The San Francisco chef doesn't want to go "back to normal." She wants to change the entire industry.

By Maria Yagoda
Updated August 05, 2020
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Jordan Wise

Dominique Crenn is familiar with crisis. Last year, she underwent treatment for breast cancer, candidly chronicling her journey on social media. Over the past several years, her adopted state, California, has been struck by wildfires that have decimated homes, farms, vineyards, and forests. So the French chef, of San Francisco's three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn and its offshoots Bar Crenn and Petit Crenn, doesn't feel that the coronavirus crisis has derailed her core mission, which she describes as "engaging with humanity." Rather, it has expanded it.

"On March 15, I was sitting in the office with my colleague, and the first thing I said was, alright, we’re closing all the restaurants, and we’re making food for people, because that’s the way we’re going to do it," she said. "We adapted."

To remain in business, Crenn needed to orchestrate a substantial pivot; it happened suddenly, and then all at once. Within hours, she had switched from dining room service to to meal kits, takeout, and delivery across her concepts. She and her team also began to feed healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

"It's been such an amazing experience and humbling to be able to be at their service," she said. "What I know is that America is an amazing country, and for me America is people coming together to help each other." As a Lexus Ambassador, the chef has been supported by Lexus with funds to support her staff and continue sending meals to local hospitals.

Before COVID-19, Crenn says she employed 70 people; that number dropped to 20 when her dining rooms closed. While laying off the majority of her staff was difficult, she felt grateful that she could employ so much of her team with meaningful work, while knowing that the rest would be covered by unemployment, plus an additional 600 dollars a week from the state of California. But she is worried about the future of restaurants and its workers; it's why she has repeatedly called on the government to step up and help save independent restaurants from extinction.

Courtesy of Dominique Crenn

When restaurants can reopen, if at all, "it's going to be an entirely different world," said the chef, and laws need to change to reflect this. The Payment Protection Plan should be extended to October, for one, so restaurants can rehire. There should be employee tax relief, she said, as well as measures against astronomical rent that will make it almost impossible for restaurants to break even if they're at reduced capacity.

Crenn is in the process of imagining the post-pandemic world she wants to see. When it's safe to reopen, Atelier Crenn will still be a fine-dining restaurant. Bar Crenn will be a private event space, and Petit Crenn will pivot from restaurant to épicerie, selling fine provisions like olive oil, marmalade, tea, cheese, and tea, with small tastings and events for private parties. "Perhaps once a month, four people at a time, we'll cook dinner," Crenn said. "It would be literally farm to table, with products from the farm. I'm going to be on the grill in front of the customer, plating their food."

"We are trying to be safe, but we’re trying to be more creative and come up with new ways of doing things," she added. "As you know, I grew up in France; the épicerie was on every corner. I'm bringing a little bit of France."

Crenn knows that her ability to pivot during a crisis is a great blessing. She worries about the small businesses in her community that have less access to resources.

"The mom and pops down the street, where they make the pizzas and the tacos, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to reopen," the chef said. For them to have a fighting chance, people need to buy locally.

"Think about your community. Understand where your food comes from," she said. "Go to the farmers' market and connect with your farmers, and start to buy from them. If we do that—if we have high demand for community-produced things—the demand can be higher, the price can go down, and we can support the people around us."

Crenn hopes that we come out better on the other side of this. "Let's be more kind. Let's be more conscious. Let's be more helpful," she said. "That’s what I hope is going to happen."