The Taste of Emotion: A Conversation with Dominique Crenn

The poetry of cooking, the power of memory, and rejecting limits for women in the male-dominated culinary industry.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (2,327 words)

 

Dominique Crenn did not follow the typical path to chef stardom. Instead of going to culinary school or working in Paris kitchens, she earned a business degree from the Academy of International Commerce and moved to San Francisco.

She immediately fell in love with it. “It was home, and I knew it,” she said. There, she worked under the legendary Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz at the now-defunct Stars, a restaurant-cum-training ground for great chefs. (Restaurateur and Food Network host Mario Batali spent time in the Stars kitchen.) Two years later, she went to Indonesia, where she was the first-ever female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta. There, she won her first Michelin star.

Crenn decided that she wanted to create a place that felt like a community, “that felt like a family,” so she moved back to San Francisco and opened Atelier Crenn in 2011.

Crenn’s food is highly inventive, mostly seafood, with combinations of traditional French ingredients mixed with American modernism. The menu — written entirely in poems — rotates constantly. A diner might receive a menu with a line of poetry that reads, “I touch the salted water, and hold the shell against my ear.” The corresponding dish is caviar, sea urchin, and oyster topped with cucumber “snow” (crème fraîche). A line like “and leaving a beautiful reflection” precedes a delicate Bluefin tuna belly. “There came a wave of oceanic delicateness,” is lobster in a yogurt broth with coconut.

In 2012, her culinary stardom took off. Atelier Crenn received a second Michelin star in its second year, making Crenn the first female chef at an American restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. Earlier this year, she was named “The World’s Best Female Chef.”

We discussed the role of memory and literature in food, the emotions of taste, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, fame, and how she, like Picasso, has created a fundamentally new style — where her canvas is a curious mix of ingredients and memory.

* * *

Atelier Crenn is named after your late-father, Alain. What role does memory — of your father, of your past — play in your cooking?

I was born and raised in France, outside of Paris, but I spent a lot of time in Brittany, where my parents are from. I was adopted by my parents when I was 18 months. My dad and I, we were extremely close. He was a politician, but he also was a painter and he taught me everything about life, about people. He gave me the ability to think for myself and to not be worried about the craziness of this world. So I think Atelier Crenn is also an embrace of this kind of philosophy. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s really a place where there’s a continuation of thinking, of embracing, of respecting and loving and discovering and teaching and learning.

Have you ever found out who your biological parents are?

No. I’ve never met them. My birth dad didn’t put his name on the birth certificate. My birth mom, I know a little bit about her. She’s from the north part of France. She was a child of the Second World War. I think she was a result of a French woman and a German soldier because that whole area where she was born was occupied by the Germans. She was abandoned when she was a baby. She lived in an orphanage until the age of 17. I know a little bit about my background, but I never knew my birth parents.

Has being an orphan and not knowing your background changed your outlook on food?

I don’t think it changes much about cooking, but definitely about life and about the way that we are treating humans in general. I think it’s very important to understand that you’re a child of the world, and I wish that more people knew that life is not just about race or the way you look; it’s also about who you are inside and how you go about life and how you respect others. Because of my background, I look at people for what they have to offer and their way of thinking. Not based on race or any of that. It’s a beautiful thing.

Is your restaurant, in a way, a recreation of your lost family?

Absolutely. And I think this is even more than just a family. I think it gives me the tools to learn and teach others. It’s more than just family, and I don’t know if it’d be the perfect family because you don’t choose your family, you know? You make your own family. That’s what I’m doing.

When did you turn onto the path of becoming a chef?

My parents took me to a French restaurant when I was younger, at the age of eight or nine with their very good friend, a food critic. It was a Michelin-starred restaurant. I was very touched and impressed by everything that day. I told my mom, “Oh, yeah, I want to be chef, and I want to do this dish,” but not in a sense where I thought I was going to be a chef. I think I was more interested in the experience — the kind of dancing and listening to a symphony of…it was just, it was very impactful. But it was then that I kind of knew that I wanted to be in that industry. I knew that I was going to touch food and be connected with people.

What’s the most valuable attribute of being a great chef?

Definitely the ability to understand others. To be open to conversation and dialogue. I wouldn’t say that ego and selfishness are the worst traits of a chef — believe me, there’s a lot of those out there. They are necessary traits to be a chef — to be a little egocentric, to be a little loud, a little bit of an intense leader. All of us have egos inside of us, but the way that the ego is playing in some people is not necessary. It needs to be a thoughtful and conscious ego, but not a loud, “Hey, I’m the shit. Look at me.” You know? No, that’s not necessary. But, hey, you know, some people might think differently. But for me, it’s in understanding.

Your menus are written as poems — “poetic culinaria,” as you call it. What’s the significance of combining food and literature?

Food is a language. It’s a way to express yourself. I love poetry, and I think poetry takes you to a deeper space within yourself, so it’s very important to connect both because they are the two languages that best complement each other.

Is creating a narrative and emotional journey for the people who eat your food one of central pursuits as a chef?

