Memory is a very important part of what Dominique Crenn does at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, California. “Memory is really important. It is a vehicle to get to know who you are inside.”
Understanding where she has spent most of her childhood has a lot to do with what her restaurant is all about. “It is not about us creating dishes, it is about us connecting everything from start to finish,” Dominique Crenn says.
The French born chef is the first ever female to earn two Michelin stars in the United States. She did that in two consecutive years from 2011 to 2012 (her restaurant only opened in 2010).
David Gelb depicts her story on Chef’s Table (Season 2) in an impeccable way as he follows her to Brittany where she connects with her roots. It is yet another unmissable episode of this series which is not just about food and restaurants but also about the story of chefs and how they discovered themselves through food. It shows how chefs use food as a vehicle for creativity and to connect to their roots and experiences.
Crenn opened her restaurant in 2010. Until a few years ago, nobody except for the most knowledgable foodies knew her. Now she has climbed to the top of the game. This year, she has earned the title of World’s Best Female Chef in the World’s 50 Best restaurant awards.
Crenn’s story starts when she was adopted at 18 months. She knows nothing about those first 18 months other than that she was known as “smiley face”.
She owes a lot to her parents who have brought her to where she is today. “At the restaurant, I am serving my soul, I am serving a conversation. I want people to talk with me, I want to trigger something inside the customer. If I do this, I know that I am doing something right.”
She is fascinated by people she does not know. “You know, strangers adopted me and gave me a completely different life. This is something that I crave, that moment where I can connect with someone,” she says.
Many think that her restaurant is named after herself but she says that it is named after her father because as she says she is here today because of him. “My dad took me to a Michelin starred restaurant when I was 9 years old. I was fascinated by how people were talking, moving and the elegance. I told my mother I wanted to be a chef and she said of course you want to be a chef,” Dominique says.
While many consider chefs to be rockstars, Dominique believes that that term should be reserved to producers who work to bring to table the produce that is served at restaurants and in homes.
She arrived in San Francisco in the 1990s and immediately felt like home. Going to the coast felt like driving the coast of Brittany where she comes from. “My dad opened my eyes to the world. I wanted to travel. I think that many people came to San Francisco to find answers. They felt safe to be what they wanted to be here.”
At the restaurant, guests are served with a menu in the form of a poem. It sets the narrative of the meal from beginning to end and each course corresponds to a line of poetry.
She started working with a chef called Jeremiah Tower at Stars restaurant having never been to cooking school or cooked in a restaurant. “I went there and asked for a job.”
It was here that she learnt the trade. She says that all chefs used to be given the ingredients but no recipes and they were allowed to create whatever they wanted. “They gave you responsibility to create something. I think that this is how you can be greater. Because you have a team around you that can push to create something. It is not about you but ultimately about the team.”
She lost her father in 1999 and says that she remembers her father as someone who always told her to believe in herself and who she is. “That is something I shall never forget.”
Before opening her restaurant she worked in Indonesia, Los Angeles and San Francisco but she did not like the hotel culture because she believed guests were not open to new things. “This made be cringe and ask what was I doing. I looked at my life and was not happy. I needed to do something that mattered. But I did not want to open a restaurant for the sake of opening a restaurant but rather to create something. I realised that I had nothing to lose,” she said.
She has also opened a second restaurant called Petit Crenn. “I’ve been searching to discover who I am and I am still doing it. Atelier Crenn was a part of my dream But once you realise a dream, it is no longer a dream and there are other dreams that come to you,” she says.