2016 American Chef of the Year: Dominique Crenn

From her growing empire in San Francisco, Crenn takes her familial influences and makes them local

Chef Dominique Crenn takes an artistic approach at her San Francisco restaurants.

To define Dominique Crenn as a chef is to only see her for the work she does. Mind you, she does excellent work, but it just so happens that she stepped into a kitchen. Speaking with her makes you realize she would have made her mark on whichever industry she chose. There’s a thoughtful positivity that shines through when she describes her dishes and her restaurants, and she constantly searches for connections with other people, using her restaurants and her growing notoriety as her platform.

The past year has been a busy year for the chef. Crenn was named the “World’s Best Female Chef,” opened her second restaurant, Petit Crenn, and laid the groundwork for her third, a soon-to-open wine bar.

Although awards aren’t her driving force, her creative approach to cooking and entertaining has been recognized for years. In 2008, Esquire named her the “Best Chef in America.” In 2012, a year after opening, Atelier Crenn earned two Michelin stars, marking the first time a female chef in the United States had earned the distinction. She’d previously garnered one star during her tenure at Luce in San Francisco.

Crenn was born in Brittany, France, and originally came to Los Angeles to pursue marketing but fell in with a crowd of French-speaking chefs. She was soon cooking under Jeremiah Tower at his iconic San Francisco restaurant Stars.

Her non-traditional path to the kitchen is apparent in her approach to cooking and entertaining.  There’s thoughtfulness and detail behind every dish she presents to guests at Atelier Crenn. “You eat food because you need to live, it puts vitamins and nutrition in your body, but there is something else too,” Crenn enthuses. “Food can tell you so much about a country, can tell you so much about a history, can tell you so much about the interaction with people, and if we care about this, I think the world could be a better world.”

After a dish is created, Crenn will craft a poetic line for the menu (a task she’d never outsource). The line is meant to evoke a memory or a sense in the dish, and because the entire 20-course meal never changes at the same time, it also has to be cohesive with the preceding and following lines.

Cooking, for Crenn, is about getting to know people: her staff, her guests, and other chefs. She often introduces herself to diners, challenges her staff to craft dishes that present an argument, and looks forward to “getting to know [another chef] through their food.” To provide hospitality to another is an honor she doesn’t take lightly. The women in her life, her mother and grandmothers, had an inherent hospitality that Crenn recognizes with her second restaurant, Petit Crenn.

This philosophy extends outside her restaurants as well. She’s often asked to cook at pop-ups in kitchens from Austria to Minneapolis, and she’s selective in her acceptance of these offers. Time is always a controlling factor, so it’s important to choose partnerships that align with her outlook. “I think it’s important in my community, in my industry, to be able to share and be able to give and to be able to go places and work with each other, because it also allows us to see the world differently,” she says. “We are in our kitchen 12 or 14 hours a day, and sometimes we don’t get out of our kitchen, and then we lose contact with the world.”

But, of course, it’s not always about work. On her (infrequent) days off, she takes the opportunity to get out and see what else is happening in San Francisco. She says, “It’s beautiful to go to someone else’s restaurant and to be able to sit down and get to know them through their food.”

We spoke to Crenn about how she got to where she is now and where she plans to go next. Her answers were, unsurprisingly, thoughtful and inspiring.

The Daily Meal: You've been in San Francisco a while now (with a few detours). What first brought you to the Bay City?

Dominique Crenn: As a little girl, obviously being French, I used to be totally enamored by America in general and Los Angeles and those TV shows. One of my favorite TV shows was Starsky and Hutch. I wanted to be one of them.

I felt that, in general, California was perhaps a place where I could do the things I wanted to do. I’m not sure if I knew at the time what I wanted to do, but I felt free the first time that I came to Los Angeles a long time ago. And then I was not too sure about the city, but then I fell in love with San Francisco, and I knew at that moment that it was definitely the place where I was going to settle. The son of the friend of my dad was a chef here, so I started to hang out in his restaurant. I was hanging out with just French people — this is not what I wanted to do, but this is where I started. I discovered the city and its surroundings on my own, and I fell in love with it.

