplus Hospitality Scholarship before 15 May and you could be on your way.

Have you fallen in love with any local dishes or specialties in the places you’ve visited?
The one thing I ate in San Francisco that I’m currently craving is the morning bun from Tartine Bakery. It was one of the most delicious bites of food I’ve ever experienced: simple and so perfectly executed. The local cheese in Slovenia was also delicious! Such complexity of flavour depending on the age.

What’s it been like working at Atelier Crenn and Hiša Franko?
Chef Crenn is an incredible and motivating leader of her team. She stands at the helm of Atelier Crenn, and despite her status in the industry, she remains approachable and down-to-earth. During the staff meetings they have on Saturday with the entire Crenn family, she talks about the achievements of the team, and highlights certain individuals who have contributed something special that week. Her partner, chef Juan [Contreras], is the group pastry chef and I worked very closely with him during my time at Atelier. His pastry kitchen is incredible, and is decked out with nearly every single piece of equipment a pastry chef could dream of. He is talented, but also very humble. His desserts are inspired and unique. It was a pleasure to be a part of his team.


On the millefeuille secton at Atelier Crenn

At Hiša Franko we would start our day at 9 or 10am. We would have a coffee and then jump right into prep. We have staff lunch and dinner usually sitting outside on the patio surrounded by the breathtaking view of the mountains. Usually I made or rolled caramels for service, made pork brûlée and struklji (a Slovenian dumpling), or sorted out herbs that were freshly foraged in the morning. Once dinner service ended, we cleaned down the kitchen, had a group briefing, and did it all again the next day!

What’s different about these kitchens to others you’ve worked in?
The dynamic at Atelier Crenn is definitely very different from Tonka, but similar to the structured hierarchy that Robuchon had when I worked there. Fine dining requires a lot of discipline, and perfection which I think the team has managed to accomplish.

What dishes did you work on?
I helped the team at Crenn prep their desserts for Bar Crenn: canelés and coffee millefeuille. I also learned how to roll štruklji with Hisa Franko’s pastry chef. I loved learning how to traditionally shape this Slovenian dumpling, even though the filling is a modern reinterpretation.

L-R: Juan Contreras, Kay-Lene Tan and Dominique Crenn

What new ingredients did you see or taste?
I loved the foraged herbs and plants that are used at Hiša Franko. There were so many that I have never seen before, and never even realised could be used, like the primrose flower and leaves which are used to garnish the dessert. I also tried my first green almond. It looks like a jelly teardrop! It was beautiful.

Favourite restaurants of the trip?
I visited Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco, which is located near the Tenderloin and Civic Centre district. I had a taste of real American soul food, and it was incredible. Southern fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens, oysters, mac and cheese, and grits.

I also had the pleasure of dining at Hiša Franko. The food was delicious – and surprising. And the wine pairing complimented each dish so perfectly. I love how each dish had a story, and every ingredient had a reason for being on the plate.

Mountains near Hiša Franko

What was the most unusual thing you got to eat?

Chef Juan (Atelier Crenn) was experimenting with a eucalyptus ganache while I was there. It was interesting to see someone in San Francisco use a native Australian plant in his desserts. Apparently, a long time ago, eucalyptus trees were transported to San Francisco from Australia, so now they grow there as well. Chef Juan also got me to try a smoked chocolate from Mexico where the beans are roasted over wood fire.

Follow Kay-Lene's travels on Instagram at @kaylenetan_ and, to be in the running for the 2019 Scholarship, get your application in before 15 May.