In Conversation with Dominique Crenn: I Don't Need to Be the Best

On food, inclusivity and why there’s no meaning to being the best


In Conversation with Dominique Crenn: I Don't Need to Be the Best
Dining September 25th, 2018

Menus are boring, according to Dominique Crenn. A chef with the heart of an artist, she creates menus that read like poetry, something she refers to as “poetic culinaria”.

At her San Francisco flagship Atelier Crenn — a sleek venue with a hint of Japanese sensibility — the lines on the menu flow with rhythm and rhyme. Reading it doesn’t quite tell you what to expect, but it is better to be surprised.

Dominique’s flagship restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Photo by Atelier Crenn

The restaurant’s signature first bite is a reimagined Kir Breton, a classic French aperitif. Described as “winter has come with its cool breeze” on the menu, the corresponding item is a sphere of frozen white chocolate, topped with a kiss of candy cassis. Pop it into your mouth, and it gives way to a shot of apple cider fizz.

Dominique Crenn’s signature first bite, the Kir Breton in the form of a frozen white chocolate sphere piped with cassis jam. Photo by Atelier Crenn

Each dish tells a story. The Kir Breton represents the memory of times when her mother entertained guests at home, a time of comfort, of uplifting dinners and celebration. “Cooking for me is a kind of empty canvas that allows me to pick up on the nuances of emotion,” she says. “It gets into my head, and it just happens.”

Dominique Crenn at Odette earlier this month to cook with Julien RoyerPhoto by Vernon Wong

Adopted at 18 months by a French couple in Versailles, Crenn developed a keen interest in food from a very young age. She credits her mother — a financial adviser and a great home cook — for introducing her to the culinary arts. To her politician father, she attributes her discerning palate. He would let her tag along — even as a young girl — on fine dining escapades with his best friend, a restaurant critic of Le Télégramme.  

Though she had always dreamed of becoming a photographer as a kid, she studied business and politics in university. It wasn’t long before the kitchen beckoned.

“Food is energy, and if there’s a beauty of integrity in what you serve, people will connect with you.”

Dominique Crenn

Her career began the moment she moved to San Francisco in 1988, when she talked her way into a job at the now-defunct Stars. There, she studied under Jeremiah Tower, America’s first modern celebrity chef who also started without formal cooking experience. Things took off from there. In 1997, she made history by becoming the InterContinental Hotel’s first female executive chef in Jakarta.

In 2011, she opened Atelier Crenn — named after her father’s painting studio, Atelier Papa Crenn. By 2012, it earned two stars, making her the first female chef at an American restaurant to be bestowed the honour. She was also named World’s Best Female Chef in 2016.

But these awards and accolades mean little to Crenn. She doesn’t believe in being the best. To her, there is no such thing. Stars? World’s Best rankings? She is above all of that. 

Dominique Crenn and her lucky hat. Photo by Vernon Wong

Your food has been described as highly inventive, a combination of traditional French and modernism.

Ah, I don’t think I like the sound of “modernism”. I’m just someone who lives in San Francisco, cooking the food that I want to cook. I want to express myself and my emotions and the way I look at the world through different flavours. I don’t think about whether it’s modern or not. Neither do I like trends nor do I want to be defined to one type of cuisine. It’s my own language and my own narrative. It’s Dominique Crenn cuisine.

How do you evoke taste memories through food?

You might be serving them something that they’ve never eaten before, and they might not know anything about you. However, there is this presence of something that come from within (gesturing to the heart). Food is energy, and if there’s a beauty of integrity in what you serve, people will always connect with you, even if they don’t know who you are.

How would you compare your food to the fine dining cuisine you experienced as a child?

It’s different. I loved the fine dining and the theatre of it, but I like to go to restaurants where I can find the chef through the food and discover the core of the person. I want to find emotions. These are chefs who are not afraid of being different, and I love that — even if I might not like what I am being served. To be successful (as a person) is to be able to open up to others and allow yourself to be vulnerable. That’s what my dad taught me.

