Laura Flippen
Dominique Crenn’s French morning in the Mission—café au lait and pastry at Tartine Bakery.
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Beyond Imagination

Lauren Ladoceour - December 2013

An admixture of fanciful Beat syncopation and defiant French contrariness supported by a steel spine, Dominique Crenn occupies her own evocative world in a corner of San Francisco. Lauren Ladoceour visits the only female chef in the United States to be awarded two Michelin stars.

It takes exactly 98 minutes to walk to San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood from the booming restaurant hub of the Mission District. With its beer-pong tables and upturned collars, Cow Hollow is an odd destination for an elaborate 18 course tasting menu, especially one from Dominique Crenn, a French-born and -raised chef with the kind of cool edge that’s better suited to the Mission. But about an hour into the asphalt hike to her two year old restaurant Atelier Crenn, you reach the top of the hill at Fillmore and Broadway, where the bay finally reveals itself, colored by post-sunset lavenders and soft grays. The view speaks so much to the mood and feeling of the city: urban but surrounded by nature, playful but stylish, cozy but rebellious.

Crenn evokes those same environs inside her Michelin two-star restaurant, making her the first—and still only—female chef in the United States to receive as many. Inspired by the Bay Area’s natural surroundings, Crenn’s mood-driven modern offerings include poetic dishes such as Walk in the Forest: a salty-sweet-nutty trail of wild mushrooms over brush strokes of pine meringue, pumpernickel soil, hazelnut praline, and sorrel oil. At eye level, the edible landscape looks like an enchanted version of Muir Woods, a few miles away in Marin County.

Walk in the Forest makes appearances in both the five course menu ($95 plus an $85 drinks pairing) and the chef’s grand tasting menu ($180 plus a $150 pairing). The 18 course version is described, in a manner of speaking, on a paper menu through a poem written by Crenn every season. The only hint at what edible landscape is coming next to the minimalist table setting is found in a verse of that poem. For “Sitting on Top of the Dune, Feeling of Beach Sand Under My Toes,” a large nest of raw seaweed, looking like it just washed ashore, serves as a vessel for two perfect oyster leaves. It is a dish to be consumed first by sight, then by smell, the Pacific ocean striking the nose before it even reaches the table, and finally by taste, priming the palate for more. With all senses fully engaged, you can’t help but recall some memory of a beachside visit.

That’s all by design, says Crenn, an Iron Chef America winner and a protégé of Jeremiah Tower of the now-defunct Stars in San Francisco. (To her résumé add the InterContinental Midplaza hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia; Manhattan Country Club in Southern California; and opening chef at Luce at the InterContinental San Francisco, where she received her first Michelin stars in 2009 and 2010.) “I want to give you something back that maybe you felt a long time ago,” she says, sitting in a cafe near her apartment in the Mission. “Cooking is about a time and place. I need to know the soul, I need to know the people, I need to know the feeling, and then from that the food will come.”

Crenn is the first one to tell you that her cooking is deeply personal and is meant to evoke. See the hollowed log that carries salted caramels at the end of the meal or the cured and fermented beef tartare encased in egg yolk paper, as if wrapped up in a yellow blanket. Call it rustic and sensitive, but also entirely upscale and modern.

“So much thought and effort go into the dining experience at Atelier Crenn. It’s a really heartfelt experience,” says Pajo Bruich, executive chef of Sacramento’s Enotria. “What stands out, though, is her affinity for the sea, so clearly reflected throughout a meal there. It takes me on a journey to the beach.”

While Atelier Crenn may be all about feeling—read the letter to her now-deceased papa on the back of her lyrical menu—Crenn herself comes with plenty of edge and style. The former tomboy’s standard street uniform is made up of slightly frayed jeans, a white V-neck (sometimes with a black bra showing through), low sneakers, and a black moto jacket with a scarf French-wrapped around her neck. Mirrored aviators rest on the crown of her black bed-head hair. Multiple silver necklaces, wrist cuffs, and string bracelets, along with a thick smudge of black eyeliner for minimal makeup, recall stylings perfected by the likes of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. It’s only in her chef’s whites, if she’s rolled up the sleeves a little, that you’ll see a sizable tattoo on her right forearm of a girl wistfully looking off in the distance at a flying pig, as if reaching for a dream.

When Atelier Crenn first opened in 2011, the reviews were mixed. Some, like the San Francisco Chronicle, saw from the beginning that the focus was on the plate—the result of a chef who writes poetry, loves art, and is determined to achieve it in every dish. Call it culinaria poetica. Others complained that bread should be served, though a brioche roll accompanies the dashi lake with a shore of toasted grains and seeds, dotted with caviar pearls from Passmore Ranch, the sustainable fish farm in Sacramento. Recalling early reactions, Crenn, who tends to lean back casually and maintain warm eye contact during friendly conversation, pitches forward and crosses her arms in an iron clasp. “There were some assholes who came from the media, and people looked at my concept and thought I was crazy. But to tell you the truth, I dislike instant gratification, where people think you can get things right away. It takes time. You have to be patient. Steve Jobs had a vision, and it didn’t happen overnight.”