I know the feeling. I grew up in Wisconsin, and the first time I came to New York, it felt like visiting home for the first time.

Yes, it’s an interesting word to say “feels like home.” Often we think that where we grew up, and where we spent most of our childhood, is home, but no. Home is a feeling of comfort and freedom and excitement. Of course, you remember where you come from, but when you have that feeling in you, you just know there’s something you need to do where you are, because it’s kind of rare to find this and I was so excited. I knew I was going to be able to conquer the world and not be afraid.

What defines your cooking style?

I don’t know if there is a style. I think there is an emotion behind it. I use ingredients as a brush for me. It’s like painting, and whatever comes out of the ingredients is the color of the painting. I think that’s the way that I think about cooking. I grew up in a very traditional French family, so the food was very traditional and very French, and so I do have that differently in my DNA, but it’s almost when I cook I just don’t want to follow the rules of others. It’s like a painter. It’s from the gut, from the emotion, from the heart, from what I’m looking at and what it’s doing to me, yes, for sure.

That’s very different than how I’ve heard other chefs speak about how they cook.

It doesn’t mean it’s better. There’s an authenticity that is mine, and I just didn’t want to get into a place where I needed to follow the recipe in the cookbook. … When I was here in San Francisco, even in France, at one point every restaurant had the same dishes on the menu. They were all the same. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s delicious, but you want to say something. It’s a way of me to have a narrative and to voice what I feel.

What is the atmosphere like in your kitchens? What’s the emotion of the kitchen?

There is no yelling. Obviously, there is a lot of seriousness, but there is a lot of laughter. I’m a little bit silly. I think people don’t know that about me. I love the interaction with others. I love to get their brain and be challenged and challenge them. Yes, a lot of cooperation, but also, at the end of the day, there is a lot of seriousness and integrity that has to be in my kitchen.

How do you challenge them? Do you let them write a line of the poem for the menu?

I will not go that far. I challenge them in a way that you have to ask people questions. When a cook comes to me with an idea, I want them to give an argument. You can’t say something or do something without demonstrating what’s behind it, and I want them to argue. I want them to give me the basis of that way of thinking. I want them to understand that you have to think before you cook. It’s not because you see something on TV or something in a book, or you saw a dish of a chef doing something like that, that you want to do the same thing. You’ve got to think before cooking. Everything has to have a meaning. Even if it looks simple on the plate, it has to have a meaning.

It’s also allowing them to enable their creativity. It could be also a little more cerebral. Often the way people look at people in a kitchen, they think we’re just workers. We’re not. We’re very much intellectual, and that’s something I want to make sure the world knows.

Much is written about your poetic menu at Atelier Crenn. Who writes your menu? How often is it rewritten?

The menu doesn’t have to change all at once, but a line could change. I’m quite gifted when I write poetry because I can insert another line that could make perfect sense with the poem that I previously wrote. … It’s hard to change 20 courses the same day, especially in the wintertime, which doesn’t really allow us to get a lot of diversity of product. Basically, it’s the same thing over and over again, so we try to be creative in other ways.

So it could be a line, or it could be five lines; it could be five dishes that could be changed. But 20 dishes at once, no, I don’t do that, but it’s not even really smart to do that. First of all, you put a lot of pressure on your kitchen. Second of all, I believe that you need to go through mistakes before you put something in front of a guest, and so it takes time.

Do you write your menus in French or English first?

I used to do in French, but now it’s all English. My brain started to switch a few years ago, and I started to dream in English. It’s very interesting. It’s kind of scary, though. So I’ve been reading a lot of French books and watching a lot of French movies because I don’t want to lose that. I’m surrounded with English-speaking every day, and I think about English and I dream in English. It’s so weird.

On Chef's Table, Atelier Crenn was described as your father's restaurant and Petit Crenn is influenced by your mother's cooking style. First, do you agree? And then, what restaurant would represent your cooking and hospitality?

Atelier Crenn is an homage to my dad — who he was as a man, what he taught me, and what he helped me to go through life. So it’s kind of this place where people think. There is a lot of respect, there is a lot of integrity, there is a lot of humility, and it’s also a hub where people want to think and discover and learn. That’s what my dad was about, and to create a space like this — that was very important to me. It happened to be a restaurant, and that’s the space.

