Photo Credit: Jordan Wise.

Chef FeaturesSan Francisco

Dominique Crenn: On Community, Culture & Restaurants

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Hayes Valley  

“There’s a saying that ‘Humanity is the ultimate community,’” says chef Dominique Crenn. Within her Bay Area institutions (Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn, Bar Crenn), the chef and restaurateur has shaped a movement that’s changing the culture of restaurants—and it’s a shift that starts long before a diner walks through the door.

Through twinkling pendant lights and sidewalk trellises, a warm glow illuminates Petit Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s 38-seat Hayes Valley restaurant. Inside, the space is welcoming and bright—the buzzy interior more closely resembles a dinner party amongst friends than a critically-acclaimed eatery—and an open kitchen gives diners a front-row seat to the mastery of Crenn’s cooking. Adorning the tables, antique silverware in mismatched patterns frame a gorgeous plate of oysters, accompanied by a small poetic menu outlining the journey of the night’s meal.

Photo Credit: Jordan Wise.

There’s alchemy to what Crenn has created here—it’s not just an altar to contemporary French cuisine or a quaint neighborhood gem, but a haven for community: “Petit Crenn is the big communal kitchen that my mother and grandmother had. It’s a home, it’s a family,” says the French-born chef, who frequently taps into her upbringing in Brittany, France, to guide the restaurant’s look and feel. “There is a connection, and it’s a home away from home.” A ‘home’ accented with familial touches: Crenn describes the silverware as a nod to the collected antique silver, picked up at local flea markets, found in her grandmother’s home.

Photo Credit: Jordan Wise.

If Petit Crenn is the heart, then its experiential cuisine is the soul: “For me, every plate needs to have a story,” gushes Crenn. This notion of storytelling is thoughtfully present at each of her restaurants. The tasting menu at Crenn’s Hayes Valley restaurant, which combines Breton flavors with a Northern California sensibility, is carefully composed in multiple courses, aiming to paint a picture–to capture a moment in time. “The story can be cerebral or emotional, but I think it’s very important. You feel the chef, you feel the soul, you feel the story.”

While Crenn’s cooking has become synonymous with an artful, contemporary approach to fine dining (her restaurants have been acknowledged with countless accolades, including Michelin stars and an award for “Best Female Chef” by World’s 50 Best Restaurants), it’s within this ‘home’ that the internationally-acclaimed chef has developed a mission-driven ethos for the work she champions. For Crenn, it wasn’t enough to perform on the highest stage; it was just as critical to be an agent of change within the restaurant industry, cultivating an environment of inclusivity, in her kitchens and beyond. “I think if you create a space where people feel cared for, where they can be themselves, and be creative and respected—even if they are different—you can be a winner,” shares Crenn. “And that’s what I’ve strived to create: a space [for individuals] to work with me, not for me. A place where they can be safe.”

Photo Credit: Jordan Wise.

Part of that inclusivity means providing equal opportunity, irrespective of gender. “There are a lot of great chefs out there, many of whom are female. We need to continue the conversation, that’s how the world will change.” As a veteran chef and operator, it’s Dominique Crenn’s mission to encourage progress within the industry: “I remember being told years ago, ’You can’t [speak up]; you’re not going to get more stars and won’t get a great review.’ And I thought, ‘That’s not why I opened this restaurant! I’m not chasing awards, I’m trying to speak up about things that matter.’ We need to consider the future, and give our children a safe place– a place where they can express themselves. It’s my duty to be a champion and use my voice. I have been so fortunate to be given a platform and I have to honor it.”

Just as stories are told through Crenn’s cuisine, a culture is being handcrafted in her kitchen.

Dominique Crenn recently teamed up with Resy to present The Women of Food—a six-night series, welcoming twelve female chefs from around the world to collaborate and cook together at Petit Crenn.

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