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Dominique Crenn Proves Fine Dining Does Not Have to Be a Meaty Domain

The Bay Area chef’s latest move suggests that fish and produce can be the centrepiece of fine dining

Chef Dominique Crenn wearing a scarf and glasses sitting in front of a cream-colored wall looking into the distance. Patricia Chang/Eater SF

Renowned chef Dominique Crenn has announced that all restaurants under her group’s umbrella are now meat-free — and it seems like she’s issuing a worthy challenge for other top-calibre chefs to consider the environmental impact of their restaurants.

A statement from the Crenn Dining Group notes that as of October 1, none of its restaurants serve meat, and that the upcoming Boutique Crenn will also follow suit. Strictly speaking, Crenn’s restaurants aren’t going vegetarian, since seafood remains on the menus.

It’s not actually a huge operational change for Crenn and company’s ultra-reputable set of San Francisco establishments — Petit Crenn has always been meat-free, and Atelier Crenn ditched it two years ago, so it was really only Bar Crenn that had to make tangible changes (which it did quietly about a month ago).

Crenn is unambiguous about the rationale for it — she made the move as an environmental statement.

“It’s ridiculous for me to expect others to do as I say, not as I do,” the statement reads.

“Meat is insanely complicated — both within the food system and the environment as a whole — and, honestly, it felt easier to just remove it from the menus all together. Local and sustainable fish and vegetables are just as, if not more, versatile — and delicious.”

Cynics will undoubtedly find a way to dismiss Crenn’s move, and skeptics have a choice of threads to pick at here. Yes, Crenn hasn’t gone fully vegetarian, and seafood still has a moderate carbon footprint (albeit generally lower than meat), but it’s not like Crenn has pivoted to the seafood restaurant game and stacked her menus with fish. (At Bar Crenn, the new meat-free menu counts five seafood items.) Plus, Crenn’s pivot to greens is certainly not going to make a big dent in global carbon emissions, just on account of its scale.

But these kinds of criticisms are a frivolous sideshow — it’s not like Crenn has convinced Exxon-Mobil to shut down oil production, but anybody who thinks that this renders her move impotent is severely missing the point.

Rather, it’s the symbolism of Crenn’s change that matters here. Fine dining is a meaty domain, and foods that have some connotation of luxury attached to them are typically animal products. Sure, truffles are vegetarian, but among other rich people foods like foie gras, kobe beef, and Iberico ham, they’re the exception. (Besides, truffles are used in tiny quantities — while a few slivers of truffles might suffice, there aren’t many menus out there offering shavings of wagyu beef.)

It’s perhaps for this reason that so few vegan or vegetarian restaurants have been able to break into the fine dining realm. There are a few, like Philadelphia’s Vedge, but with the no-meat aspect invoked right upfront in the name, these outliers feel like they’re vegan first, and fine dining second. Ditto for D.C. restaurant Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, which highlights its “organic, vegan menu” right off the bat. The idea that meat has a horrendously hefty carbon footprint as likely helped make the general non-vegetarian public more interested in such restaurants, but it’s a tall order to translate that cultural trend into a true high-end, Michelin-calibre restaurant. In short, it’s hard to make kale wield the same clout as filet mignon.

This is where Crenn’s change comes in. It’s imperfect — caviar, oysters, and fine cheeses all remain on the menu. But with meat as the centrepiece of so many fine dining establishments, particularly in the realm of French cuisine, Crenn could be seen issuing a dare to the likes of Thomas Keller and David Kinch. The “meat-free” announcement doesn’t name names or implore other restaurants to follow in her footsteps, but it’s hard to dismiss an undertone of “if I can do it, so can you”.

Crenn may not be a Monsanto-esque monolith with access to the levers of industrial-scale food production, but she undoubtedly wields substantial soft power within the restaurant world, and with this move, she’s using that for good. Yes, the vegetables she’s using might rack up some food miles (although these only account for a fraction of food-related emissions), but regardless of how humanely and carefully it’s produced, meat is the biggest contributor to climate change in the food world. Any kind of encouragement to counter that — no matter how gentle — is worthy.

Petit Crenn

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

Bar Crenn

3131 Fillmore Street, , CA 94123 (415) 440-0460 Visit Website

Atelier Crenn

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