Chef Dominique Crenn Dares All
The poet turned chef started writing poetry at age 4. Now, Dominique Crenn has perfected modernistic cuisine into an artistic experience at Atelier Crenn, where the price to dine starts at $325 per person. Add wine pairings, and a couple will spend more than $1,000 for the privilege of dining in San Francisco’s Michelin-two-starred restaurant, which as of April 17 replaced its reservation system with a ticketed business model. Last month Atelier Crenn was also named No. 83 on the list of the World’s Best Restaurants—this on the heels of Chef/owner Dominique Crenn having been named the World’s Best Female Chef in 2016. (A recognition that was met with a measure of scorn from the recipient, who reportedly saw it as yet another gender-slam.) While her expertise as a restaurateur continues to shine in her second concept, Petit Crenn, and her third, Bar Crenn, is on the verge of opening, to truly appreciate her success and her mission you have to understand her philosophies, convictions, and the poetry in her heart.
What led you to transition Atelier Crenn from reservations to ticketed seating?
Ticketing is quite an interesting way of looking at things. I don’t open restaurants to open restaurants. Any business that I open, there’s a meaning behind it, and Atelier Crenn has been a platform for me to share with people an experience that they couldn’t have anywhere else. I want to surround them with the wonder of Atelier Crenn— it’s almost like going to a show.
I’m a big fan of art and theater, plays, operas, and things like that, and when I go to see those things I just want to get my mind to a place of wonder. I don’t want to have to think about how much I’m going to pay, so ticketing is natural for me. It is the right thing to do.
The poetry you write in Atelier Crenn menus is one of its compelling characteristics. Is the poetry the inspiration for the food, or the food the inspiration for the poetry?
Well everything is inspiration when you’re looking at the world. Everything I do in life, everything I touch, is something that I embrace, that I cherish, and something that I care about. I started writing poetry very young, when I was 4 years old. And you know, food is language, and when I express myself it is really to understand what the language is, and to try to extract the emotion out of it. Perhaps that is one way to look at things. And then there is nature: As a chef I’m touching earth and using a lot of incredible ingredients that come from nature and you need to celebrate that. And the way that you celebrate things comes sometime into words, and using beautiful words and using emotion is a way to connect with people.
What inspired your restaurants?
Everything is from my experiences. Atelier Crenn pays homage to my dad. He was not a chef; he was a politician—but he taught me about life; he taught me about diversity; he taught me a lot of things about the world and respecting the world, respecting others, and bringing people together. I learned art is very important, education is very important, being curious in life is very important, and being open to discussion with people who don’t agree with you. Sharing and learning, that’s what Atelier Crenn is about.
Petit Crenn is an homage [to] my grandmother and my mother, and it is in homage of women in general, who usually are the cooks in their homes, and the way they cook is to share the love and to bring the family together.
And there is very much a connection with earth and the understanding of how to produce and not to harm the planet. We serve just vegetables and fish, and the wine list is all biodynamic and natural, so we work with the planet to create great things.
Tell us about your vision for Bar Crenn.
Bar Crenn is going to be a space where people come together to have conversation and to drink really good wine and have very good food. It’s going to look like my living room, not like a wine bar. It will be a combination of Atelier and Petit Crenn, so everything is connected together and the end of it, the call of it, is to bring people together.
It doesn’t matter where they come from, doesn’t matter what their beliefs are, doesn’t matter the color of the skin—all that doesn’t matter. We want to bring people together. And we want people to come together to eat, to talk, to share—and to have fun and to look at life in a beautiful way.
That’s a poetic segue into some of the difficult topics we’re facing: What are your opinions on immigration?
We are all immigrants, and everyone needs to know that. My country is France, this is where I come from; my home is San Francisco. I believe in immigration. We need immigration in this country and in the world to find diversity and to understand diversity. We need to be surrounded with others’ ideas, and we need to welcome others.
But I also understand the rules. You can’t expect everywhere in the world to come here and destroy this country; that’s not what we want. We want people to come to America—and operate in the culture—but also bring a part of their culture. That’s what is really cool about America.
How do you feel about San Francisco as a sanctuary city?
