Even on speaker phone, Dominique Crenn's positivity is infectious and comes off as completely sincere. The San Francisco chef, who earned Michelin stars at Luce and was named Esquire's 2008 Chef of the Year, has for the last twelve months been toiling away at Atelier Crenn, her first proper restaurant. As its name suggests, the restaurant is designed to be a workshop, but most of all, it's a place to showcase Crenn's decidedly personal cooking.
Here, in part one of our interview, Crenn talks about how she fell in love with cooking — eating tasting menus as a child, spending time on farms in Brittany, learning from Jeremiah Tower, and cooking in Indonesia — and what her goals are at Atelier Crenn.
One of the things that's particularly interesting about your story is that you were eating very well from a very young age. Can you talk about that and its impact on you?
My dad [Alain Crenn] was a politician, but also a gourmand. And his best friend was Albert Coquil, the food critic of Le Télégramme, which was a pretty big newspaper in Brittany. Albert was very connected with a lot of chefs in France. I was very lucky, because they often took me to Michelin-starred restaurants or gastronomic restaurants. I think I was eight or nine when I had my first long-form tasting menu. We used to go to places like Taillevent, in Paris, as well.
Do you remember where you had that first tasting menu?
It was at Jean-Pierre Crouzil, in Brittany. I was kind of blown away. It was a menu based on a lot of seafood, obviously, because of the area.
It's funny: not too many people used to think that Brittany was a culinary treasure, but there's such amazing stuff. Beef and pork, of course, but the seafood! The food there is kind of wonderful.
What did you like most about the experience with the long menu?
What I loved about the tasting menu was all the dessert [laughs]. I loved the whole dance of the experience, where everything is quiet and you pay attention to the people around you and what everyone is doing. It's kind of like a theater. We live a fast-paced world, and it's nice to step back and experience that. It doesn't always have to be fine dining, of course, since so many food experiences can do that to you. I do think that fine dining is coming back, in some ways.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a chef?
Well, my mom was also a great chef. My family, they come from farmers. I used to spend my summers on the farm instead of in the south of France. I loved the hard work and the earth. We all cooked from the market and the farm. So, when I was about eight, I told my mother that I wanted to be a chef — and a police man, too. I didn't totally know that was it at the time, but I was very attracted to it from the beginning. I liked the idea of working with people in a kitchen, of dealing with ingredients, all of it.
So how did you go about pursuing it?
The culinary world is very male-oriented in France, and even more so back when I wanted to become a chef. Most of the people that go to cooking school in France start when they are fifteen, but I wanted to get a bachelor's degree in economics before, so I did that.
When I then tried to get into the culinary world, I was told that basically this was a man's world and that I should consider being a waiter or a manager or something like that.
I was a little bit upset, you know. I felt that France was not the place for me to study that. So I went on to study international business, and after that, I started to read about Jeremiah Tower and the way he was treating ingredients. So that's how I started out in San Francisco. It was quite amazing.
You go to Stars every day as a cook and meet with the sous chef at 3 o'clock. They give you a menu and a station. There's no recipe, just some guidelines. So, there's maybe some calamari and some other components, and they tell you to go and do the dish. Then, at 4:30, they'd come around and test it. If it didn't work out, you'd get thirty minutes to fix it. It's difficult and filled with pressure, but at the same time, you realize that that gives you the ability to be creative, understand the ingredients, and truly know the steps that go into making something work.
That was pretty cool, considering that the French kitchens can make people be silent — feel like a nobody — doing exactly what the chefs says and getting beat up on every five seconds. It was kind of a different way of doing things. One day there, I wrote in my journal, "One day I'm going to be a chef a long time from now. And when that happens, I want to treat people in my kitchen with respect and understand that no matter what experience someone has, they always can bring something to teh table."
You also cooked in Indonesia, right?
Yeah, I cooked in Indonesia. I got the chef job at YOYO Bistro and started to hang out with Jean-Pierre Dubray and Roland Passot and Hubert Keller, all those French people. A friend of one of them was reopening a big hotel there with an $80 million restaurant with California French food. What they wanted to was make a restaurant where all the kitchen staff were women, since the country is so male-oriented and hardly no women work in kitchens. It was a good angle, they thought.
At the beginning I thought, "Why do I want to go to Indonesia?" But I started reading about the situation and understanding it, and thought that maybe I could do some good or bring people together, since I myself had gone through struggles trying to be a female chef.
How was that?
So I went and opened the restaurant. It's a really interesting country, but there were some problems with the products in that they didn't have the right methods all the time. You'd go get the chickens out of the delivery truck at 4 AM and realize that it was 80 degrees in there with no refrigeration. It was very challenging to make the best that you could, but it was a humbling experience, one of the best of my life. Unfortunately, the civil war happened and it was heartbreaking for me to leave.
Would you have stayed?
I was in love with it, so yes, I would have stayed.
Now let's fast-forward to Atelier Crenn. What would you say you're trying to do there? I'm specifically interested in whether you'd call it "fine dining," since you said before that you kind of feel it's making a comeback.
"Fine dining" is a big term. This is a very personal project for me. I wanted people to be able to sit for a few hours and have an experience and really enjoy themselves. Most of all, I wanted to start a dialogue with people about food, the world, and who we are as people. I wanted to connect them with my experiences not only with food but maybe with the people that I've met and the places that I've traveled to. I didn't want to do a fine dining with white tablecloths. I wanted something livelier. I wanted people to come, have fun, come into the kitchen, and feel comfortable. It's not fine dining, but maybe dining at its finest. But yes, it is a tasting menu and a place where you need to be ready to have an experience.
In the second portion of the interview, Crenn talks more about Atelier Crenn and what she means by "an intellectual dialogue," the lack of female executive chefs in the U.S., and how she deals with criticism.