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Dominique Crenn on Expansion, Critics, and Female Chefs

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[Photo: Patricia Chang]

Chef Dominique Crenn of San Francisco's Atelier Crenn is known for an innovative and intensely personal style of cooking. She's also known for being the first woman in the U.S. to have a two Michelin-star restaurant and for taking home Eater's Chef of the Year award last year. Eater caught up with the French-born chef earlier this month when she was in New York City for the annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. In the following interview, Crenn talks about the possibility of opening a second restaurant and how the space "needs to have a soul." Along with potentially opening a second restaurant, Crenn discusses her plans to publish a cookbook telling the story of Atelier Crenn.

Crenn also touches on the sometimes frustrating gender dynamics of fine dining and food festivals, including Cook It Raw, whose participants she refers to as "the pack." She suggests media attention on talented women would help the gender balance of awards and festivals, but she thinks event organizers need to be concerned with how to be more inclusive. Crenn also discusses why she thinks critics should be anonymous, explaining how the pressure of serving critics can impact chefs and their teams. Here's the interview:

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that you were considering opening a second restaurant, perhaps in the SoMa neighborhood. What circumstances would make you feel ready to expand?

The right location. The right feeling. I think for us it's not just someone to throw us money and say "Can you open that and we give you that much money." I think we'd say no. The location, the area, if there is a story behind that area and how we can connect what we want to introduce to the public with that area.

So what are some of things you're looking for when you're looking at a potential space?
I think a space that will speak to our concept, but also a space that has history. A space with a story behind it. I looked at a space in the Mission the other day that used to print newspapers. It needs to have soul. And I think that comes from, well, coming from France, there are old buildings. There is a story. It has to speak to us and we want to also honor what the legacy of what that place is. And that's tricky in San Francisco because there are old places but not a lot of places ? You have to find them.

Aside from the issues of space, are there other reasons you've turned down offers to expand?
I think it's the space. I think sometimes when you go to a space you might like it, but the landlord is expecting something different from you. Our concept is very specific to us, so we need to have the freedom of doing it. If a landlord comes to you and says "You need to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week" then someone else takes control of it and it's not interesting to us.

What would you most want to achieve with a second restaurant?
Great food, great cocktails. A continuation of what Atelier Crenn is as a philosophy in a more fun setting. I want it to be a place where I want to be there every night, and hang out ? San Francisco needs to become a city where you have late night offerings. There's not that many choices right now.

You told Eater almost two years ago about your experiences cooking with Jeremiah Tower. You said working with Tower you made a decision that when you were running your own kitchen you would "treat people with respect." You also spoke about this in your TEDx talk. To what extent do you think that the stereotype of the angry, Gordon Ramsay-style chef is still accurate in today's kitchens?

Oh it is. There are definitely a few, still. I mean, it's changing. You don't need to yell at [cooks] every five minutes, slam them against the wall. You can have discipline and say "You guys are here and you're going to do your job." They are human ? They're going to be a part of your creative process. If you don't have that, then you're going to be stagnant. And you get bitter people around you, and then they leave. And they will act the same way when they are chefs. I don't know, it's not healthy.

But I think it's changing. It's funny, our kitchen is open, you can see the kitchen. And we're packed every night and the feedback we get from customers: "It's so quiet." ?. The cooks make the restaurant.

What are some of the differences you see in your kitchen because of this atmosphere of respect?
I think there's a different attitude ... It's not just about cooking, it's also about "I can go to Chris [Bleidorn, the chef de cuisine] or Chef Crenn and ask about something else." It's a family ? I mean [Chris and I] don't get drunk with them ? you need to keep some boundaries. It's like in a family, you can be close with your kids but you need a boundary.

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Atelier Crenn, San Francisco. [Photo: Atelier Crenn]

Some have criticized young cooks interested in molecular gastronomy of not mastering the basics of cooking. Have you found this to be true?
Not really. I think what we have at Atelier Crenn, which I think is good, is that the basics are very traditional. I think cooks that are just interested in molecular gastronomy are cooks that will never be chefs. Because as a cook you need to be interested in a lot of things and you need to know the basics. You can argue that nowadays there are so many incredible restaurants in the world, so you come out of culinary school and then you can stage one month here, one month, one month. They kind of lose what they need to do at first, and then they go all over the place and figure out "Oh, this is what I want to do!" but maybe that's why chefs are complaining. They come into your restaurant, they've traveled all over the world and seen interesting things, and say "this is what I want to do," then they get into your restaurant and say "Oh no, this is too classic for me."

But I think it's balancing out. And at the end of the day what is molecular gastronomy? Everything is molecular. What we say to cooks is that what's important when they come out of school is to go around, see what's going on and then try to reflect on what they like and what they don't. If there's a style they really like, learn the basics and then go with that style. And work for a chef that really inspires you. I think school needs to be a little more ? it should show more diversity because the cooking world is so diverse ? there's different styles and philosophies ? Don't be cocky when you come out of school. Cockiness is not a good thing.