Yeah. I think this is very important. When you express yourself through food and then people can come and enjoy it, they can tap into the emotion you were expressing. I mean, the other day, this woman was literally crying in front of me while eating something that I just made. It’s beautiful to see that. I love that people can be vulnerable and can have emotional resonance to what I’m expressing to them. If I can do that — if I can touch that — I know that I’m doing the right thing.

When you express yourself through food and then people can come and enjoy it, they can tap into the emotion you were expressing.

I have a desire to take them back to a place of their childhood or of what they have experienced before. It might not be connected to my memories, but there is something that I’m triggering inside of them. I had these people from somewhere in Indonesia recently, and they were eating one of my dishes. The mother was speaking in Indonesian, and the daughter was translating that there was a texture in my food that reminded her of her own mother’s cooking. So I have no connection with those people in my daily life, but I can connect with them through something that I’m doing, and I think that’s pretty amazing.

It’s often said that you’re fundamentally reinventing food by marrying a distinctly visual style with a new type of cooking. Not every chef sends their diners on poetic journeys…

I don’t know if I’m reinventing food. There’s not really any specific concept with my cooking. Cooking for me is a kind of empty canvas that allows me to pick up on the nuances of emotion. Yes, it’s definitely my own style of expressing myself, but you can’t say that Picasso reinvented painting. He just created his own style. I think I’m doing things that are very different. I’m not looking at what do other people do. I don’t know if I like the word “reinventing” though.

Cooking for me is a kind of empty canvas that allows me to pick up on the nuances of emotion.

What word would you prefer?

I think it’s basically “evolution” — an evolution of cooking.

The Kir Breton is the only dish that consistently shows up on your menu — what makes that dish so special, so personal?

It’s the memory of when my mom had guests at the house. The Kir Breton is made with apple cider and candy cassis, and this was one of the first things that she would do for people: make that little compilation cocktail. So that, for me, has always been about welcoming, comforting, and uplifting diners — and celebrating what I grew up with my mom. So this is an homage to my mom.

Bon bons, lobster bisque, and Kir Breton.

Bonbons, lobster bisque, and Kir Breton.

What’s it going to take to get your third Michelin star? Is that something you’re actively pursuing?

At Atelier Crenn, every day we train to be better than the day before. But I don’t believe in spending a million dollars on renovation just because you want the third one. What I believe in is to continue to better the way that we’re cooking. When I opened the place, I didn’t really have any money. Every day that we work, we’re just putting back a little money to fix it up to make sure it’s better: I’m getting a new kind of stove; I’m getting a Molteni in January. For the first time I can get a beautiful piece of equipment, you know. But changing the place because of a Michelin star? No. Whatever happens is whatever happens. If Michelin thinks that we are there — at three stars — great. If they don’t think so, well, sorry, but it’s not my style to spend a million or two million dollars for renovations in my restaurant. It’s not my style.

Atelier Crenn

Atelier Crenn

Are you looking to expand your presence and open new restaurants, or are you going to continue exclusively with your efforts at Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn?

I just put a wine bar next door to Atelier Crenn. It’s a nice, high-end wine bar with a lot of old wine. Expanding though? I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe Los Angeles, but it’s really tricky. I’m trying to find other things to do. I’m going to be writing another book, which will be a kind of memoir.

With this book, the Chef’s Table episode, and being named “The World’s Best Female Chef,” you’ve had such a steep rise to fame. Has this newfound fame made your job and life easier or harder?

You know, I’ve been cooking for a long, long time. I think maybe nine years ago someone from Esquire gave me chef of the year, but, you know, it’s nice now to have this platform. People have started to pay attention to me. Does it make my life easier? No. I’m still working and still pushing, and there’s a lot of expectation. It’s been kind of great knowing that my team is doing a great job, and the restaurant is doing well, and they can show their families their hard work. It’s given me stability in a way, too, but every day’s another day, you know?

How do you feel about the gender distinction in winning “The World’s Best Female Chef” this year?

There is still this problem with gender in food. I mean, we don’t say “male chef.” We say “chef.” We’re all chefs, but when you think about it, it’s been amazing. We cook with each other, and it doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man. We all need to come together and say “Hey, no. These are chefs.” That will be a great day. But we’re not there any time soon.

What’s been your most meaningful, memorable meal?

I would say that my mother’s cooking has always been on my mind. I have had so many incredible, memorable meals. I was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York recently, and that was an incredibly thoughtful and conscious meal. I had an incredible meal in Madeira. But I would say the most memorable are a few that my mom cooked throughout the years.

What is your ultimate mission? When will you be able to rest?

Oh, my god. I think the day where everyone will look at each other and they realize they’re all in one world, of one human race — then I can relax.

So it may be a little while…

Ha, yes, maybe. I mean, I’m looking at the world, and everyone being selfish and thinking that we are better than others. Let’s work together and look at our surroundings and how we’re destroying our planet. Let’s work on it. Let’s go back to a place where everything is so careful. I hope my restaurant and food is a good place to start.

* * *

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.