“There is no way that I feel like an icon, I just feel like I am doing my best to give back to those around me”: Chef Dominique Crenn on her latest award
Progressive – in the kitchen and socially – French chef Dominique Crenn has been honoured by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants academy with the Icon Award 2021. We spoke with her about the struggles and silver linings of running three restaurants through a global pandemic, alll the while raising awareness and driving positive change within the industry.
Lovely to speak with you Dominique. Here we go again: 50 Best is back, though this time we had to wait a little longer. Will you be in Antwerp for the ceremony?
Yes, of course. I am so excited to celebrate with my team.
I’m actually going to Brittany just before Belgium – it’s such a wonderful place. Is it still a major inspiration for you? Food-wise, what’s the most important, influential Breton element for you?
Oh wow. Brittany will always be an inspiration for me. I think the most important element for me is the sea. The water, its movement, its power and its gifts are truly inspiring.
From your perspective, how have the past 18 months been for the food industry in California and the US in general?
Difficult, very difficult but also very eye-opening. I feel like the industry used the last 18 months to reevaluate their operations and for those that were fortunate enough to make it through, a lot of them are making important changes to benefit employees and their quality of life.
Congratulations on receiving the Icon Award 2021. What does it mean to be voted an icon by the industry you work in? Do you feel like an icon? Does the industry need to recognise its icons?
Thank you very much! It is very inspiring to be voted as an icon by my peers. There is no way that I feel like an icon, I just feel like I am doing my best to give back to those around me. The industry needs to recognise not only icons but those that are doing the hard work every day. My team and every person that has come through Atelier Crenn has helped to bring me where I am today.
In 2016 you were also voted the best female chef in the world. What did that allow you to do in terms of bringing awareness of the challenges female chefs have to endure in the industry?
You know, I actually don’t think that labels should be placed on such accomplishments. I am just a human, same as every other chef, man or woman. I appreciate the opportunity to be given a platform as a woman but I wish the division didn’t exist. There are challenges that exist in our industry that should be addressed for all and I hope I am helping to bring those to light.
You were the first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars in the US. While it’s surely an honour to make history, it doesn’t sound right that no other female-led restaurant is worthy of this status for Michelin, does it?
No it doesn’t sound right because there are barriers that still need to be overcome in the industry. Our time is now- just wait and see!
As an LGBTQ+ advocate and activist, do you believe that all these major recognitions will help promote inclusivity? How do you hope to inspire the next generation?
I hope that the next generation sees that I live my life without regrets or hesitation. You have to be true to yourself in order to be happy. The next generation is doing amazing work to promote inclusivity and I am very eager to see what they accomplish.
Whether it’s about your personal health, environmental or cultural issues, you aren’t afraid to speak out. Do you believe that to make a significant change you have to make a scene? What’s your advice for people who are scared of being vocal?
You don’t have to make a scene to make a change. I think you need to be the change you want to see in the world. My advice for people who are scared of being vocal is to make a change in any way you can- donate, give, share, love.
Let’s talk about Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn and Bar Crenn. Unfortunately our experience of them doesn’t go beyond seeing pictures and videos over Instagram. Could you give us a little introduction to the three restaurants – what they are and how they differ?
Atelier Crenn earned three Michelin stars three years ago. It is a deeply personal project of mine where the menu is inspired by moments in my life and is written in the form of a poem. Bar Crenn, sits next door to Atelier, modeled after a 1920s Paris wine bar with small bites and a tasting menu. Petit Crenn is an homage to my home in Brittany with a more casual menu focused on fish and produce. Since the start of the pandemic, Petit Crenn has actually been operating in partnership with Rethink, a program that allows us to serve 2,000 meals per week to the homeless community in San Francisco.
For a moment, let’s look at the glass half full. Have the past months of on-and-off quarantine allowed you to explore new ideas and directions? What did you learn about your business and cuisine?
Ah yes, the pandemic really allowed me to slow down and think about what matters. It was so difficult to lose members of my team when we were forced into lockdown and it was very hard to survive through the darkest days of the pandemic. I learned that my team and I can do anything- we are resilient and creative and we are a family. Covid reaffirmed for me that success isn’t about money, it’s about what’s inside of you and who’s around you. I want to surround myself with love.
You grow your own produce at Bleu Belle Farm. What are the biggest challenges in creating a sustainable food system and what have you learnt from the experience?
The biggest challenge is to stop relying on convenience. It is so easy to rely on big-box operations, single-use plastics and fast food but these are the things that are killing us and our planet. There is so much beauty that can come naturally from the earth especially when you care for it in the right way. Our restaurants are becoming 100% plastic free, our compost goes back to the farm, and we strive every day to limit the amount of waste we produce. Connecting with the earth in this way is so rewarding. You know, the small changes that you make every day are making a big difference.
Do you believe it is possible for all chefs, including those on low budgets, to reach zero-waste status with sustainable investments?
Yes, I do believe it’s possible but I think the industry needs guidance. In the beginning, the task was daunting for my team but in time, it has become second nature. I hope that we can be ambassadors for this movement.
High-end restaurants often price people out. How can these fine-dining establishments better help their local communities and foster inclusivity?
Similar to the programme that we are running with Rethink at Petit Crenn, there are several ways to give back to the community and I am working for programs like this to become more mainstream.
During the past decade many racial and social issues have finally entered mainstream conversation. Is there a taboo issue that should be tackled soon?
Equality does not exist for all. We need to give a voice to women, LGBTQ+, minorities, children, and homeless.
Let’s end on a lighthearted note: what are the favourite dish, ingredient, kitchen tool and wine of Dominique Crenn?
Dish: anything my mom makes; ingredient: Shiro Dashi; kitchen tool: Hibachi grill; wine: rosé all day!
Thank you so much for your time and see you in Antwerp!
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor