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Dominique Crenn on Critics and Creating a Dialogue

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

[Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]

It's been almost exactly a year since Luce's former hot French chef Dominique Crenn opened her solo project Atelier Crenn in Cow Hollow. Since then, Crenn has continued to take risks with artistic plating and atypical tasting menus. Suspecting to alienate some, she's ended up with a solid local following and a great bit of global media attention: from German critics to New York's Alan Richman to our very own Bauer, who bestowed a somewhat controversial 2.5 stars upon her. We sat down with Madame Crenn to talk about what's changed, what's stayed the same, and what's on tap for the future.

Looking back on the first year, did it turn out how you expected? Of course, it's an evolution. It was a baby, now it's an adolescent. We've been getting a lot of great feedback and I'm excited.

How has the menu evolved? We want people to come here and have an experience. That won't happen with two courses. We want to create a menu that's a story. It's winter, ok, let me tell you a story about winter. Right now we have 18 moments, so it's 18 servings of different types of food. It's like a dialogue.

Is that new format offered in addition to what you had before? Yes, then we have what I call the 5-courses "classic of Atelier Crenn" menu, which ends up being about 10 dishes. I wanted to give the customer the ability to feel an escape. Life is too short. We are too stressed.

I know what you mean. I evolved the concept around culinary escape, and the percentage getting the tasting menu is like 80%.

How is your following in the neighborhood? Who's coming in here? We have a lot of repeat customers which is really nice. A lot of people that came last year at the beginning just came back. I have a lot of people from out of town. It's a lot from New York, Chicago, Canada, Toronto, English, a lot of French, Denmark, Norway, we got a huge article in like the Bon Appetit of Germany. They did a big article on San Francisco. I'm waiting for an article that's coming out in El Pais in Spain.

As a chef, do you have a favorite type of diner that comes in? No discrimination. I welcome people that are open. It's not about agreeing or disagreeing with me, it's about coming here to enjoy yourself and if you want to give me feedback, that's great.

Are there times when you can tell someone doesn't get what's happening? Yeah, and then you make them laugh, and they can write whatever they want. With the tasting menu people know what they're getting into. It's like Coi, people know what they're getting at Coi.

They should. They should. Or Benu, or Saison. They really want to experience the chef and philosophy and the kitchen.

Do you read your Yelps? Not really. Not anymore. There's a lot of controversy. The thing is, we are in a country where everybody can speak their mind. The internet and blogs are great things, but some times people take it to the next level, and if they had a bad day and they didn't like the parking attendant, or the restaurant didn't serve Sweet n' Low and they're upset...We've been lucky because we haven't been trashed on Yelp. We probably have bad reviews, but I know there are restaurants that are suffering, and it's not fair.

Sometimes your cooks serve dishes to the dining room. How's that going? It feels good. I think it's good for my kitchen also. It gives them a sense that they're a bigger part of this restaurant. I think the customers also like it a lot. When you set the plate and tell them you plated it, the customers think it's really nice.

How about the Gouge Eye Farm? I'm working with Peter Jacobsen now, a farm in Yountville.

So you switched. I switched. Peter purchases everything for The French Laundry. Thomas Keller bought a hectare of land next to the restaurant that he's developing. He's been growing a lot for me, and I'm very excited, and it's not that far. He's also very passionate. I'm building a page for him on the website. He's traveled the world and he takes different seeds and tries different things. In fig season he had like seven different kinds of fig and he knows everything about them. He comes in to eat and we talk and he gets it.

Tell me about an ingredient you're really excited about from him. These little potatoes, like a hybrid, it looks like sunchoke, but it's a potato. You can even eat them raw. It's beautiful. It's got a little bit of purple to it. When you eat it, there's like some apple flavor in it. He also had some really beautiful tiny eggplants that I've never seen in my life. Obviously, lovage, cress, baby vegetables, greens that I've never seen before. There are a lot of things.

Wow. He's also my dentist.

What? [Laughing] He's my dentist, also. He's very detail oriented. He's one of the greatest dentists.

Can you elaborate? No. That's all I have to say.

Your teeth are very white. So, what are the biggest changes since the beginning? For sure, you see the food on the plate is very focused now. Still very creative but very focused now. I have an amazing sommelier. Will has done some amazing things. I think the service is very tight. The plates, the flow...I think it would better.