The workforce here is very much people from south of America, and that’s what makes California so beautiful—our diversity. We all need to come together, to understand the politics of it, and put structure in, in a way that we can help the people who want to come here. … We are a country that needs to welcome and help people. I come from a country that welcomes so many people from everywhere. I am having difficulty to understand that because you have blond hair and light skin you are superior to others; I don’t understand that concept. It is very scary for me.
I disagree with the countries that treat people very poorly—especially the way they treat woman and children—and I disagree with that, but I’m not going to judge a person from that country. It’s not about the person; it’s about the politics of the country.
Maybe that’s why I’m in the food business. Food is about humanity. Food is about bringing people together. Food is about putting a religion on the side and understanding each other—not judge them. And I hope that every single chef in the world will use food to be a way of embracing diversity and embracing humanity. And if chefs can do that, the world will be a better place.
How do you envision doing this?
I think the best way to do things is to have people come together and open dialogue, and to create a space where people can voice their concerns. When you have a place where people can voice their concern without yelling at one another, then change can happen.
We need to evolve; we need to learn to understand and to listen; we have to listen to each another. We are in 2017 and it’s crazy, right? There is still war in the world. There are still kids that don’t have food on their table.
I just came back from Haiti, where I launched my nonprofit organization. They don’t have sanitary things, or proper ways to go to the bathroom or take a shower. They don’t have water to drink. They live in the middle of trash. This is crazy! Who are we? Are we a world that wants to live in greed and not care about the other?
Please, tell us about your nonprofit.
The organization is called Root Project and it’s a nonprofit to be able to help the farmers to grow coffee and chocolate again. There was a huge earthquake a few years ago, and Haiti was hit very hard, and then Hurricane Matthew happened. It destroyed so many crops, and Haiti [was] one of the best [places] for coffee. … So the idea is to raise money to help them to rebuild the infrastructure, but the first thing is to give them the trees to plant. We want to be able give them a million coffee trees so they can plant them and rebuild. We aren’t here to tell them what to do; we are here to facilitate. Whatever money they are going to make, it is going to come back to them. And that is very important. Going there, I see some of the most beautiful people I have ever met in my life. They have nothing, but they will give you everything.
And the pride that they have in their country is amazing. I met with the people in charge of the village, and all they want is to work. They want to provide for their family. They want education for their children. They want to be able to drink the water. They want to be able to bring the country back to what it needs to be.
Is there an opportunity for others to become involved?
Absolutely. We’re getting a lot of people involved; the key is to create something. Maybe we create menus and 50 cents of the menu can go to a tree, or you can just donate 50 cents. We have so much power as chefs and we can reach so many people. … As chefs we are about the world, and for me, about helping the farmers.
Have you spoken with Chef José Andrés about Haiti and World Central Kitchen?
I know José, and what he’s doing is pretty outstanding. I think next time I see him we can have a pretty long conversation. But not just one chef should do it; a lot of chefs should do it.
We’re getting a lot of people—not just chefs, but also celebrities and designers and music people—all involved in it. And the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), located in Washington, D.C., is a part of the whole project. PADF is this incredible organization that helps rebuild places in the world that are not taken care of—it is just wonderful. They reach hundreds and hundreds of small-scale farmers in the most remote areas. This is where we need to start. I do not want big corporation; I do not like big corporation. I want to go to the base of it—the farmers are the base. If you get them the tools, they can help themselves. They don’t need big corporations to come and take away their crops. … I believe in smaller rather than bigger.
Do you work with farmers in California as well?
Yes. I support small farmers—we have a farm up in Sonoma. And I believe in the true agriculture. I do not support big corporation. I am having a huge problem with Whole Foods [Market], that big corporation is really taking away the integrity of [agriculture] and really messing up the farmers. … So that’s why I say to people, “Go to the farmers’ market, don’t go to a place like Whole Foods—they don’t support the right people. Go to the farmers’ market. Go to that friend of a farmer named Norman. He has a farm up north, and look at his hand. It’s dirty. You know that he works with his hands. He works very hard. Buy from him. Talk to him; listen. Know his story. Help him.” That’s very important.
You need to understand that the farmers know this story better than us. For chefs to tell farmers to grow what we want, that is so narcissistic and so selfish, because that’s not about the farmer, that’s about the chef.
We’re not the rock stars; we’re not the celebrity. The farmer is the rock star. The farmer is taking care of the land. The farmer knows better if the tomato can grow there or if a zucchini can grow there. Who are you to tell the farmer what to do?
