BY BONNIE TSUI || PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRYAN MELTZ
On a sun-drenched late summer morning in San Francisco, Dominique Crenn was wearing her favorite hat—a gray trucker cap embroidered with an owl and the words WISE ASS, the brim pulled low over her short dark hair—and black-framed glasses. The hat’s message seems to confirm her reputation as tough cookie, fearless chef, and no-nonsense leader for change in the food and restaurant world.
But Crenn wants people to know something: She’s actually a real softie. “Everyone thinks that I’m a champion, that I’m invincible,” she said, her lean frame ensconced in a striped armchair at the front corner of Bar Crenn, her romantic, thimble-sized Parisian wine bar in Cow Hollow. She is a thoughtful, eloquent speaker, her French accent adding a subtle touch of musicality to everything she says. “But I’m very emotional about things that I see. Everything is personal for me. It’s not just about opening a restaurant anymore. Everything I’m doing now is a platform. The message is to move toward change.” She paused to collect her thoughts before continuing, in a voice so soft that she’s almost hard to hear. “I want to be remembered as someone who gave back, who did the work—who was not just out for herself.”
Five years ago, Crenn was the first woman in the U.S. to earn two Michelin stars, for her first restaurant, Atelier Crenn. In August, she broke that ceiling again when Atelier Crenn earned a third star. She is known for her meticulous, inventive, modernist cooking—“plated art installations,” as the San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer put it. Standouts include a frozen white chocolate sphere filled with sparkling apple cider and topped with crème de cassis, a play on the Kir Breton, and “grains and seeds,” an array of smoked buckwheat, quinoa soil, and cured roe. At one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the staff was cheerfully bustling about the kitchen. There was the din of things being stirred, agitated, pounded; an earthy, mushroomy scent bloomed, then permeated the premises, pleasantly.
In 2015, she opened Petit Crenn, a more casual bistro with a wood-fired grill, in Hayes Valley; it was followed by Bar Crenn, adjacent to and sharing a kitchen with Atelier Crenn, early last year. A mere eight months after opening, Bar Crenn received a Michelin star. Onscreen appearances, including two turns as a contestant on Iron Chef and one as a subject in the second season of Chef’s Table, charmed viewers and helped propel her to culinary rock-star status.
In 2016, Crenn was named the World’s Best Female Chef on San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants List—the “female” qualifier, of course, making the honor a bit of a dubious one. She told the Washington Post that she thought the award was “stupid.” In an interview with AJ+, she said, “I’m not cooking differently, or better, or worse, than somebody that is a male.” She wants people to see her not as a woman chef, but as a chef—a person who is telling a story on the plate, who puts her heart on it.
Crenn has also gained renown as a champion for equity in the restaurant industry, as well as an advocate for sustainable food systems. Her four-acre organic farm just outside Sonoma, Bleu Belle, supplies her restaurants, growing everything from onions, leeks, and garlic to apricots, figs, and apples; there are chickens and a greenhouse, too. “We source the rest from the farmers we know, because we are mindful of what the soil can give us, but we also don’t want to detach ourselves 100 percent from the farmers,” she said. Her three restaurants may share a parent, but like children, they differ markedly. Atelier Crenn’s light filled dining room feels modern and spare, with gleaming, black-walnut slab tables. Bar Crenn has an old-world ambience, with rich velvet drapery and faux-fur barstools. Same goes for table service items: For Atelier, wooden butter boxes the color of caramel, sleek black slates for geoduck tarts, and teal ceramics for cheese; for Bar, vintage silver trays, gold-rimmed plates, and ornate glasses and bowls, much of it sourced from estate sales.
The character may differ, Crenn says, but the philosophy is the same. Though she is known for her artistry and precise presentation, it is all done in an effort to enhance the flavor of an ingredient, not to wizard it beyond recognition. She uses sous vide techniques to increase efficiency and consistency—to make a béarnaise sauce, say, or to gently set trout.
“A lot of people think I’m a scientist, but I am very basic,” Crenn says. Most everything in her restaurants is now done on a Japanese-style grill, what she calls a “primal” technique. “We don’t get too crazy. Sous vide is a tool I use for consistency, and for my cooks to understand the components. For example, to make a hollandaise, or to cook the eggs in the circulator. It’s a foundational tool. I infuse a lot of oil with sous-vide to enhance the food, flavor, and consistency. You have to get the best ingredients. And you have to understand them: How do you enhance the umami of that flavor? You want to showcase it.”
Though Crenn was raised outside Paris and admits to a nostalgia for France and a focus on its food heritage (she makes butter from a Sonoma dairy in Brittany’s lightly fermented style) she has lately been thinking of herself in more global terms. “I’m adopted, and when I found out more about my DNA, which is very Mediterranean, it made sense to me,” she says. “When I was a little girl, I loved that food, but that was not the food I was brought up with. But every time we went out, and I wanted something different, my mom was like, ‘Who are you?’ Well, now I know I’m seven percent French and German, I’m Iberian, I’m Italian, and Balkan, from the Berber area, African, Malta Island, Greece, a little bit Israel. My DNA goes up to Siberia, and to Southeast Asia.” She threw her hands up with emphasis. “I mean, I’m a person of the world. And that idea is important to me.”
Crenn’s family of businesses continues to grow, and her newest venture, Boutique Crenn, is slated to open this year in San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower. It is a grand space: A 4,000-squarefoot daytime patisserie and boulangerie on the first floor, with an after-hours bar on the ground level that will take up another 1,000 square feet, it is meant to be “a place for people to gather, and awaken, and be a little bit political,” Crenn said. “At Atelier Crenn, Bar Crenn, Petit Crenn, I am very focused on where I grew up. But in [this] space, I want it to be welcoming a lot of different points of view and food. The food can be more far-reaching.”
She shares the architectural renderings, which are stunning, and, at the time of reporting, mostly top-secret. But here’s what is shareable: The soaring space incorporates Crenn’s signature nest iconography, bringing nature inside on a grand scale, and is designed by Dror Benshetrit, an Israeli designer based in New York. The daytime menu will change regularly, but it will feature sandwiches, salads, and roasted vegetables in a wood-fired oven. Crenn plans to host art installations and have collaborations where artists and designers curate food with visiting chefs in a kind of modern-day artistic and political salon.
“Food is the soul of the society,” she says. “Food is very political. Everything is connected with food: immigration, social economy, climate change, farming. It’s humanity. Food is a vehicle to conversation and change, but it’s also art. And art is also a vehicle to conversation and change. And to bring those together is interesting to me.” Activism, though, doesn’t have to be boring. “Of course, the goal is also to have fun, and to eat beautiful food.”
“I want my legacy to be not an empire, but ‘Wow, she helped carve the way to better the future for people and the planet.’ It’s not just about serving organic food, or putting organic grains in my casserole. It’s understanding what are we doing with the world.”
By nature, Crenn is a private person. Even with a hat and dark sunglasses, she is always recognized, in airports or on her bike around Marin. She handles being a public figure with grace, despite her inclination to retreat, because with success she feels the equally strong pull of responsibility—to speak up, to draw the connections. When it’s suggested that her influence is growing, Crenn responds, wryly, “Yes, I am a big mouth.” Then she grinned, not at all unhappy about it.