Dominique Crenn, chef owner, Atelier Crenn

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Dominique Crenn is the three Michelin-starred chef owner of Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn in San Francisco.

She was born in Paris and grew up in Brittany with her adoptive parents. Her mother, a cook, and her father, a politician,  helped kindle her interest in food from a very young age.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in international business, Dominique Crenn moved to San Francisco in the late 1980s and applied for a job at Stars, Jeremiah Tower’s then critically-acclaimed restaurant.

Fast forward twenty years and Crenn had worked at the Manhattan Country Club, Adobe Restaurant and Lounge and the Intercontinental Hotel, earning two Michelin stars for her work at Luce.

The chef launched her flagship restaurant, Atelier Crenn, in 2011, receiving two Michelin stars in 2014 followed by a third in 2018.

She was the first to be given the Best Female Chef Award when it was launched by the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2017 and is also a judge for the Basque Culinary World Prize, which rewards efforts to transform society with food. 

Your most recent venture is Bar Crenn. Both of your other restaurants were odes to your parents, what does Bar Crenn mean to you? 

I wanted Bar Crenn to be one of the greatest wine bars in the world. barcrenn 74

The 1920s and 1930s are one of my favourite periods in the history of France, between the first world war and the Great Depression in 1936. 

During that time, especially in Paris,  great artists, philosophers and writers came together in bars, hanging out for hours and talking. 

A lot of great ideas came from that. We don't live in the greatest world right now politically and it's nice to have a space where you can think, where you can have fun, where you can have great food, great wine and great conversations.

You had this amazing effervescence of culture. I believe that in times of struggle, when you're left with nothing, I think this is when creativity happens

So that was the idea.

You've been involved with the Basque Culinary World Prize for the past few years; to what extent do you believe that food is more than just food, and extends to different fields like art and politics?

For me food is a language. Food is very political. It's an industry where you're dealing with a lot of things, like food security, policy. You're touching and feeling the world with something that you're cooking. You need to understand the consequences of everything that you're doing. It's not just about opening a restaurant. Food is the product of society. 

Image: Bar Crenn, Dominique's recently launched wine bar in San Francisco

Food has been used to oppress and suppress people, but it's also been used to do positive things. 

A cook should always think before cooking. What I love about the Basque Culinary Centre is that you get this idea that no, it's not just about learning how to cut or cook a fish or a vegetable. You are a thinker, you are a very important part of the future of this world. 

Climate change is a very big deal for me and I really want people to think about it.

I want to find someone that thinks so much further than that and has a vision about today is the time where we need to really do something for the future of our children and the future of the world, and I want to find that person. 

petitcrenn 47Do you feel that as a figurehead in the industry you have a duty to transmit that sense of responsibility to chefs? 

Absolutely. Cooking is a platform and it's a gift that's been given to me. I have to make sure that I'm learning, evolving, being curious and doing something important in this world.

To be honest with you, I want everyone in the culinary industry to think a little bit and it not just be about being greedy. And yeah, of course your restaurant has to make money,  yeah we have to support people but you have to think about the consequences. 

So yes, I feel it's my responsibility. Every day I'm trying to learn, everyday I'm trying to teach and inspire my team to do better, to think in other ways, to make sure that we're doing the right thing. 

Image: Petit Crenn, Dominique's Bistro Breton in San Francisco's Hayes Valley

You were meant to be involved in the judging for this year's Restaurant Awards, but you pulled out, why was that? 

I was asked to be a judge and so last year I went to Paris and met with a lot of people that were there. I truly love Andrea (Petrini), he's a very good friend of mine, but I was like listen, I can't be a part of this. 

I think what would be interesting about that type of award is to really bring and give a voice to people that don't have a voice; reward people that are doing the right thing in their community and trying to induce change.

I know from what they were thinking at the beginning and what the list was, I know it was changed a little bit - which is great - but it's not there. 

I could be a part of the discussion but I didn't feel like I was the right person to vote, especially when there were categories that were silly to me - I don't want to vote for the best Instagram account, I don't want to vote for the non-tweezer kitchen, I don't want to vote for the person that doesn't have tattoos, like - what is that? 

I don't want to vote for a restaurant that's just trying to source local ingredients - that's great, it's amazing to do that but I want a list that no-one knows about. 

So that's why I didn't do it. I have the most respect for Andrea and Joe, they're good friends, but that was my decision. I didn't feel that it was the right time for me to be a judge. 

ateliercrenn 69

Image: The three Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn

You moved to SF because it was perhaps a less chauvinistic place to work than France, is that right? 

This is not the whole story. First of all, I didn't study cooking in France. I knew it was a place - I love my country but it was a very difficult time in any job for a woman to be at the forefront of a managing job. It was very bureaucratic and it was hard to get things done. 

When I came to the US, and when I came to SF, I felt that it was so different. It was the kind of  place where I could be who I wanted to be and not have any pressure from the community or the society to fit the mould that they wanted me to fit, I could really be who I wanted to be.

It was also a place where a lot of restaurants were led by women. Nancy Oakes,  Joyce Goldstein - a lot of women were at the forefront of amazing restaurants. It was quite inspiring. 

I got into cooking because it's always been a passion of mine and I think that was something where I could perhaps express myself. It was a language. It was a platform. So that was the reason. 

You were awarded the Best Female Chef Award by the Top 50 Restaurant list. Do you think that there should be separate award categories for women? 

When I received the award I was really vocal about what I felt about it. I was very clear about wanting to use the award as a platform, to give a voice to people that didn't have a voice. 

But what happens with these types of awards is that you give a Best Female Chef to a woman, you start to alienate women. I understand that we need to cast a light on the amazing chefs that are female, and yes, it's been a man's world, but I think there's a different way to do it. 

 It's about balance,  rewarding people for doing a great job. Gender has nothing to do with cooking. That's something I'm very clear about. Whether you're a woman or a man, you can be an amazing cook. If someone's doing amazingly, we're going to listen to them. 

If it has nothing to do with gender, do you think it takes a certain character or type of person to be a great chef? 

To become a great chef, you don't have to be the best cook in the world. Cooking skill has nothing to do with how great you can be. I think a great chef is someone that is a great human being, a great leader, someone who will listen to her or his team, someone who is aware of the outside of the kitchen and what food means. 

I don't want to be too political but it is really political. A great chef is someone that has awareness and is conscious about the industry and the surrounding and the impact that his or her industry has in the world. And that's a great chef to me.

barcrenn 123Find out how to make Dominique Crenn's brioche here

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 29th April 2019

Dominique Crenn, chef owner, Atelier Crenn