Dominique Crenn was a loner. Instead of cavorting with kids her own age, the soulful Versailles native preferred to keep the company of older folks, drawn in by their vivid tales. “I love to be around people who have stories,” says the chef, who became the country’s first female to garner two Michelin stars for her intimate San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn.
Though she followed in her politician father’s footsteps by studying economics and international business in France, Crenn is a self-taught cook who knew food would be a pivotal part of her career early on. Her mother was often inviting pals over for classy dinner parties, and she spent much time with her dad and his best friend, a food critic, dining at both fancy and casual restaurants around Paris.
“What’s funny,” says Crenn, “is that food wasn’t my inspiration, but art—my father was a painter—and travel. I was quite frustrated at the way chefs were cooking. I felt like they were making just what the people wanted, and not truly expressing themselves. I was touched by chefs who cooked personally, with a sense of who they are.”
San Francisco feels European. The sea, the mountains, the vegetables, the wine—it has everything you want in life.
Crenn’s introduction to kitchen life unfolded in San Francisco at the 80s icon Stars, under Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz, followed by Campton Place. Before returning to her beloved Northern California, there was a stint at the InterContinental Jakarta, as well as nearly a decade at a Los Angeles country club. “There’s a powerful history in San Francisco,” she says. “And if feels European. The sea, the mountains, the vegetables, the wine—it has everything you want in life.”
Crenn seeks to imbue her food with a distinct sense of history and personality at Atelier Crenn, which she opened in 2011 after racking up praise at Luce, at the InterContinental San Francisco. Here, her menus are lush poems, brimming with artful creations that might include caviar-topped uni custard and beet-chocolate sorbet. They will take the spotlight in her forthcoming book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“I knew I needed to learn flavor and technique, but I wanted to open a restaurant that was an expression of me and my team,” she says. “I have a vision, and I’m not here to force it. But if you believe in who you are, one day that vision’s going to come to life and people will listen and engage.”
Nashville gourmands will have a chance to experience that philosophy firsthand when Crenn heads to the country music capital to kick off POP’s new cultural series, [City] Meets Nashville, with a $200 pop-up dinner on July 26.
From seafood prepared by a spice-loving Frenchman to tableside foraging in Spain, here the cerebral chef discusses the travels, chefs, and flavors that have inspired her to write her own compelling narrative in food.
Olivier Roellinger’s John Dory Retour des Indes
I went to Olivier Roellinger’s Les Maisons de Bricourt in Cancale, on Brittany’s northern coast, and I was just blown away. It’s not just about the food. It’s about the environment and the person: Roellinger has an interesting way of looking at life, from the way he worked with farmers to his love of spices. The restaurant was in his grandmother’s house, overlooking a Japanese pond, and it was very much about the sea. All the dishes were amazing, but his John Dory in coconut milk sauce with 14 different spices, like turmeric and star anise, just woke me up. His French cooking was not traditional like Bocuse’s, with the usual flavors people ask for. It was about nature and feeling emotion. (Photo: LoveBites)
Michel Bras’ Gargouillou
Michel Bras’ restaurant sits on the top of a hill in France’s Aubrac region, in the middle of nowhere. But it’s somewhere for me. His famous gargouillou is a mixture of 60 different cooked and uncooked vegetables, flowers, and seeds. The different aromas, the different textures—they are everything you feel in life when you are outdoors; it’s nature in your mouth. It’s an incredible dish that inspired me deeply in my way of thinking about food. (Photo: Christian Palis and Jean-Pierre Trébosc)
Alain Passard’s Tomate Confite Aux Douze Saveurs
I was in Paris, at L’Arpège, and we had a tomato 12 ways for dessert; not molten chocolate cake. It was sweet and candied, but with spices and nuts, like it was stuffed with fruitcake. A lot of people don’t look at a tomato that way; they just want to make it into a sauce. Alain Passard took the fruit to an incredible new level. I talked to him until 4am. He was smoking a cigar, telling me about his journey, and I was taken by how he looked at life with such simplicity. We were discussing him opening new restaurants and he said, “Why should I open new places when I have this gem in front of me and a garden I want to take care of?” Many are after instant gratification, but Alain reminded me it’s about quality, not quantity. It’s a journey of passion and loving one person your whole life. (Photo: silencio.fr)
Joël Robuchon’s Eggplant and Monkfish
When I was very young, my father gave me one of Joël Robuchon’s books. I was taken by the color and precision, and I wanted to get to know the chef’s mind. I had two dishes there that were amazingly beautiful and took me to a place of ecstasy. One was a tower of eggplant, tomato, and bufala mozzarella; the other was monkfish with tomatoes, zucchini, and a cream sauce. I think people tend to overcook monkfish, but this was perfect. It just melted in my mouth. It was one of those fish memories where it was like, “I’m tasting the sea.” (Photo: Resorts World Sentosa)
David Toutain’s pizza
David Toutain, who used to work at Agapé Substance, has his own place in Paris now. I’m a big fan of his, and one of the most amazing bites I’ve ever had in my life was his tiny pizza—dough topped with tomato, basil, anchovies, and olives. (Photo: Thaï Toutain/Restaurant David Toutain)
Pan con tomate
Any Spanish food will do well with me. I was in Madrid, eating in the market with some friends and chefs, and at one of the stands we had bread with olive oil, garlic, and raw tomato. It’s tradition for Spanish people to have it for breakfast, and it’s what I eat almost every morning—besides my chocolate croissant. (Photo: catavino.net)
The Roca Brothers’ Olives and Apples
The way the three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca talk about their mother is just touching. It’s beautiful when you walk in—an incredible, magical space with light pouring in. It’s like nature inside. You don’t feel like you’re at a restaurant but someone’s house, and you just want to sit there and let them feed you. They bring a tiny tree to the table and you have to forage for your own olives hanging at the bottom. They are caramelized and wrapped in anchovy, and when you put one in your mouth it pops with an incredible sweetness. Jordi Roca, the pastry chef, made an apple dessert with sorbet. It wasn’t overly sweet, it wasn’t bitter—it was perfect, tasting of fresh fruit and nature. His desserts were a revelation of what dessert should be. This restaurant convinced me I could do whatever I wanted at Atelier Crenn. (Photo: El Celler de Can Roca)
Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Edible Stones
Mugaritz is a 10-minute drive from San Sebastián, in the middle of a beautiful garden. We sat down and had cocktails and were brought an offering of stones. Really, they are potatoes Andoni Luis Aduriz cooks in edible gray clay with a cream of garlic confit and egg yolk. The play on the visual is amazing. (Photo: Pinterest)
The Arzaks’ Chocolate
Tradition meets creativity at Arzak, in San Sebastián, run by father Juan Mari and daughter Elena. For dessert, I had a bowl of chocolate filled with liquid chocolate, strawberry sauce, and basil sorbet. The look of it was so appealing, but it was also delicious and playful. A dish I make—a white cocoa butter bowl filled with apple cider and topped with cassis—is reminiscent of its technique. (Photo: Fine Dining Lovers)
David Kinch’s Abalone
People talk about other chefs here, but David Kinch is the man who put California on the map with Manresa. He’s a gentleman and I love him with all my heart. Any of his abalone dishes are particularly amazing. He makes a black cod in an abalone bouillon with seaweed persillade, and I taste the water of California in the most intimate way. (Photo: kevinEats)