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.