“Anything is Possible”

01 Oct 2016
4 min read
The sole two-Michelin-starred female chef in the USA, Dominique Crenn’s deeply personal cooking style takes diners on an emotional journey, writes Kerstin Kühn.

On Dominique Crenn’s right forearm is atattoo of a young girl gazing up at a winged pigletswooping past her flowing hair. “Pigs can fly,” thechef explains, giving the proverb a French twist.“It’s a reminder that you can do anything you wantin life. Anything is possible.”

Dominique -beautiful, tall, and slender, withpixie-like hair, large, dark eyes rimmed in kohl, and a natural feminineelegance about her -is sitting in the dining room of her San Franciscorestaurant, Atelier Crenn. Since opening the space in 2011, she hasbecome synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style ofmodernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades,including Iron Chef USA, Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has alsoseen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded twoMichelin stars.

Dominique’s food is a personal rendition of her memories andfeelings, her love of nature, and her consciousness of the environment.Imaginative, fiercely seasonal, and sustainable, her tasting menus are ashowcase for her creativity, which takes diners on an unapologeticallyemotional journey through flavors, textures, and scents. “We think ofan experience, a memory or emotion, and try to recreate that with ourfood,” she says.

A case in point is her signature dish, ‘Walking Deep Inside TheWoods.’ Inspired by childhood walks through the forest with her father,it comprises a lightly burnt pine meringue, edible soil made from basiland 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 artisticplate evokes the sense of the forest, its dampness, earthiness, andsweetness, transporting the diner deep into the woods. “It’s sweet andsavory, that’s what life is about,” she adds.

Growing up in France, Dominique was raised between the “luxury ofVersailles” and the “ruralness of Brittany” by her adoptive parents, whointroduced her to the joys of fine food at a very young age. While hermother taught her the secrets of rustic home cooking, her father, aprominent politician, took her to some of the country’s top restaurantswhen dining out with his best friend, Albert Coquil, a famous French foodcritic. “I had my first tasting menu when I was eight or nine years old and Iloved it,” she recalls. “I decided then that I wanted to be a chef.”

After graduating from university in Paris with a degree in economicsand international business, Dominique moved to the USA in 1988 tofollow her dream away from the ‘old school’ ways of French kitchens.She first trained at the Stars restaurant under the tutelage of celebratedSan Francisco chef, Jeremiah Tower, whom she credits with making herthe chef she is today. “His philosophy was very much in line with what Ithought a kitchen should be. He was about sourcing the best ingredientsand creativity but also about involving his team in the process.”

Following stints at restaurants including Campton Place, 2223Restaurant, the Park Hyatt Grill, and becoming executive chef at YoyoBistro at the Miyako Hotel, she moved to Indonesia in 1997, to becomethe country’s first female executive chef at the InterContinental HotelJakarta, where she headed up an all-female brigade. However, after lessthan a year, her stay was cut short by the country’s political unrest.

Dominique returned to California in 1998, working at the ManhattanCountry Club in Manhattan Beach for eight years, and then at Abodein Santa Monica, before returning to San Francisco in 2007 to head upLuce at the InterContinental Hotel, where she gained her first Michelinstar in 2009. Although she had the freedom to cook her own food,pushing boundaries by combining classic European ideas with moderntechniques, she felt that her hands were tied in the corporate environmentof a hotel restaurant.

The decision to go out on her own came after a life changing momentin 2009, when a freak accident nearly ended Dominique’s life. “I fell in mybathtub and almost sliced through a main artery in my leg,” she reveals. Itwas then that she got her tattoo and really started to take her career intoher own hands. “I decided to open my own place, a place that would bemore than just a restaurant. It would be my house, my living room, a placewhere 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 passedaway in 1999. Modeled on the studio he painted in and showing someof 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 creativeexpression. The restaurant is small and intimate, seating just 40 people,with a formal yet relaxed atmosphere, no tablecloths and an open doorinto the recently renovated kitchen. Her cuisine, entitled Poetic Culinariaas her menus are written like poems, brings together the ethos of farm-to-table cooking, as she works directly with her producers, as well asinternational influences inspired by her travels, and contemporary cookingmethods, which have seen her food described as molecular gastronomy.“I hate that term,” she snubs, however, refusing to be pigeonholed. “I don’tbelieve in perfection, I believe in evolution and with that in mind I have toembrace 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 nothingless than a truly memorable experience. Throughout the night, she racefully moves in betweenkitchen 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 whythere aren’t more female chefs cooking at her level. “There are some amazingly talented female chefsin this country, who are much better cooks than me,” she says. “But I don’t know why they haven’tgone the way I have gone.” She adds that chefs of a certain status have a responsibility to encouragewomen in the kitchen. “But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be drawn into the genderbias. 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 coffeetable book with pretty pictures, but something that will raise issues and inspire dialogue.” She softlyhints at a project on the East Coast as well as a second San Francisco restaurant, a space that willbring 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 AtelierCrenn constantly evolving. The final question remains: Will she make history as the first womanoutside Europe to gain three Michelin stars? “I think it’s possible,” she smiles, looking at her tattoo.

Photography by Meg Smith