“Memory is very important,” says chef Dominique Crenn at the beginning of her Chef’s Table episode. “It’s a vehicle to get to know who you are inside.”
Originally from Brittany, France, Crenn owns several restaurants in San Francisco including Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn, and Bar Crenn. She is perhaps best known for her work at Atelier Crenn where the restaurant earned two Michelin stars in 2012 — the first time a restaurant run by a women chef had earned that ranking in the U.S. (it still holds that rating today).
Much of her cooking draws inspiration from French cuisine while also showcasing the best Bay Area ingredients available — especially seafood. The tasting menu at Atelier Crenn is written like poetry, and dishes are delivered as interpretations of lines from the poem. At Petit Crenn, the atmosphere is more casual and the menu is more focused on traditional food from Brittany.
What was Crenn’s journey through the culinary world like?
Crenn was adopted by her parents at 18 months old. Her father was a representative for Brittany, France as well as an artist. The family would often take trips into nature and to the beach. She describes herself as a “tomboy” growing up, and recalls defending her older brother in a fight.
In the early 1990s, Crenn moved to San Francisco. The chef says she felt immediately at home living so near to the water and driving along the coastline that reminded her of Brittany. While she wasn’t a traditionally trained chef, Crenn had a strong desire to work in a restaurant, and sought out chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars. After leaving that famous kitchen, Crenn moved to Indonesia and Los Angeles before returning back to San Francisco, working in restaurants and hotels along the way.
“I just didn’t like the culture of those hotels,” she recalls. “I struggled with guests that were not open about things. Thousand Island dressing, ranch dressing... what? That made me cringe.” This experience encouraged Crenn to open her own restaurant, starting with Atelier Crenn. The restaurant’s name is a tribute to her father, who died from cancer in 1999.
What is her “aha” moment?
When Crenn was nine years old, her dad took her to a Michelin-starred restaurant that changed her whole perspective on cooking. “I was fascinated by the way people were moving and the way they were talking to each other,” she says. “The elegance of it. The detail of it. And I loved it and I told my mom I want to be a chef.”
What are some memorable quotes from Crenn?
On her food philosophy: “I’m not serving a menu, I’m serving a story. I’m serving my soul. I’m serving a conversation, and I want you to talk back to me. I want you to dialogue with me. I’m triggering something inside of you, the memories inside of you. And if I do this, I know that I’m doing the right thing.”
On feeling a connection with diners: “I’m fascinated with people that I don’t know. I want to get a window into their life. You know, strangers adopted me, and then they gave me a different life that perhaps I [wouldn’t] have had if I wasn’t [adopted]. I think that’s something that I crave... that moment where you connect. That’s such an important moment.”
On the moment when she decided to strike out on her own: “I was lost. And I looked at my life, and I said, ‘I’m unhappy. I need to do something that matters.’ Did I want to open a restaurant just to open a restaurant, or did I want to open a space where I could create something? And then I realized I have nothing to lose.”
On the name of her flagship restaurant: “Atelier means workshop: a place where you create, a place where you make your brain think, a place where you put things together, and a place where you gather people to create with you. My dad used to have a place where he used to do all his painting; the name was Atelier Papa Crenn. So, it’s a pretty natural way of thinking about the name.”
On the vibe at her restaurants: “It’s not just my restaurant; it’s my house, and if you want to come to my house, allow me to talk to you.”