October 19, 2018
Dominique Crenn and Juan Contreras
‘Memory is important,’ comments Dominique Crenn at the start of an episode of Nexflix’s well-known series Chef’s Table, ‘it’s a vehicle to get to know who you are inside.’ Crenn owns various restaurants in San Francisco (Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn), although she is mainly known for Atelier, her haute-cuisine establishment, which last year was awarded its third Michelin star. The first time in the United States that a restaurant run by a woman has earned that recognition.
Dominique was adopted by a French couple in Versailles when she was 18 months old. Originally from Brittany, her parents had a farm where she learned about farming at a very young age. She was fascinated by the passion and the know-how that her family dedicated to every detail of the countryside. And so, some years later when she set off for California – arriving at a time when farms were closing every day – she supported farming families from day one.
She went to Michelin-starred restaurants with her father at a very young age, experiencing her first tasting menu when she was nine[r1] . With no culinary degree or studies, she learned how to cook with her grandmother and mother in France. She began cooking professionally when she got to San Francisco in the late 90s, working for Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz at the legendary restaurant, Stars, one of the pioneers of the Californian farm-to-table movement. It was there where she started to develop her own style. Two years later she went to Indonesia, becoming the first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta.
On her return to San Francisco in 2011, she and her head pastry chef, Juan Contreras, opened Atelier Crenn; two years later they already had two macarons (as the French nickname them) in the Michelin Red Guide. Atelier Crenn is a tribute to her father, ‘who taught me the most important things in life: diversity, respect for the world, and bringing people with kindred feelings together.’ Crenn defines her cuisine as ‘culinary poetry’; for her, food is language and she expresses herself via cooking.
In a welcoming dining room, which is barely eight months old, each line on her menu describes a dish in the form of a poem. From the outset, her repertoire of dishes has focused on produce from the sea and, in particular, on vegetables and leafy greens. A cuisine that is sensitive and honest, straightforward and academic, with no unnecessary adornments, with an extraordinary level of technical perfection and one which bonds with the raw materials.
Dominique’s inseparable ally and partner is Juan Contreras. Born in San Diego, he discovered his passion for cooking early on. He worked with the best chefs in Los Angeles until he met Crenn, then moved to San Francisco to work with her at Luce (at the InterContinental Hotel) as executive sous chef. After two years, he decided to take a one-year sabbatical, doing stints at restaurants such as Alinea, De Librije and Oud Sluis before returning to San Francisco and opening Atelier together with Crenn.
By Borja Beneyto
Photo: Matt Edge