San Francisco (CNN) — Meeting Dominique Crenn for the first time mere days after her restaurant Atelier Crenn is awarded three Michelin stars is sheer luck.
It might be intimidating if not for Crenn’s down-to-earth nature and her insistence that nothing’s changed despite being the first female chef in the United States to helm a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Crenn’s business-as-usual mantra may be just modesty at work or may be just pragmatism — after all, she and her team have prep lists to navigate, mise en place to organize and guests to feed. But there’s no mistaking the heightened pulse of energy in the Atelier Crenn dining room and around Crenn in particular.
It’s palpable, in part because of the way Atelier Crenn’s dining room exudes calmness. Thick rugs, generously sized chairs and soft paintings by Crenn’s father build a soothing atmosphere. This is not a dining destination for quick table turning, and one can imagine what three hours of eating here entails.
Atelier Crenn is an upscale, sophisticated environment, but not chef Crenn’s only one. Diners in search of more lively surroundings would do well to check out Bar Crenn, her wine bar next door. With the triple-star at the helm, taste buds will be charmed regardless of where you find yourself.
A starry affair
You might say things are going well for the San Francisco-based chef and restaurant owner, who’s racking up the stars the last couple of years.
Previously, Atelier Crenn had two stars, and Bar Crenn, opened in March 2018, had one — already notes of distinction for the accomplished chef.
But Crenn is cool about it. They’re just stars, after all; Crenn insists that her team doesn’t do what they do for the sake of awards. “We wake up in the morning because we want to, and love to, give people an incredible experience.”
Formidable cooking skills are part of the Crenn success story, but just but one piece of the plate, so to speak.
When asked to describe her food, Crenn doesn’t talk about flavor or cooking technique. She doesn’t list her favorite ingredients or go on about the best way to prepare poultry. In fact, Crenn recently announced she’s banning meat entirely from her restaurants.
Instead, she waxes poetic:
“My food is very personal. It’s emotional. It’s a language. Every dish has a story … it’s a dialogue with others … it’s my life. My struggle, my dreams, my tears, my love, my everything.”
For Atelier Crenn diners, who prepay for a meal ticket when making a coveted reservation — $345 (plus add-ons) for Chef Dominique Crenn’s multicourse tasting menu, $450-$495 for a seat in the newly remodeled pastry kitchen and $475 for something called The Grand Feast — the experience will also likely be personal.
While Atelier Crenn may count a handful of regulars among its nightly guests, for the majority of diners this is a special occasion restaurant. A bucket-list dining destination of Per Se and Eleven Madison Park caliber.
Only, Atelier Crenn is run by a woman hell bent on telling stories through elevated cuisine.
At home by the bay
When she arrived in San Francisco, a city the French-born Crenn describes as non-judgmental, she felt at home immediately.
Still, it would be a few years before she’d lay down roots — before she’d have her “home away from home” in the 24-seat Atelier Crenn.
“At home” is how Crenn wants guests to feel when dining at a Crenn establishment, too. She wants to connect with diners through food, through the emotional responses food can elicit — like when people “get tears in their eyes because it [a dish or food item] triggers something within themselves.”
Crenn desires more than creating delicious food or gaining stars, though those are happy bonuses to her professional success.
“There is no competition here,” Crenn, who counts Alice Waters and Cecilia Chiang among her cohorts, says of San Francisco’s nurturing environment.
Food as competition doesn’t appeal to her; you won’t likely find Crenn on “Iron Chef” anytime soon.
For now, she’s happy to wile away her time in the “incredible” locale of San Francisco, a city that has allowed her to be herself and to “be able to cook something very personal.”