Self-aggrandizing aside, things did indeed evolve as they would in any atelier (an artist’s workshop). And after about a year into opening, Crenn’s focus turned from fish and sustainably sourced proteins to plants. See pastry chef Juan Contreras’ beet sorbet bulb with a dusted dark chocolate root end at the tip and a crisp beet leaf to garnish at the top, looking as if it had just been plucked from the ground. And on the savory side, there’s chef de cuisine Christopher Bleidorn’s work with Crenn to perfect carrot jerky, an idea that came about during a series of interviews with Crenn this past January when she was pivoting the direction of the Atelier toward vegetables.

“We wanted to reverse the roles and have meat or protein garnish the vegetables and not the usual other way around,” says Bleidorn.

Borrowing from a traditional Mexican technique of soaking corn to make masa for tortillas, Bleidorn and Crenn combine calcium hydroxide and water and soak heirloom carrots in the solution for up to four hours, during which time the roots develop a one-eighth inch-thick leathery skin. The carrots are removed and cured for several days in a 70 percent sugar/30 percent salt mixture laced with lemon, mustard seed, cayenne, parsley, and star anise. Once all the moisture is drawn out, the carrots are rubbery and bend easily. A quick rinse and drying precedes a four hour simmer in a simple syrup with mustard seeds, fresh carrots, and fennel to add a layer to the flavor. Strained and air-dried, the carrots are finally dehydrated for six to eight hours, shrinking to about half their original size. A final brushing of a maple syrup solution and garnishing of mustard or coriander seeds plus lemon peel transform the carrots into otherworldly creatures crawling along a mossy tree branch.

“You get this long, abstract, and really natural-looking thing you can’t define,” says Bleidorn, who records each iteration of the jerky in paper notebooks for the workshop’s archive. “It really fits the theme of the restaurant. It’s natural beauty.”

The carrots are an heirloom varietal Michael Passmore grows for her on part of his ranch’s 86 acres not delegated for raising fish. The growing program at Passmore Ranch is in its first year, and Crenn is being very explicit in her requirements, including the size of the carrots (seven inches in length, one-half inch in diameter at its widest point). “Vegetables,” she explains, “are the new meat.” And as with proteins, the way they’re raised affects the way they perform in the kitchen, she says.

Her interest in growing began in childhood. With roots in the northwest coastal Brittany region of France, the younger Crenn, donning shorter brown hair and thick glasses, spent a lot of time visiting the family’s two farms there, though she was born and raised in the city of Versailles outside Paris. On holidays, her father would take her to the coast, passing by the elder women in the traditional black and white garb of the region, to spend hours on the beach. They’d bird watch, take huge whiffs of sea air, and point out where the saltwater had carved crescents into the rocky coastline. Nature, her father (a politician), told her, was to be appreciated and cared for.

“Food is at the core of society, and as chefs we have a platform to affect the future of our food systems,” says Crenn, after returning from James Beard Boot Camp in which 15 chefs gathered to discuss sustainable food practices. “In 2016, the population will be 20 percent more than it is now. It’s going to be a mess. What’s going to happen to the food system? It’s something as chefs we need to put our heads together and be involved in. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but I’m like, let’s go further.”

And in that way, Crenn is helping shape new growers, such as Passmore. “I’m eating so many new things now, exploring tastes, understanding the plant more to develop it in a biodynamic way,” says Passmore, who also plants miner’s lettuce, ice plants, radish greens, and bronze fennel for Crenn. Sometimes he brings her snap beans with the whole blossom and leaf or the tiniest tomatoes, always finding her willing to try whatever he offers. She gives feedback (some late-summer tomatoes, for example, were too woody for her taste), and he takes note for future plantings. “Her approach to the whole ‘growth’ of the plant, not just the end product, is what has me jazzed with Dominique. I feel as though I’m learning so much from her in examining the whole plant for its use as food, much in the way that we take apart a fish and can utilize nearly all of it.”

Going forward, as sense of place and sustainability become a greater focus of the restaurant, Crenn is looking to expand Atelier Crenn, to create a space just as cozy and refined but perhaps without collegiate neighbors in the middle of a bar crawl. Wherever the atelier lands, she says, a few things will remain: “Beauty, family, and geography—that’s what Atelier Crenn is all about,” she says. “Food has to do with the way you look at life, people, and yourself. It needs to have texture in smells and flavor. Texture is beauty, a story. It can’t be flat. I could never be anywhere that’s flat.”