Bloomberg critic Ryan Sutton called you an "outlier in the male-dominant world of fine dining." Do you see the gender landscape in fine dining changing?
I think so. The media needs to be in line with that, too. Because when you look at the media, they always go for the male. Any award, anything they'll be like "Aw, there's no women." Well maybe look a little closer. There are a lot of talented women. Also people need to allow for women to do something that is less "rustic" and more innovative. They need to go there. So the media is very important ... I can't do it on my own. I can't do 10,000 TED talks.

You recently participated in the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. What kind of festivals do you find worthwhile, and which kind of food events turn you off?
Festivals we like usually have a charity component to it, so we're giving back to the community a little bit. I think that's important. It's not about you getting more known, it's about you giving your time to someone or an association that's worth it. We try not to do too many.

Some of these festivals seem very male oriented, very male dominated and seem to promote that view of the culinary world. Food events like MAD in Copenhagen, Gelinaz!, and Cook It Raw seem not to have many female chefs participating each year. What do you think is going on there?
I'm kind of thinking the same thing. Once again it's also the media. And the organizers need to think about putting theirs heads together and saying "Hey, let's do something really cool and involve everyone, not just the men."

Cook It Raw is like all male. It's the pack. They're a pack. And it's okay. But they need to change that. Or maybe they just want it to be guys saying: "Yeah, let's go out and cook in the forest." They're all great chefs but I think you're right. The same thing with Food & Wine, when they give out awards every year and I'm not seeing many women getting Best New Chef. I think it's like, let's be a part of a different movement ? I'm tired about this talk about women and men. Let's stop the talk and do something about it.

On a different note, then. After New York Times critic Pete Well's controversial Daniel review, there has been a lot of discussion about critic anonymity and special treatment. What is your attitude toward serving critics?
Nowadays it's like you open, and a month later they're right there at your door since they want what's going on. I think nobody should know when a critic walks in. Some critics are known and it can make you nervous and make you mess up. To put that pressure on a restaurant and on the chefs, I don't think it's fair. Does that makes sense?

Definitely. In a city like San Francisco, is it possible for the major critics to be anonymous?
[Laughs] We didn't know who [Ryan Sutton] was. He had emailed me before about vegetables, and then I got really busy and I think I was in Hawaii, and was like "Hey I'm sorry I think I dropped the ball. If you still have questions about vegetables I'm happy to answer." And he was like, "By the way I was at your restaurant at dinner and I'm writing a review and will send you questions." And I was like, "Oh wow." But that's good. When you see a great review like this, and you know you did a great job without the pressure of knowing who he was. I just want critics, if this is their job, to embrace the definition of what a critic is: fairness, openness. There was no special treatment for [Sutton], it was really like everyone else. It's the same thing when Michelin comes, we don't know if they've been in or not. And you know whatever feelings people have about Michelin, you know what? We're not kissing their ass, they're there as just another customer. They gave us feedback the way a critic should give us the feedback. That's what's so interesting to us.

And there's another thing with bloggers. They come to your restaurant and they tell you they're bloggers and that they want something special from you ... But if you come to our house, be respectful. If you walk into our house and have an attitude when you walk in the door and you look at the chef and say "You know who I am" we lose interest and don't want to cook for them. It's not cool.

What should a restaurant do when a critic comes in? Is it wrong to send out your best dishes and team?
I think it's about being authentic and not pretending. When you start to pretend, it puts pressure on you. If Michael Bauer walks into the restaurant, I'm not going to pretend he's not there. I'm going to say hi to him like I say hi to everyone. We just go, we have the tickets, and we send out the food he orders. Whoever has that section will serve him. Otherwise, you put pressure on the team. Like yeah, I hope he has a good time. We want to treat him like other customers. We don't want to favor anyone.

Is there anything else you're working on? Any other news?
We're in the process of writing a book, we're shopping around for publishing companies, mostly in New York. The publishing world is a very interesting world. We're looking for somebody interested in the book, sure, but we're also looking for somebody to have a dialogue with. We want someone to give feedback and to collaborate. It's pretty tricky right now, there are so many books. We don't want to do just do a book of recipes. It's about Atelier Crenn, who we are, storytelling, and texture, and feeling, and emotion. There's a lot of great companies out there, but some are very commercial ? It should be about collaboration.

We're doing a kitchen renovation also. It's going to start in January. We'll have to close the restaurant for about two or three weeks.

What's going to change?
The flow of the kitchen. The traffic. When I bought the restaurant in 2010 it was 18 year-old restaurant with a nine or 11 year-old kitchen. We didn't touch a lot of the things. Now it's time to be more efficient. Just time to change. I think it's important.

Are you changing the front of the house at all?
Not right now, the front of the house is about two years old. Maybe in another year. We're redoing the banquettes. Some small, cosmetic work. But I think that's it.

· All Dominique Crenn Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94123

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