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Dominique Crenn on Vulnerability and Personal Cooking

In part two of our interview (part one here), chef Dominique Crenn further explains her approach to and emphasis on personal cooking, discusses her ambivalence about the rush to review a new restaurant, and bemoans the lack of female executive chefs in the U.S. and abroad.

What do you mean when you say you want to start an "intellectual dialogue" at the restaurant?
Going back to the question of fine dining for a second: when people use certain terms or words sometimes to categorize things, it can be weird and not totally accurate. I'm not trying to be anything other than myself. I appreciate any type of restaurant or cooking, and the main goal is to just be ourselves.

What I wanted to say is that I think before I cook. I'm not just cooking. We need to go back to that. When I think, I think about my experiences and my surroundings and the people that are working with me — people that I want to include in this process. You're thinking about a dish, you're thinking about an ingredient, and in many ways, you end up becoming a naked chef in front of the customer, because what you put on the plate is you. It's who you are and where you've been.

And even though the goal is to be very personal, it's also about connecting with people through this. Yesterday I served a crab dish on my tasting menu to a woman, and she said to me, "You took me back to my childhood." I was floored and thankful and asked her to explain more. We started to talk. Even if my experience is different than someone else's, if they can connect with something and start to talk about something, then that is amazing.

In many ways, we chefs and cooks do much of the same thing, but there can be one ingredient, one variation, that shows our story and who we are, and when you go to the table, it starts a conversation that's not just about food. It's not just about feeding yourself physically. It's about feeding your brain and your soul and being part of something that can be emotional.

How much of France remains in your cooking, would you say?
It's a mixture of a lot of things. I think it's mostly France and my experiences with Brittany and my parents and the farmers.

But I can't not mention again Jeremiah Tower and what he taught me about the process of making food. For a twenty-year-old cook to not be treated like a nobody, to not be just a commis peeling potatoes, is incredible. He taught me to respect everyone, no matter how old or how experienced; I don't want to be surrounded by worshipping robots in my kitchen. This lesson also started with my dad, who had nothing to do with cooking. He had a pretty high level in the government, but he told me that I always needed to welcome people around me and needed to guide those that need it.

I'm not a saint — I'm not saying that — but I was lucky enough to work with people who believed in me, and I want to honor that until the day I die. I'm still learning and still evolving, though.

You mentioned before that it was basically impossible to become a chef in France when you were a girl. How do you see things in the United States?
I'm not crazy about watching TV anymore, but even from watching the cooking contests on there, you see that it's still very male-oriented. I'm not seeing a lot of female chefs on those shows, or even in the magazines. You look at most of these "best chef" lists, and there are about nine male chefs and one woman chef. The problem is still around.

Unfortunately, there's also not a lot of women still who want to be executive chefs. They go to pastry or something else.

Why do you think that is?
I don't know. Maybe they don't like the pressure of it or working in a male-dominated kitchen where there is so much ego. I don't welcome ego or attitude in my kitchen, but maybe for some of them, it's not worth it. Maybe they want to have kids and a family, but I really don't know.

I was talking to Elizabeth Falkner, and she is exhausted. Traci des Jardins has done very well for herself, but there aren't many female chefs in America. Even in France, you just have four big female chefs, like Helene Darroze. And then Sant Pau in Spain. It's interesting. It remains a challenge.

You talk about making your cooking as personal and transparent as possible, which suggests a certain vulnerability. What happens, then, when someone doesn't give you the nicest of reviews?
Absolutely. But it's also about understanding and knowing yourself. You're putting yourself out there, you're going to be naked, you're going to be telling a story, and yes, there are going to be people that look at your or think you're a freak. It's about understanding that you are not here to please everyone.

You can write good and bad things about me, but I ask any writer to be respectful and objective.

Have most critics been respectful and objective so far in reviewing Atelier Crenn, in your opinion?
[laughs] I mean, I think they have been pretty respectful. Sometimes I'm not crazy about the writing of certain writers and I think they should be working in another industry. I'm not going to name any names, but that their prerogative and agenda, and I respect that.

We didn't open a restaurant for critics. If every chef thinks they open a restaurant to get a three-star or a four-star review, then they are in the wrong business. We open a restaurant to bring something to the public. The culinary arts is one of the oldest jobs in the world, so it's like we are artists and we want to show who we are and we are going to make some mistakes in the process. It's not always going to be polished. It's part of the process.

I love feedback. Give me feedback and an argument that I can do something with, and that's crucial to the process. I appreciate both good and bad feedback — as long as it doesn't seem to come from a place of meanness. But trash me, my staff, my restaurant? Then it's not worth it. There's no battle, since you don't even want to respond.

And it seems like the rush to review goes against your idea that a restaurant is a process, something that slowly evolves.
If you want to come as a critic one or two months after a restaurant has opened, I don't think that's cool. It takes a long time to build a team and develop a concept, so you need to give them a break. When I was talking to the critic I mentioned before, Albert Coquil, in Brittany, about how he reviews restaurants, he said, "I come after six months. And if I don't like it, I might not write about it and I'll come back in a month or so." But we live in such a fast-paced world now, so it has changed.

But at the same time, I'm grateful for the fact that we got so much attention and support from the very beginning. It's just about finding a certain balance in all of this that I don't think is there yet.

Are you happy?
Yes, extremely. We're about one year in. I was a baby before and I think I'm sort of becoming an adolescent. I'm excited for what is to come.

· Dominique Crenn on France, Fine Dining, and Chef Life [-E-]
· All Dominique Crenn Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All San Francisco Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore St San Francisco, CA 94123

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