Dominique Crenn on the Fate of Restaurants: 'We're Looked At as Disposible'
Dominique Crenn, the San Francisco-based three Michelin star chef, spoke to Food & Wine about her long-awaited autobiography, Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters, which released in June. Co-authored with Emma Brockes, the book is a lyrical telling of Crenn’s life thus far, starting from her adoption as a baby near Paris, through her lesser-known stint as a hotel chef in Indonesia, to her work at a country club near Los Angeles.
Crenn is known for her criticism of gender discrimination in the industry, famously shirking her World’s 50 Best Female Chef award, which she received in 2016. She’s also taken action on sustainability in the way that few other chefs have—she took meat off the menu at all three of her restaurants last fall.
In this interview, we spoke with the French-born chef about her new book, the future of restaurants, and how the industry can change for good.
Why did you decide to write a book?
Penguin came to my agent, and it was great. They came to me and said, "You know what? You have a voice Dom, and you need to tell your story.” And I always wanted to do that, to be honest with you. And I was just like, “Yeah, no cookbook, great." My first language is French, it's not English, so I needed someone to help me to write the book. It was an amazing process with Emma.
What was that process like?
Emma used to come to San Francisco, then I’d see her in New York, too. And we used to spend days together, in the car, anywhere we were, and there was a recorder. I narrated my life to her in hours and hours and hours of recording. She was writing and she was recording. I think the process was for her to really understand my voice and understand where I was coming from. And I think she did an incredible job. You can feel me through it, which is not easy sometimes with writers.
Emma and I connected too because she has two twin girls and she's a single mother. I mean, it was pretty amazing, but it was intense. We started in 2018, then in 2019 cancer happened. It was a very tricky time, but we made it work. And then we were done by the end of 2019.
In your book, you talk a lot about the importance of intuition in leading you to success. Can you talk more about that?
I think it started at a very young age. What I want to tell people is, you have to believe your gut. You have to find answers from what your gut is telling you. I always work with intuition. At the end of the day, you have one life to live. Look at it as being in a relationship with someone. We’re always intuitive about whether it’s going to work out or not work out, but sometimes we’re like no, I really like this person. I want to hang out with them. But you knew since the beginning it was never going to work out.
You’ve spoken about the pandemic’s impact on restaurants. How do you think they can or should change?
Right now, a lot of my colleagues and I are working on different laws. In our industry, we’re always looked at as being disposable. We were left out, and we didn’t have any support from the government. But we were the first ones to be at the forefront of feeding people. It’s interesting. We've been treated as retail, but retail and restaurants are totally different, the margin is totally different. In the restaurant business, if you break even, you’re lucky. It's a really hard business, it's a survival business. And we don't want to survive anymore.
We don’t have a pension—well, unless you work for a union hotel, but that’s different. I talked to José Andrés yesterday, I was talking to my friend Tanya about it. I’m talking to a lot of my industry to maybe try to create a guild and coalition where people, when they retire, would get a pension. We pay taxes through the years, we pay for unemployment, but we don’t have a pension. Small businesses are almost 60 million people that were employed before the pandemic. We represented over 4% of the GDP of America. And those people do not have a place when they retire to get a pension. That is crazy to me.
What do you say to people who say that celebrity chefs don’t deserve the same financial assistance as other small restaurants?
I mean, this is interesting. Some chefs that don’t have any restaurants and call themselves a chef on TV, yes, they make a lot of money. But not us. We are using our platform to lend a voice, but we don’t make millions of dollars. My fiancée and I, we have a house in LA and that's where she and I try to spend a lot of time. But I have a very simple life. People think that because we are on TV or we are in the media, that we... No. We're grinding every day, we're trying to make a business valuable and to survive. A restaurant is very hard work. And the margin is not the profit. It's not large. I'm not saying that I'm not lucky, but I'm just telling the truth of it.
Are you concerned for the existence of your restaurants?
Yeah. We have three restaurants and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We [reopened] Atelier Crenn on July 14 and it’s been booking, which is really nice. I want to thank the customers and people who believe in us. But my restaurant is very small; it’s 24 covers.
And Bar Crenn, we’re not going to reopen right away. It’s going to be a private room right now. I don’t know when Petit Crenn is going to reopen. I mean, we’re serving food to go and we have a little épicerie; we’re producing a lot of things from the farm. It’s really interesting, but it’s not going to be sustainable for the next six months. We’re doing it because we want to be able to offer it to the community. But at the end of the day, it's business. We have rent to pay, we have taxes to pay. So it's like, do we reopen just one and let go of the other? I don't know. I don't want to, but I'm talking to a lot of other friends of mine that own restaurants. I'm telling you, a lot of San Francisco will be closed and never reopen.
Many restaurants right now are also grappling with their responsibility to racial justice in light of Black Lives Matter. How have you grappled with this?
When I came to America, I saw the inequality right away with the food industry. And I don’t really talk about it in the book, but the racism here, it’s so predominant and so impregnated in the history of America. Coming from France, we have a lot of problems with how North Africans and Africans are being treated. From the colonization to the war, the Algerian war, and I know that.
I've been very lucky. I was adopted by a beautiful and incredible French couple from Brittany. I was born in Versailles, but also half of me, it's North African. And yet it's half European. So I didn't have to endure that discrimination. A couple of times people looked at me and they just couldn't figure out where I was coming from. But I think, because I was holding myself in a certain way, and because of my dad’s name maybe, that I was privileged. But I’ve always fought for justice from a young age.
What needs to change in the industry?
First of all, I think we need to hire people in an equal way. My friend Tanya told me that she applied at one restaurant one day and she was accepted to have an interview, and when she walked into the restaurant, they looked at her and they said, "Oh, no, it's not going to work out."
A lot of people who own restaurants probably have been educated in a closed way. When you look at the media around them, from the day they were born, to today, I don't think they were exposed to other cultures. Talk about white privilege. I don't put them down, but I say, "You've been an adult for a long time. I think it's time for you to wake up right now and to take action, because you hurt a lot of people, but now you have the opportunity to be a better person. So do it. Do it for you, for yourself, for your family and for others.”