Dominique Crenn

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurant: Atelier Crenn (San Francisco)

Education: Cours Charlemagne, Academy of International Commerce (Paris)

Experience: Stars, Campton Place (San Francisco); Luce, The Manhattan Club (New York); InterContinental Jakarta (Indonesia)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My mother and my grandmother. They taught me not just about cooking but what food is about—knowledge, care and love. Understanding where things come from, bringing people together.

When I was young, growing up in Brittany, I also got inspired by two French chefs: Michel Bras and Olivier Roellanger. My dad’s best friend was Albert Cocquil, the food critic for Le Telégramme, the big newspaper on the west side of France. Albert knew every Michelin-starred chef and a lot of up-and-comers. I was not a Bocuse or Ducasse follower, though they were amazing. I didn’t work with Bras or Roellanger but admired their philosophies. They were so thoughtful and behind-the-scenes. They paid such close attention to their surroundings—the vegetables, farmers, nature, all of that. I find it also very similar to the way Japanese chefs cook. I try to work that way in San Francisco.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
My mom’s roasted chicken, and her rabbit. I’m still longing for the taste. I try to find it at cafés and can’t. I also used to try to re-create dishes from our travels in Martinique, where we went on holiday. In France, I’d go to the sections of the farmers’ markets where they’d sell islands fruits and spices. I think my mom and my dad were kind of scared, like “what are you putting in this? This is not classic!”

But I was very attracted to those foreign tastes, because they felt familiar. I grew up in family with a big emphasis on classical French cooking—organic, clean vegetables, everything made from scratch—but very much classic French flavors. I think I was bored. I also had a lot of friends from North Africa and wanted to try those flavors, too. Maybe it’s because I’m adopted, and my blood is half Moroccan. I didn’t grow up in that culture, but I always loved mixing those flavors.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Michel Bras, Essential Cuisine. It’s not just a cookbook. It takes you to where he lives, where he’s been. I feel like I’m taking a journey with him.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
The dish we call A Walk in the Forest. In Brittany, as a child, I’d go foraging in the forest with my dad for things like mushrooms and blackberries. I wanted to re-create that entire experience. You know that feeling when you eat a mushroom, and it kind of takes you back to earth? I want anyone who has that dish to feel like they are eating mushrooms in the forest. It’s not just about texture or flavor of acidity or bitterness—it’s about feelings, memories, visuals, a story. On the bottom of the plate, I created a pine meringue that I burn. Then I add different soils, a basil soil and a pumpernickel soil. Then mushrooms of all textures and preparations: sautéed, dehydrated, pickled, some are marinated. Then I add a hazelnut praline and different herbs from the garden or foraged from the forest, whether sorrel or onion flowers.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I like to make desserts, but my pastry chef’s totally superior to me. My pastry chef Juan Contreras is amazing. I’m way too ADD.

What is your current food obsession?
Vietnamese food. I can’t stop! I go out for it all the time. It started in Paris when I was a student at the Cours Charlemagne. I wouldn’t eat at the school; I’d eat at this family-run Vietnamese place so often that I practically became their daughter. There’s something about the food—it’s so sensual, so elegant. I'm probably also addicted to fish sauce! I go to the same places over and over again. I love the Slanted Door, of course. Then there’s this family-owned place in the Castro called Zadin where I go constantly. They make this fresh spring roll stuffed with crispy fried fish; you wrap the roll in lettuce with a little mint. When you eat it, it cracks in your mouth. It’s crazy. Another of my favorites is Pagolac in the Tenderloin, owned by a daughter and mother. I’ve been going there since the ’90s. I’ll get the noodles, or a stir-fry. Anything they do, you can taste the passion in their food.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I write poetry. I used to write in French; when I moved here, English. I love photography. I’d love to go back to school one day to study it.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
BLiS fish sauce. I can drink it. I age my squab, and brush it with fish sauce and maple syrup. I also make a steak tartare, but we ferment the beef first in sake lees. Then we do a dressing with a little bit of lime juice and BLiS fish sauce.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Vouvray, Sancerre or Sauternes—I like those French white wines. I grew up with them, and they take me back.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Chocolate. After that, I’d try to be resourceful with nature.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I would take Quique Dacosta to some remote place in South America I’ve never been and pick his brain. I’ve been following him for years. I ran into him at an Omnivore festival in Paris a few years ago. We were both staying at the hotel Mama Shelter. I had a demo in the morning, so I got up at like 5 a.m. for breakfast. He was there having breakfast, too. I wanted to talk to him but he doesn't speak English or French. I struggled with a few words in Spanish. I’ve been telling people for years that he’s the top chef in Spain, even in the world. No one was paying attention because he was far away in Valencia. But not any longer!

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A restaurant where everything would be environmentally green, with nothing hurting nature. Not even the way we cook. Those high-flame gas stoves and big wood ovens we use now, maybe they’re masculine but they’re hurting the environment. I’d love to have a kitchen where the entire building was solar-powered, and everything was cooked on induction stoves. It would be expensive to construct, but I hope someday I can do it.