It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and the only lights that shine in Atelier Crenn are in the kitchen. The prep staff of four have been working since 6 a.m. to start the day’s menu. Pots are bubbling with steam, a food processor is whirling, and vegetables are being carefully peeled. The magic of Atelier Crenn is well underway.
Chef Dominique Crenn will show up about 20 minutes later and will do a quick run through the kitchen to say good morning before bowing out to grab a cup of coffee with one of the savory chefs. And who can blame her? 2017 has been the year of Crenn: This year the chef set forth plans to open a wine bar next door, secured a publishing deal for a new memoir, went to Haiti to plant trees, and began developing plans to fight food waste. “You should see my schedule,” she jokes. “I don’t actually know when I’m sleeping.”
Fortunately, her team is at the ready for service. A few hours since Crenn’s arrival, the kitchen is only starting to grind while the dining room wakes up. Jonny Black, the newly appointed executive chef, arrives fresh from the morning’s markets, and pastry chef and business partner Juan Contreras begins his day’s work in his kitchen. Matt Montrose, the wine director, arrives at noon ready for a day of work — ordering wine, overseeing deliveries, organizing the cellar — to ensure a night of smooth service. And operations manager Jasmine Chan reports to the office that sits in the nucleus of the back of house, where she’ll check in with the reservationist and then tend to emails, chef’s schedule, travel arrangements, and interview requests. Without her front and back of house team, none of Crenn’s recent success would be possible — a fact the chef acknowledges.
“My father always said, ‘You can be high up in your company or whatever you do in life, but always remember the people that you're working with, because they're gonna take to the place you want go,’” Crenn says. “Always invest in people, as much as they’re going to invest in you too.”
It’s why she is so devoted to her team’s growth and well-being, both in and outside the workplace. In addition to a higher-than-average pay scale for all employees, benefits, and consistent hours, Crenn encourages every member of the team, from dishwashers to sommeliers, to contribute creatively to the space. Take Chan, who revels in arranging the flowers in the restaurant as well as hand-stitching the menus presented to guests each night. Or Montrose, who threw himself into his passion to create a rare cellar pairing new to Atelier Crenn. “Chef definitely wants everyone who comes to be a part of Atelier to have aspirations to really push themselves. That's something that's evident in every individual that comes through these doors,” he says.
Even though the hustle is clearly on — prepping and cooking an 18-course menu for 44 upcoming guests that night — the kitchen is still murmuring in a dull whisper while Crenn moves effortlessly through the space. It’s no accident how we’ve stumbled upon the world’s quietest, possibly happiest, restaurant kitchen. “When I used to work with different chefs — that yelling, that pushing, the beating — it was not what I wanted to do if I [became] in charge of a restaurant,” Crenn says. “We are strict here, but we treat people the way we want to be treated,” she says.
As Crenn’s business grows, her team grows with her. Contreras joined her team more than 11 years ago, when they worked at Luce at the Intercontinental Hotel, and he became her business partner to open Atelier Crenn. He was a savory chef who wanted to learn about desserts, so Crenn sent him to Europe to stage in some restaurants. He now shows off his pastry skills for nine of the 18 courses on the menu, currently focusing on his culture and Mayan history. “We're still doing what we're doing and loving it,” says Contreras. “If there isn't that passion, that love, and that kind of devotion and conviction, then it really doesn't mean anything at the end of the day.”
“Juan is the perfect example of letting someone grow,” says Crenn, who calls him her “other half.” “Not just for me but for the company. It's almost like you invested a little bit, and then suddenly years later it's paying off. It's paying off for him too. I think when an individual is allowed to grow and you invest in them … they realize that their growth is so valuable for themselves also as a human, as a person.”
It’s 3:30 p.m. and time for family meal. Employees have already begun to gather in the courtyard, as they do every day, just before the afternoon swells into dinner service. Crenn’s rotating roster of chefs meticulously plan the family meal menu each week; dishes are based on what’s fresh at the market, or new, experimental techniques they want to test. Today, sous chefs Osiel Gastelum and Michelle Hilson team up to cook lamb barbacoa style, which the team is happily folding into tacos. The table is full of laughter and a quick “Happy Birthday” song rally for a teammate. To Crenn, this is the most important part of the day: “This is a family here, so you have to take care of your family, right? You have to feed them, you have to feed their soul, you have to celebrate them, you have to thank them.”
Crenn is already planning the fall menu, which she calls “The DNA.” Its dishes will explore the roots of her adoption, as well as showcase the unique perspectives of each of her staff members. Everyone has contributed. “Atelier Crenn ... was a homage to my dad,” she says. “And it was a space that I wanted to create to bring people together. So now, almost seven years [later], everyone that has worked with me has become a part of Atelier Crenn’s DNA.”
“Every one of them is such a big part of who we are, even from the dishwasher to the glass cleaner. We'd not be here today without them. Period.”