Dominique Crenn Wants to Talk About More Than Food

The San Francisco chef opens up about her photography and writing. 

Photo: Chance Yeh/Getty Images

“I think we have a tendency to put people in a box," says Dominique Crenn. "‘You’re a painter, so let me ask you about painting. You’re a chef, let me ask you about cooking.’ I want people to ask me how I feel about the world, or what is my day about, and ask me a question that’s not just related to food, but that’s related to me being a person: Someone that’s vulnerable, someone that has ideas and someone that wants to learn more.”

Interviews with the two Michelin-starred chef — the only woman in the U.S. with the honor — have been especially one-track in recent weeks, as she prepares to open her third concept on March 13, Bar Crenn. It’s right next to her flagship restaurant Atelier Crenn, which catapulted her to critical acclaim when it opened in 2011. Its naturalistic, poetry-inspired fare was profiled in season two of Netflix’s docu-series Chef’s Table in 2016, which brightened its national halo.

And just last month, it was announced that Crenn will be debuting her most ambitious project yet: a restaurant-bakery-boutique-fashion-space in San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper, the SalesForce Tower, set to open in 2019. In addition to serving the chef’s own line of coffee, patisseries and Michelin-worthy savory fare, the 4,000-square-foot space will will host fashion pop-ups and temporary art installations. Crenn talked about attending Paris Fashion Week, and how she hopes to bring some of that energy back to the city she loves.

“I come from a country where culture and fashion and literature and food is very much at the forefront of everything,” the French-born chef says. “And San Francisco is an incredible city. There’s an incredible culture here. There’s many amazing talents, there’s innovation, there’s everything. And then there is no fashion. Art is here and there are beautiful museums, but it’s just that people aren’t engaging.”

“I think it’s time for San Francisco and the West Coast to be at the forefront of all of that,” Crenn continues. “Not just Paris and Tokyo and New York and Madrid. San Francisco needs that: a space [that’s like] walking through a live museum where things are beautiful, and you can engage with the world and other people. We’re missing that here.”

And Crenn hopes that her forthcoming multi-use space can be a part of that. Although she can’t divulge all the details yet, she has high hopes to collaborate with a world-renowned architect. “This space is not just about art and fashion,” she says, it’s about having “a dialogue. If I partner with a designer with that can really put this idea at the forefront, it’s going to be so unique and so amazing.”

Photograph by Dominique Crenn

Art and design have been a long-time throughline for the chef, who has said that one of her childhood dreams was to become a photographer. “Cooking is just a vehicle to express yourself, like painting and acting… The reason why we’re cooking is not because we want to put something on the plate. It’s so much more complex than that,” she says.

Lately, she’s taken to carrying a camera with her and is working on a women’s photo series in partnership with camera manufacturer Leica.

“They gave me a camera, and I’m taking a lot of pictures,” Crenn says. “I want to document a lot of things in my life but I also want to document this women’s series because it’s quite historic. And I want to take pictures not just to take pictures, but because I’ve always been attracted to catching the moment of an emotion, without knowing that you can catch that moment… Sometimes I’ve wished that I have a camera in my hand 24/7 and I don’t — but now I do.”

Crenn has been focusing on the people at Bar Crenn as subjects, she tell us, as well as others in her life. She shared some with us to be included in this article.

Photograph by Dominique Crenn
Photograph by Dominique Crenn

She also says she's been writing a memoir for a year and a half now — and it won’t just be about food. Many people are already familiar with her as a writer through her poems, which are printed in place of traditional menus at Atelier Crenn.

“I was approached two years ago by Penguin,” she says, “And [the woman] was like, ‘I don’t do cookbooks, but I’ve been watching you for many years, and I know you have something to say. Would you like to write something? And I was just like, yes.” She’s been working on the manuscript with writer Veronica Chambers, who co-wrote Marcus Samuelsson’s bestselling memoir, Yes, Chef, published in 2012.

“There’s a lot of deep stuff in it. And I hope that’s a book that can inspire the next generation, and that I can also be inspired writing it. It’s not about food. I mean, obviously, that’s a component of it, but it’s so much more than that. And it’s nice, as a human, to be able to do that,” says Crenn.

“I think it’s also going to put me in a different place where people can engage differently with me,” she says. “I’ve participated at summits where I was the only chef. I was surrounded with thinkers and writers and innovators.” And she’d like to do more of that, it seems.

“Look, I’m human. Sometimes I’m struggling, sometimes I’m hurting, sometimes I have feelings, sometimes I’m heartbroken. I try to do good in the world even when I’m very sad,” she says. “Sometimes I want people to just have a regular conversation with me.”

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