Chef-Owner, Atelier Crenn, USA

Published Date: 1st January 2018

Open Windows | In Conversation

Chef-Owner, Atelier Crenn, USA

January 1st, 2018

When emotional security and encouragement are embedded in the cornerstone of a child, she continuously grows in life, creating with excellent calibration. One such individual is the World's Best Female Chef, Chef Dominique Crenn of two-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn. In a world of mass-machismo and mass-produced, Chef Crenn and her poetic culinaria stand out like Ikebana—refined—striking a delicate balance between flavours, aesthetics, and thoughtfulness.

Chef Crenn has established her artistry with her undeniable talent and profound attention to detail. Moreover, where her expertise transports us into a world indescribable, her distinct voice, one that speaks with equal parts of vulnerability, passion, and strength opens our mind to approach life with greater awareness.

You speak in a terrain familiar to me—the language of emotions. How do you infuse power into feelings when emotions are seen as a weakness?

Many people think showing emotions is a weakness; for me, it’s strength.

As humans we are all energy; what lies inside of us is about feelings and energy; you cannot touch it, but it’s there. People are afraid of being vulnerable, which I find quite disturbing because we need to get in touch with the way we feel about things otherwise as humans we are going to lose a sense of humanity.


How do you nurture your sensitivity while exercising its strength?

Sensitivity is to understand who you are and how it grounds you. Sensitivity gives you so much humility. Moreover, when you start to know what you are feeling inside and who you are as a person, you can be the stronger person in the world. That gives you more strength.

I often find that people who show toughness outside are the weaker people. The work inside of them hasn’t been done; they are using toughness as a shield. It’s not impressive.


What shapes your sensitivity? Is it the exposure you had as a child or are you sensitive naturally, or would you say it’s a combination of a few factors?

My sensitivity is a combination of many things.

My parents gave us [Chef Crenn and her brother] a beautiful gift in life, and they taught us to be in touch with our feelings—to feel and understand others’.

And I think my sensitivity comes from here. Being sensitive doesn’t mean that you are weak; sensitive means that you are in tune with yourself but also in tune with others, and that‘s very important.

As I walked with my dad looking at trees, feeling the wind go through the leaves, my dad would tell me: “Trees and flowers are alive, and they have feelings, you have to pay attention to your surroundings, and you have to feel.” So I would sit for hours in front of trees or flowers, and I wanted to feel them and watch them, how they were moving around and how they were alive.

Also, for me at a young age, the setting was art. I think getting exposed to art and music early in life is important.

You give your father’s painting’s prominence at Atelier Crenn. What elements, emotions or/and expressions did your father capture in his paintings that make them special?

My father was born (and grew up) in Brittany, which is an extraordinary place in the world. I think the combination of the earth, the sea, and the sky (in Brittany), is quite magical. I haven’t felt the same energy anywhere else in the world, maybe except Ireland. My father was very much a lover of the moment in time and nature; he was also in tune with what lies inside of us and what lies inside of this planet. We live on the surface, but what is under it? Most of his paintings are about water, but also about fruits and flowers, immortalising something that should be alive.


How has your father’s philosophy of life influenced you? And how does your view on life translate into living mindfully?

My parents adopted my brother and I. Their philosophy was to make sure that we understood that the world has a lot of layers, and part of it is diversity, colours, and feelings. And as humans we are unique, but we also need to welcome diversity of people and be curious about things. Their philosophy also taught us never to think you are better than others’, never judge anyone because you don’t want to be judged, and to be respectful of the surroundings.

My parents were Catholic (My Mom is still Catholic.) and very religious. That’s something I respect; I am not sure I am that religious. I believe more in energy and something else.

A big part of my parents’ philosophy was about equality, freedom, and peace. And they gave me a sense of respect and humility and to care about others, which was very important, and I am trying to practice these teachings.

In your book, Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste, your recollections—“when I was a little girl, as a child, as a kid”—speak to memories becoming your heartbeats. Would that be accurate?

Absolutely. Memories are my heartbeats. Memories are what form you. For me, the past and my memories are what make me today and every moment ushers in a very beautiful light. And I think that is why I find so much joy in everything that I remember. And I bring that joy—that taste that I had years ago—through food, to celebrate memories.


Does sharing deep feelings solidify memories?

Oh yeah, for sure. But remember you create new memories, and they become part of the DNA. It’s a continuation—its endless.

The initial memory gives you the core of your soul, of your idea of thinking, of your way of going through life.

You grew up in Versailles [France] and studied in Paris, yet memories of your childhood in Brittany seem to be distinctive and vivid. Is it (like you mentioned earlier) because Brittany is magical or is there something more?

Brittany is also vivid and special because everything that I have done with my parents had a purpose, so every moment was cherished very deeply. These experiences are so impactful that I don’t forget them.


What prompted you to create Atelier Crenn?

