On Dominique Crenn’s right forearm is a tattoo of a young girl gazing up at a winged piglet swooping past her flowing hair. “Pigs can fly,” the chef explains, giving the proverb a French twist. “It’s a reminder that you can do anything you want in life. Anything is possible.”
Dominique - beautiful, tall, and slender, with pixie-like hair, large, dark eyes rimmed in kohl, and a natural feminine elegance about her - is sitting in the dining room of her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Since opening the space in 2011, she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA, Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Dominique’s food is a personal rendition of her memories and feelings, her love of nature, and her consciousness of the environment. Imaginative, fiercely seasonal, and sustainable, her tasting menus are a showcase for her creativity, which takes diners on an unapologetically emotional journey through flavors, textures, and scents. “We think of an experience, a memory or emotion, and try to recreate that with our food,” she says.
A case in point is her signature dish, ‘Walking Deep Inside The Woods.’ Inspired by childhood walks through the forest with her father, it comprises a lightly burnt pine meringue, edible soil made from basil and pumpernickel, a variety of wild mushrooms - sautéed, puréed, pickled, and dehydrated - as well as hazelnut praline and foraged
herbs. Through robust, yet delicate, flavors and textures, the artistic plate evokes the sense of the forest, its dampness, earthiness, and sweetness, transporting the diner deep into the woods. “It’s sweet and savory, that’s what life is about,” she adds.
Growing up in France, Dominique was raised between the “luxury of Versailles” and the “ruralness of Brittany” by her adoptive parents, who introduced her to the joys of fine food at a very young age. While her mother taught her the secrets of rustic home cooking, her father, a prominent politician, took her to some of the country’s top restaurants when dining out with his best friend, Albert Coquil, a famous French food critic. “I had my first tasting menu when I was eight or nine years old and I loved it,” she recalls. “I decided then that I wanted to be a chef.”
After graduating from university in Paris with a degree in economics and international business, Dominique moved to the USA in 1988 to follow her dream away from the ‘old school’ ways of French kitchens. She first trained at the Stars restaurant under the tutelage of celebrated San Francisco chef, Jeremiah Tower, whom she credits with making her the chef she is today. “His philosophy was very much in line with what I thought a kitchen should be. He was about sourcing the best ingredients and creativity but also about involving his team in the process.”
Following stints at restaurants including Campton Place, 2223 Restaurant, the Park Hyatt Grill, and becoming executive chef at Yoyo Bistro at the Miyako Hotel, she moved to Indonesia in 1997, to become the country’s first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel Jakarta, where she headed up an all-female brigade. However, after less than a year, her stay was cut short by the country’s political unrest.
Dominique returned to California in 1998, working at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach for eight years, and then at Abode in Santa Monica, before returning to San Francisco in 2007 to head up Luce at the InterContinental Hotel, where she gained her first Michelin star in 2009. Although she had the freedom to cook her own food, pushing boundaries by combining classic European ideas with modern techniques, she felt that her hands were tied in the corporate environment of a hotel restaurant.
The decision to go out on her own came after a life changing moment in 2009, when a freak accident nearly ended Dominique’s life. “I fell in my bathtub and almost sliced through a main artery in my leg,” she reveals. It was then that she got her tattoo and really started to take her career into her own hands. “I decided to open my own place, a place that would be more than just a restaurant. It would be my house, my living room, a place where I wouldn’t do what was expected, but where I would do my thing.”
She opened Atelier Crenn as a homage to her father, who passed away in 1999. Modeled on the studio he painted in and showing some of his works on the walls, it is a workshop of the culinary arts, a modest, homely space where diners come to share the chef’s personal creative expression. The restaurant is small and intimate, seating just 40 people, with a formal yet relaxed atmosphere, no tablecloths and an open door into the recently renovated kitchen. Her cuisine, entitled Poetic Culinaria as her menus are written like poems, brings together the ethos of farm-to-table cooking, as she works directly with her producers, as well as international influences inspired by her travels, and contemporary cooking methods, which have seen her food described as molecular gastronomy. “I hate that term,” she snubs, however, refusing to be pigeonholed. “I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in evolution and with that in mind I have to embrace new techniques. But I’m not a molecular chef.”
Molecular or not, Dominique’s inventive menus tell stories and a dinner at Atelier Crenn is nothing less than a truly memorable experience. Throughout the night, she racefully moves in between kitchen and dining room, greeting customers and guiding them through the journey of her menus, which comprise a parade of beautiful, tiny dishes that not only please the eye and entice the palate, but also provoke the mind.
As a woman who has succeeded in a very male-dominated industry, Dominique is unsure why there aren’t more female chefs cooking at her level. “There are some amazingly talented female chefs in this country, who are much better cooks than me,” she says. “But I don’t know why they haven’t gone the way I have gone.” She adds that chefs of a certain status have a responsibility to encourage women in the kitchen. “But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be drawn into the gender bias. I don’t want people to look at me as female or male; I just want them to appreciate what I do.”
Looking ahead, Dominique is hoping to publish her first book, which “won’t be just another coffee table book with pretty pictures, but something that will raise issues and inspire dialogue.” She softly hints at a project on the East Coast as well as a second San Francisco restaurant, a space that will bring together the community, “that’ll be a restaurant but not a restaurant, a home but not a home, with croissants, cocktails, art, books, music—something that has never been done before.”
With so much happening, however, Dominique remains grounded and focused on keeping Atelier Crenn constantly evolving. The final question remains: Will she make history as the first woman outside Europe to gain three Michelin stars? “I think it’s possible,” she smiles, looking at her tattoo.
Photography by Meg Smith