Dominique Crenn with Jonathan Black, who has been Atelier Crenn’s executive chef for over a year now. Photo by Vernon Wong

You had no formal culinary training when you started. Why did you think you could become a chef?

I’m not a chef. I’m just writing memories with food. Food is a language to me. It’s a form, an art form for me to play with.

“I’m not a chef. I’m just writing memories with food.”

What drew you to work for Jeremiah Tower?

Because he was different. Jeremiah Tower was leading his kitchen differently from a typical French chef. He’d let his cooks create the menu. There were guidance and rules, but never a recipe. It was freeform expression, and it enabled you to be responsible for your own station.

It created this need and want to do something exceptional for yourself and the chef. This was so fascinating to me. It was so far removed from what I understood about the French kitchen, where you were just a robot. With Jeremiah, everybody was responsible (for their own actions) and everybody was connected. If somebody was behind, everyone was behind. It was never about putting somebody down, but lifting everyone together.

What did he teach you?

To not be afraid of putting yourself out there, especially if it’s something you believe is good.

With a total of three concepts in tow — Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn — she has plans to open Boutique Crenn in San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower in 2019. It will feature a restaurant, patisserie, cafe and retail space that sells sustainable clothes and artwork. Photo by Vernon Wong

What does it feel like to be one of the leading women in what’s still a male-dominated field?

I am aware of what’s going on, and so for me, this is a platform. I can be the voice of people who don’t have a voice, and hopefully, I can facilitate that conversation that we need to have with each other. But sometimes I think: it’s 2018, why are we still talking about this?

As a society, we need a lot of change, but we don’t have to be aggressive about it. We don’t have to all agree, but when it comes to humanity, we have to come together. Being a feminist doesn’t mean to be against the other gender. We need that inclusivity, so I’m going to fight for what is right.

Dominique Crenn is a zero-tolerance policy for violence or discrimination. Piss her off and you’re out. Photo by Vernon Wong

You were previously awarded World’s Best “Female” Chef, an award people find discomforting and patronising.

Yeah, it is. If you want to celebrate women, there are plenty of other ways to do so. You talk about them, you write about them, and you educate people. You don’t go, “okay, let’s give you an award.” I’m like, no, that’s stupid. And I said that on the Washington Post. A pilot’s a pilot, a singer’s a singer, and a chef’s a chef. Yes, physically, we’re not the same, but all of these? The ears, heart and brain? We are the same!

This year, you were also awarded Best Chef in the West by the James Beard Foundation. How have the many awards impacted your outlook on food and life?

It doesn’t define me. It’s an opportunity for chefs to be more vocal and it gives us a platform to be out there, to continue what we do. This way, we can offer to inspire more people.

“If you want to celebrate women, there are plenty of other ways to do so. You don’t go, “okay, let’s give you an award”. No, that’s stupid.”

So there’s no pressure on you.

I don’t work with that kind of pressure. I don’t work with the pressure of trying to stay the best. Not interested. There is no best restaurant, but just a bunch of great people who work together, doing amazing things. No one is better than the other. I dislike all the number ones, twos and threes. It’s like cooking has become a sport, but food is not a competition. Food is the core of society. It brings humanity together, and humanity is the ultimate community.

Dominique Crenn believes in paying her staff a living wage. “As leaders in the industry, we have to make sure that we give our staff the opportunity to have a good life.” Photo by Vernon Wong

What is it like to work in your kitchen?

Everyone who comes to work with us know that it’s a safe place to be. They know that this is a place where they can learn and be themselves. They know there are rules, but they know that they will also be treated as a human and not a number. They can be creative and have a voice, which is important, you know? I have zero tolerance for violence or discrimination. If there’s a hint of this in any of my restaurants, I’m on top of it. Believe me, I have fired people for that. I don’t care how good you are. It’s not your aptitude but your attitude that’s going to define your altitude.

What, to you, is the most valuable attribute of any great chef?

Being a great leader. To be conscious and thoughtful about your surroundings because you have a lot of responsibility in this world. Just know that it’s not about your cooking. It’s about making sure that things that you do matter.

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