We need to change the way we think about food. If [something] is not available, don’t put it on your menu. Don’t ask the farmer to grow asparagus in the winter. Don’t ask the farmer to grow a tomato in the winter when it is not available in the winter. That will be the key to the future of food.
We need to rethink the way we do our menus. We need to be seasonal; we need to understand what is growing at the time; we need to help the farmers. When they say, “This is what is happening in the next month, can you do anything with it?” As the chef, we should be “Of course! We’re going to be working with whatever you give us.” And that’s very important.
If chefs cook seasonally do you think consumers will learn to eat what is in season?
Absolutely. We need to be able to learn about new things and eat diversity of food. We have to balance this planet. Look at the meat industry right now: A long time ago it was balanced. You didn’t eat meat every day; you ate vegetables and fish because that’s the way we need to balance things. Now, we have to have meat all the time, and that’s creating a problem in the world.
Where do we start?
It’s all about education. The food I’m going to cook for my children is going to be diverse. Why? Because diversity in their palate is going to create diversity in their mind.
I was lucky to grow up in a family where my mom was going to a market every Sunday, so she cooked very seasonal and she cooked different food and was open to other flavors. … And I was lucky because my dad taught me about life. My dad, as a politician, was surrounded with very well known people, celebrity, and luxury. I remember I said to him, “Look at those houses, those cars, those people can do anything they want.”
And my dad said to me, “Dom, this is not what life is about. It’s not about how much money you have. It’s how much you give—from the bottom of your soul to others. It’s how much you inspire. Money is not going to get you anything. Those things you see have no value, they make you less than you are.”
And I was only about 9 years old, but I thought, “Really?” Still, it was very interesting, and maybe that’s why I’m driving a little smart car. I don’t care about luxury. What I care about are the luxuries inside of people’s heart, and that’s the best luxury.
If you come to my restaurant, there’s not a $10,000 chandelier on the ceiling. There is nothing luxury—there is no gold. When you walk into my place, you feel good, you feel taken care, you feel comfortable, you feel calm. And for me, that is luxury.
So, tell us about your recent revamp of Atelier Crenn.
Yes, we closed for 10 days to re-clean and make it a little bit nicer. I’d had those tables and chairs for seven years. Someone in Portland [Oregon] built my tables and I had chairs made for me—but it is nothing luxury, just keeping up the place. And I got a new stove to cook. I can tell you I did not spend a million dollars. If you come to Atelier it is a very humble place.
What kind of stove did you get?
I got a Molteni. It’s a beautiful handmade stove, and Molteni is a very old mark. We cook into so much fire I wanted to give my team a beautiful piece they can cook on. It is an investment. I think I will keep this stove for, I don’t know, I hope for 50 years.
It’s like when you go to Italy and you buy handmade shoes, and you know the craftsmanship and the artistry and the love that goes into making them. I want to buy that shoe. Even though it cost a little bit more, I know the money is going to a person that made it with so much pride and so much love, and I know it is going to last me a long time.
Sometime you make an investment, but in the long run it is so amazing to be able to give that back to someone. And that is the way that I think about farmers—an investment for me.
Farmers sell me their potato or their apple, 75 cents a pound more than a big corporation, but I’m going to buy from them. Because I know that the money I am spending is going to go back to them. It is not about quantity; it is about the quality of things—and that is really important, too.
What do you want to pursue next to keep making a difference in the world?
I’m not sure about opening another restaurant. I’m more interested in how we can learn and evolve and share the way that we are doing things—and how we can better the world. You know, everything is connected to the agriculture and, in politics, this is something perhaps they have not really taken care of.
I’m looking at what is going on in France right now, and my parents come from Brittany and that is the farmland, and those people have been forgotten. How can we help them and understand what they are going through without being too political about it?
We need food to survive, but it comes with a big price. I’m just trying to understand: How can we help?
Also what interests me: How can we help people even in America? There are kids who don’t have food on the table. How can we help the schools? And help children to eat properly. This is alarming. And I’m not sure that the new secretary of education can tackle that, and that is scary too. The children are the future, if you don’t take of the children, if you don’t feed them properly, if you don’t educate them properly, you’re not going to be great in this world.