It’s not the food per se, but Petit Crenn is an homage to the women in my life. What they brought to the table, of course, was the food of Brittany, but the space, the area of Brittany, is a family area. There’s so much history over there, and food was at the center of everything, and you could tell stories and you can learn so much, and that’s also what Petit Crenn is about. It’s about bringing people together and telling them stories, and, obviously, focusing on what I grew up with, the food of Brittany, which is absolutely delicious and not very popular in the United States. I can’t find any restaurant that’s doing food from Brittany in the United States. They would say I’m a French bistro, but it’s very specific.

It’s very interesting that you have honored both of your parents with different restaurants. This year, there's the forthcoming neighboring wine bar. Why is now the time to open a wine bar?

I’m drawing inspiration from France. It’s really an homage to where I grew up and also the incredible winemakers that are every day making wine with such integrity and understanding of also the planet and Earth and pushing it every day to do something better, not just to make a beverage that people can drink. There is also a lot of meaning behind it. Bar Crenn is also going to be biodynamic and natural wine. It’s fortified wine and a much more high-end wine list, and it’s going to be a space where people can come and can really hang out. It’s not going to look like a wine bar. It’s going to look like a yummy eating room. You’re not going to see any bottles of wine anywhere. I’m putting a fireplace there, it’s going to be yummy and very French, and there’s some modern to it. It’s going to be really cool and no more than 25 people at a time. So it’s another space where I want people to come and hang out. Somewhere to, I don’t know, to get a wine that they don’t know or buy a glass of wine that is $50. The food — it’s tiny, kind of tapas, French, very traditional, but also dishes where people will need to order the dishes probably 72 hours before.

We want this to be intimate, but also the way that I give luxury to people. It’s not $3 million restaurant décor. Luxury comes from my heart, and if it comes with great food and great wine, then that’s my luxury to them. It’s going to be luxurious inside, but it’s not about spending a lot of money. It’s about creating a space that makes you feel really, really good inside.

There’s also luxury and the art in the structure and plating of your dishes. Is that in all your restaurants or is that just in Atelier Crenn? The menu isn't the only art, of course. There's a cultural element to your platings. How do you develop a dish's presentation?

Petit Crenn also is quite beautiful the way we plate. Atelier Crenn, once again, is really different. There are a lot of nature nuances to it, so I try to connect everything together. For example, right now we have the forest on the dessert menu. All the dishes and vessels were designed to connect the dish, and what the dish is about, and connect back to the earth, so there is a lot of thinking behind it. We can do that because we have a lot of time to do that. Petit Crenn is different because it’s more simple and focused on beautiful plates, but yes, everything is connected. It’s a different experience

Are there any other projects up your sleeve? Aside from the wine bar, is there anything else we can expect from you in 2017?

A book. It’s going to be me; it’s going to be a novel. Kind of like my life, and then maybe a little bit of fiction.

It’s going to be beautiful, and it could be also political at times, but I think it’s going to be nice. I’ve been thinking about it, and we signed a contract, so I’m excited about this. My favorite book is Le Petit Prince [by Antoine] de Saint-Exupery, and it’s going to reflect on my life and before I came to this world, and between, and what was happening during that time, and looking at things, and reflect on things at the time, so it’s going to be a lot of reflection and perhaps a little bit of fiction.

I’m not here to open 10,000 restaurants. It doesn’t interest me.

I’m also launching a campaign for Haiti. It’s called The Root Project. It’s to help basically to plant trees. Why Haiti? Because this is definitely a country that needs a lot of help, and if we can start the project there, we can add the same project everywhere there is disaster. There are a lot of people who are going to be behind it and are going to sign on with me, which I’m very excited about. It’s also a chance to give back to the community, to understand that we are not just at one place at the time, that we need to also be aware about others and the forgotten, and that the planet is going also through some difficult times, and the people that live through those disasters are suffering extremely. So, if we can try to find solutions to try to help, and build back some type of economy, and give them a sense of confidence, I think that’s important to me.

Have these awards and recognition changed your outlook on cooking?

