Q&A with Chef Dominique Crenn
The triple-Michelin starred San Francisco chef talks sustainability, pastries, and the next phase of her namesake food empire.
Cassoulet, coq au vin, confit duck—you won't find any of these meaty French classics in Dominique Crenn's dining rooms. The food pioneer who made history in 2018 as the first female chef in the U.S. to earn three Michelin stars for her upscale San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn, further distinguished herself from the culinary pack last fall by removing meat from the menus of all of her Crenn Dining Group restaurants to help combat climate change. (Sustainable seafood is still served.) It was an environmental statement meant to shake up the fine-dining scene, the public vocalization of a quiet movement made by Crenn and her team over the past few years to cook more sustainably. (Her Petit Crenn has been meat-free since opening in 2015; Atelier ditched meat from its tasting menu two years ago.) And it wasn't the first time Crenn dared to get loud.
The chef, who was born in Brittany, France, but has been a Bay Area fixture since 1988, is as known for her activism as she is for her accolades. In 2016, she was crowned the World's Best Female Chef on San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list—and she was a vocal critic of the honor. "It's stupid. A chef is a chef," Crenn said of the gendered category in a 2018 interview with the Washington Post, pointing out that the World's 50 Best list historically shortchanged female chefs. That year, its organizers announced efforts to achieve gender parity across its voting members and improve diversity in its rankings. We chat with the chef about creating that kind of real-time change and her latest restaurant, Boutique Crenn.
Sustainability has been a focus for you and your kitchens the last few years. How are you going to tackle it with your latest project, Boutique Crenn?
DC: We're going to be zero-waste. We want customers to think about how they consume on a daily basis, so we're asking people to bring in their own coffee cups, for example. When it comes to what we'll be using in-house, we're looking at the waste stream, things that would end up in a landfill, and are being extremely mindful of not using virgin materials. We're looking to find things that already exist and upcycle them. Sustainability is one of my biggest passions. I have two little girls, twins, and I lie awake at night worrying about what the world will look like for them. We all have to put in the effort to make it better; we can't just sit around hoping someone else will take care of it.
You've made a name for yourself in French fine dining. Why did you think a more casual pastry shop was the logical next step?
DC: I grew up in France, eating the very best pastries. I still dream about a very specific kouign-amann I had as a child. They're Breton, just like me! I want to recreate these experiences for our guests; I want them to see what eating a really amazing pastry is like. And my team knows how to make pastries. We've had a couple of pop-ups and the response has been crazy.
Ethical eating and fine dining don't usually go hand in hand. Was going meat-free a hard decision to make? How has the response been?
DC: Logistically, it's hard to phase things out of a kitchen, to recreate a menu, but the decision itself wasn't hard. Meat's effect on climate change simply cannot be ignored. So how can I sit here and claim to care so much about the environment, yet I have beef tartare on my menu? I just can't do it anymore. And guests at my restaurants know me and expect that of me, so they are not disappointed.
Beyond going meat-free, how would you like to see other top chefs embrace sustainability in their dining experiences?
DC: You know what I hate? Plastic. We need to come up with alternatives to all the plastic wrap and containers that we use in restaurants. It's small things, like having your team bring reusable cups to get their coffees, and consolidating shipments as much as possible. Use local food on menus all the time, as much as you can. We work with Zero Foodprint [a nonprofit helping restaurants reduce their carbon emissions] and I encourage other chefs to work with them, too.
The Bay Area is already pretty well-tuned to veg-centric dining. Do you think sustainable eating can be achieved in less progressive places?
DC: Of course. Why not? I would have done this no matter where I lived.
It has been nearly a decade since you opened Atelier Crenn. What is the most surprising thing that has happened in your career during the past decade? And where do you want to go in the next 10 years?
DC: I'm surprised by how much a team can start to feel like real family. Our kitchen, our staff, is family. I never will lose sight of that. As far as 10 years goes, I don't know. I try not to look too far ahead. I like to stay in the moment as much as possible. But I'm sure I'll be surprised!
This article originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.