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How Dominique Crenn Is Changing the Fine-Dining Conversation

The SF chef reflects on the unique service structure of Petit Crenn, her new cookbook, and Michelin.

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Patricia Chang

San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn gets shit done. Just over two years ago, she told Eater that she was looking for a publisher for a book about Atelier Crenn. Today Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste is officially on sale and the chef describes the feeling of being finished as "unreal." In that same 2013 interview, Crenn also spoke of wanting to open a second restaurant, but was still looking for a space that had "soul." This August, she opened the doors to Petit Crenn, her more relaxed restaurant in San Francisco's Hayes Valley's that's been getting attention for its fixed menu, airy space, and lack of servers.

Missing from her plans: Worrying about whether Atelier Crenn will achieve that third Michelin star.

She's got a lot more in the pipeline, too. Crenn's keeping some of these plans close to the vest for now ("There are things I can't tell you," she says. "It's not official so I can't tell you that, but I wish I could"), but she makes it clear that she wants to shift some of her attention towards making an impact more broadly on the way we think about food and the environment. "My dad used to tell me it doesn't matter how much money you have; what matters is that you come home at night and know that you do things for others that matter. I'm getting there." To that end, she's working with Andrew Zimmern on the Delicacies' Chef Table charitable efforts and thinking about how she can create a company dedicated to improving baby food. "I do have a platform," she's realized. "I'm not the Dalai Lama, but I think it's very important." Missing from her plans: worrying about whether Atelier Crenn will achieve that third Michelin star. Below, Crenn speaks more about her new cookbook, the opening of Petit Crenn, and why she doesn't fret about Michelin:

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I have a chance to dialogue with people. They don't have to like it, but at least I want people to listen. You can argue with it, but I want people to have a more open mind and just to see what we're doing... It's not a recipe book, it's a place where people can think, read, and do whatever they want to do with it. It's an inspiration. You read every dish that we do, but there is a narrative behind it, and there is also a thought. I want people to start to think. I always say that: You've got to think before cooking.

Did working on the book change the way you think about Atelier Crenn?
Definitely. I'm not saying all the way, but it really made me think harder about things.
There is a dish in the book, the foie gras. Obviously, growing up in France, I had foie gras probably when I was two years old. Writing about it and understanding what's going on in the world about it, I think I became more conscious and more thoughtful about things, for sure.

How has the opening of Petit Crenn impacted Atelier Crenn?
It could be the reverse, but there's a lot of people that have been coming to Atelier Crenn now saying, "We went to Petit Crenn and we wanted to come to your place." It's been great for Atelier Crenn. People get a better understanding and it's like, "You know what? This is a part of her. Petit Crenn is a part of her and we want to discover maybe the other side," which is lovely.

"I always say that: You've got to think before cooking."

How did opening Petit Crenn compare with opening Atelier Crenn?
I think Atelier Crenn was a little bit more complex and difficult. It was 2011 also, which was not a good year to open. Petit Crenn was just meant to be. I used to live across the street from Bar Jules [the restaurant that formerly occupied the Atelier space]. I used to come and eat all the time and I felt home. I remember the first time I went there, I said, "I feel like I'm back in France in some small café, sitting at the counter and just looking at people cooking." It felt home and like a house.

Then, when Jessica [Boncutter, chef-owner of Bar Jules] allowed me to get the place, it was a no-brainer. We just had to clean up the place and make the vision that I had. It took about a month to redo everything. Opening was pretty easy. I'm so connected to that restaurant and the people that are working with me are so connected, too, and it's also very focused. There is a narrative. I think that helps. When you have a narrative, it's much more easy to do it and achieve it. It's a pretty easy ride.

I think people think about me as being just fine dining. I like simplicity. I love that part of it. [Petit Crenn] just shows you also a different part of who I am... Petit Crenn was really to bring people back to a house. You walk into Petit Crenn and you have the fire, you have the smell, it's tiny, and yet it's bright. But it is the sense of: These people just want to hang out, drink rosé and champagne, order food, and you talk to the cook. It's just a cool vibe.

Petit Crenn

Photo: Patricia Chang

Can you tell me about how you came to your service framework, where the cooks serve and you don't have tips?
I don't want to upset anyone, but I always thought that for those types of restaurants, the cook makes the food. They make the food and I think that it was very important for them to be connected to the customer. Having a server, I didn't feel that was the right thing. I like my waiters at Atelier Crenn, but I think it's going to be changing the way I think about the connection of the kitchen and the guests. Obviously René [Redzepi] did it in Noma and some others.

The decision for Petit Crenn was also, it's like your house and there's a lot of pride about the people that work with me at Petit Crenn. My chef, Aaron Thayer, is making the food and he wants to serve the food to the guest. I think it's very important. The guests react very well also this way. It's like, "My God, the chef comes to me." The narrative is so strong when you do this. It's a lot of fun, to be honest, and for me that was the right thing to do.

Did any of the cooks give you any pushback or was anybody uncomfortable with the idea that they would be serving?
No. At first, I think they were a little bit scared. In general, cooks like to be in the kitchen and they don't really interact with others. The thing is, at Petit Crenn you come in, and it's just an open kitchen. It's right there in your face, so they're going to have to interact.

I saw your Instagram post with the girl and the Michelin stars. Were you surprised by this year's Michelin results?
I was not surprised about David [Kinch of Manresa], for sure. I think he deserves it. It's interesting: They are reaching out to more diverse restaurants and food. This is definitely what San Francisco is about. San Francisco is a place of diversity, and different types of food, from Korean to Indian to Thai to Chinese. I think it's nice that Michelin recognized those restaurants.

Like I say, Michelin is Michelin. It's nice people are recognized, but at the end of the day, the star doesn't define you, it's what you do with it, and it's what you do in life in general. I think it helps you with the business, but it doesn't help you as a person.

Honestly, I saw a lot of comments,  and I got a lot of email. I'm really thankful, people have been so sweet, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. If it's not this year, maybe it's next year [for the third star]. It can either happen, or it doesn't happen. I'm not really focused on that. For us, the team['s goal] is to push and to be better every day. I'm not perfect, either. I can make mistakes, and that's okay. I'm not looking for perfection. I'm looking for evolution.

We're coming up to the end of the year. Do you have any goals or plans for 2016?
2015 was a very reflective year for me. I'm still going to be in the business, Atelier Crenn is still my baby, and I'm still going to try to do great work. I also want to get involved in more about what's going on in the world and [with] kids.

Obviously, the weather is changing. I just want to be conscious and be a part of what matters and what can help to change the way we do things and the way we eat. Just to make this place a better world. I'm not the Pope, but I think it's important to have that conversation. I'm still finding myself and really trying to do the right thing.

Do you see yourself writing another book?
Yes. I do. I think it will be about food, but I think it will be a little bit more political than this one. Definitely. I want to. You know what? I always wanted to do a book for kids. You asked me about what I am planning. Actually, I'm working on baby food and food for kids. Right now I'm just working on an idea about how to create a company to do that.

Petit Crenn

609 Hayes Street, , CA 94102 (415) 864-1744 Visit Website

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore Street, , CA 94123 (415) 440-0460 Visit Website

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