When you get an award, you have to be thankful and humble about it, but it’s also what you do with it that is very important. It’s given me a platform to have a voice and I feel very fortunate with that, that it allows me to be able to go places and people are listening. For the last year or so I’ve done Ted Talk; I’ve been to the Ted Conference, which has nothing to do with food. People want to hear what I have to say — sometimes has nothing to do with food — and that’s amazing.

The thing with success is how you define success. I feel that I’ve been very successful all these years, even if I wasn’t very much into the public eye the way I am today, but now it allows me to expand myself, and to meet interesting people, and to be able also to learn and to push and to continue what I’m here for. I don’t think I’m here to be a great chef. I’m here to be a great human being and try to do things through my craftsmanship, and to do something as a human and to care about it. I think that’s what I’m here for.

We all have to find our gift to figure out how we can be good citizens of the world, whether it’s photography, or being a chef, or writing, or keeping the roads paved. We all have our own way of being great people to the world.

When I was wishing everybody happy new year, I say that 2017 will be the year of humanity. That’s going to come with struggle, that’s going to come with push back and forth, but that’s so important. We live in a world where it needs to be one world, not just our world and forget about the others. I think it’s so important. And this discussion about globalization — guess what? We need the globalization to be able to come together, because when you have diversity, it helps you to think better. I want to talk to people who are not like me. It’s good diversity. You want their voice.

Obviously, gender comes up often, from being the first female chef to earn two Michelin stars to being named the “World's Best Female Chef.” What role do you think it plays in earning recognitions? How do you think it has influenced your cooking?

I don’t know if it influenced my cooking. Obviously, I get the prize, but the people that allow me to get the prize are definitely my team, because they’ve been behind me all the way. We are very confidant always in the kitchen, but I think it allows us to, “OK, I think we’re doing something right.” It’s been a little bit different. Maybe people look at you differently also. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, because I remember in 2008 I got the Best Chef in America in Esquire magazine, and I was like, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it didn’t really hit me. But one of the journalists was making not really nice remarks, and he kind of trashed me in a way. We were at the party; I didn’t really pay attention. That same journalist not a long time ago starting to knock back on my door and wanted to do something, and I was very clear. I said, “I really appreciate that you want to write about me, but I’m going to tell you something. I’m still the same person that I was in 2008. What is different with me that people obviously have listened and are interested in what I’m doing doesn’t mean that I’m not the same person, and now, because it’s trendy and I’m right there and people know me, you want to do an article about me. Guess what. You’re not going to get anything from me.”

We have to be very careful, you know. I really appreciate what’s going on now, and I think … even me, I need to keep my head on my shoulders, and people who get on that level need to — the same thing if you are an actor and suddenly you get big. We have to remember that we’re still who we are and have humility. I’m very thankful, so what I do, I don’t go out there and I’m not an asshole, I’m sorry to use that word. I’m not a bitch. I’m not arrogant. I’m not that. But I don’t want some journalist to be arrogant with me, because that would piss me off. It’s nice, I’ve been able to meet a lot of great people since Chef’s Table and the two Michelin stars and “Best Chef of the World,” it’s been really nice and I’m so thankful. It opened more doors, definitely, so now it’s for me to grab it, and what is my focus right now. It’s probably the same things your friend that made a film, perhaps he or she, “I’ve done something super-successful and people are looking at it,” and now he or she is getting more people are interested, and that’s great. I feel very lucky, and I want everybody that works with me to feel that also, that they made it too, not just Dominique Crenn. My team made it. They are on the top of the world, but we are there, we are still humble about it.

 

Is there any specific recognition that you're striving for? Is there a next step or is it just trying to perfect who you are and your dishes?

No. I want to be remembered. I want my legacy to be very much about the person that I was, and what I gave to my community and to the world. Also the struggle and the mistakes that I’ve made. Not just be remembered as a great chef, and not just to be remembered as the first woman that will get three Michelin stars! Oh my god, that was funny! Which you know is going to probably happen one of these days! Fifteen minutes of fame, we come and go. What’s important is to continue what we’re doing, and sometimes it’s better to be silent than to be vocal about too many things. Just do things. That’s what I want to do: I just want to do things.

 

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