Most places improve in a year. When you see people from all over, different countries, but they all have the same menu, and they're here to really's so nice to feel the energy in the room. I'm floored sometimes.

Obviously it's your first year so many have reviewed your restaurant. What was the most surprising review? They say what they had to say. None of them really surprised me because I knew with the style of food we're doing and the philosophy and the concept, it's hard for some people. I just want them to be fair. I want them to be a critic. Everything you do in life is very subjective. When you come to review someone, they might not be a part of your objectivity, but you need to be objective with them. When you come with preconceived ideas, well, I just want fairness. From that I can evolve.

Do you ever take your reviews as a form of advice? I mean with Bauer he was wondering if we were going to do a Golden Gate Bridge dessert, but we haven't gotten to it yet.

Is it in the works? [Smiling] No. I appreciate the food critics. There is a reason they're here. I'm not going to agree with every one or every chef, but I'm not going to go and slam them. Sometimes I see food writers don't have any background in cooking and they go to write about food, and it's hard. I think they make some good points, and other points, and I just take it all in.

Do you think critics outside San Francisco might understand your food differently than local critics? Other critics don't have any agenda. I think they are more open. You know we are in a city where there are a lot of great restaurants. There are amazing bistros, and mom-and-pop places. People that read a lot of reviews, they're not really the people that would come here. Sometimes reviews have to be commercial enough that everyone can read them. I think when something's $200 per person, some critic think they need to say they're not sure about some things. Some critics, I think, have an agenda. Sometimes the critics write to get the kudos of the public. One critic said she wanted me to be more commercial.

As in, appealing to the masses? Yeah, and that's not what I'm trying to do. So when I read that I should be more commercial, that's not me. Yeah, I welcome everybody, but when you see those words, it's like okay. But I respect everybody, and we didn't really get a bad review. Alan Richman was really cool.

His voice is different from what you read around here. Yeah, and he's a big boy. I think more people from outside want to come here and take a fresh look at what's going on here. Like the article in the German magazine, I mean this guy is like one of the top critics there. He comes from a different place, but he doesn't have any agenda. There are a few articles coming out. One in a big Swedish magazine. Sweden is pretty much on top of the food world now. So it's interesting to see them come here. Matter of fact, in Sweden, we'll be in three magazines. One is Metro. They're not out yet.

Exciting. It's nice to see other people's way of thinking. I don't know if you know what's going on in Europe but it's booming. In France, you know France was in a box for a long time. It's amazing what's going on there now. All these young chefs and creativity. They're doing their own thing. I'm also trying to a dinner with Kobe [Desramaults] at In de Wulf in Belgium, I'm setting up something at Roberta's in New York with Carlo [Mirarchi], and I'm going to get people in here. This is what I'm about. Not everyone might like what I'm doing, but I'm doing it.

You're making yourself part of the global community. Yes, but I love San Francisco, and I'm here. When I go to France for the Omnivore Festival, I'm representing San Francisco and if local critics don't want to embrace me, I don't care, because I'm here for the people of San Francisco.

Is there anyone in particular you're really excited about who's coming in the next year? There are a few people, but I can't really say their names right now. When Omnivore is here we'll do dinner with another chef, a pretty big name.

Can't wait. I did one with Jeremy Fox.

Have you talked to him since he went to LA? Yeah, he's doing great. I love him. I want the best for him. He's one of those chefs that's very focused and he wants to do something he believes is right. He will.

So have the wheels been spinning toward another restaurant at all? Maybe...books, writing a book.

Would you ever open anything in another city? Or another country? Yes. Yes, but I don't want to open a restaurant just to open a restaurant. It needs to be right.

So back to that book. I'm getting an idea together and finding the right person that can help us with that. It will be a different book.

Not a bunch of recipes? I love pictures. It will be more philosophy, thinking, dialogue, including a lot of people. It's not just Atelier Crenn. I'll definitely include the people that work with me. If they stay with me, they will be in the book. I'm happy.

You seem really happy. It's still stressful, but it's a good stress. You know, like I said to one of my cooks this morning, it doesn't matter how many good reviews you have or if GQ writes an incredible review about us, but the next day we have to come back in the kitchen and cook great food, so it's like "keep grounded." What I do today, I'm going to do tomorrow and I'll be better at it. Yeah, I'm going to do faux paux, but that's life.

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Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore Street, , CA 94123 (415) 440-0460 Visit Website

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore St., San Francisco, CA