I despise the corporation and the commercial aspect in my industry…the disconnection between people. People wanted me to be a certain way, and I didn’t need that, you know. Moreover, we live in a world right now that is all about instant gratification. I didn’t want to be a part of it; I wanted to create a special business that means something to my team, and me.

I have more respect for people who are doing their own thing with a story behind it than people who are following others because it’s trendy.

What makes your leadership style effective?

Leadership is not being a boss. A leader is one who will put herself or himself in others’ place and who is there to inspire but also to be inspired by the things that are around you. At Atelier Crenn we all work together as a team. We push each other to do better every day and try to be excellent. And we respect and talk to each other. It’s easy to be a boss; it is not easy to be a leader. There are a lot of bosses out there and believe me they are not very successful. They just care about the money; they don’t care about the people. For me, the most important thing is not the money, it’s the people; it’s humanity.


Does your nature naturally lend itself to creating artistically and with consciousness?

When you are raised with a philosophy of consciousness and caring, it becomes the core of your thinking. Creativity is the next layer of your consciousness. You use what you know and you use who you are …it develops in a very organic way.


You draw from memories. What role does imagination play in creating your poetic culinaria?

Oh, imagination is a big thing in creativity. So when we look at life itself, is it an illusion or is it a dream? Or is a reality when you are in a dream? So you imagine a lot of things, you know. It’s about taking yourself to a place that is different. Imagination is important for your mind. And if you lose that, you lose a lot of things.


How do you keep your creative process fresh?

Through people, museums, art, music, literature, theatre, nature, the planet. And also, by listening to the craziness of this world. I don’t like the way people who call themselves leaders are leading countries today, the majority of them, all over the world. It’s all about greed.

I want to do something that is inspiring and uplifting. For me, it’s to lead the way I want life to be. And if I think I can inspire others to change their ways that will be great. I am not imposing anything.


Why do you choose to create with seasonal ingredients?

If you want to be greedy, you use tomatoes 365 days a year, because it’s what you are supposed to do to make money and that’s what people want.

I think it’s important to work with what nature gives you at a particular place and time. You have to go through seasonality; you have to go through what the earth is giving you; you have to go through what the farmer is giving you. Otherwise, you are violating the soul.

You are not supposed to eat meat every day. You are not supposed to consume industrial farming. It’s not natural to me.


How do our consumption choices contribute to wastage and hunger?

Everybody needs to have a conscience; conscientiousness is very important.

From the beginning of time, food is what helps you to feed your soul every day. It’s like drinking water or walking; food is a part of your day. What you do is over consumption–you have to have a big plate, and you have to have a lot of food. So there is a lot of waste. For example, in Brazil, there is 50% of food waste. And Brazil has a lot of hunger.

In San Francisco, so many people, the homeless community, are starving. And we are supposed to be one of the more affluent cities in America. So it’s all about values. We have to rethink things. I don’t have the answer but what I know is that what we are doing right now is not the right thing.


What is the complexity of everyday life that drives you?

I have three businesses right now, and I have more to come. And I want to take care of the group of people who are working with me—to make sure that they can feed their families. For that, you have to make money. But to make money, you have to be profitable. I do not want to make money by just being comfortable, by not following what I believe, So it took me more years to be where I am today.

But I am trying to do the right thing, and hopefully, money will come, but for me, the main thing is to make sure that I break even so that the people working with me are okay. It is complex.


An essential part of the culture at Atelier Crenn is for your team and you to have a meal together. Is this to foster camaraderie?

Yes. It’s important to us to spend money on the team. I don’t want to live in a five million dollar house, and I don’t need to drive a Ferrari. Some people care about all that; I do not.


At Atelier Crenn you emphasise cleanliness. Why?

Cleanliness is about purity; it’s about being respectful of your surroundings. You have to make sure that the space you are in brings clarity to your mind. Where there is no cleanliness, there is no clarity.


How do your lifestyle choices complement your sensibilities and evolution?

Well, if I don’t drive a big car, and if I don’t pollute the streets of San Francisco, then it becomes part of the air, you know, and it becomes a part of the climate. If I don’t go to MacDonald’s and buy 10,000 hamburgers, I don’t contribute to the industrial farming. I buy organic food; I don’t buy food with pesticide on it. It is little contributions that make changes.

You have to make conscious choices.

With my kids, I don’t feed them macaroni and cheese out of the box; I make food for them. I tell them from where their food comes. I don’t want to buy a piece of chicken that is packaged in cardboard and plastic. This chicken is not even chicken; it has been produced by ten thousand chickens living in a box. I would instead go to a farmer who has ten chickens. At least I can celebrate the life of that chicken. I am very thoughtful; I am very conscious.


What’s the difference between perfection and evolution?

Evolution is the core of growth. Whereas, when you do something regularly, you perfect it; that’s what you are going to have for the rest of your life. There is no movement in perfection; there is movement in evolution. The world evolves every day, and you have to change. You have to be a part of that movement, retaining a core of excellence, striving to do better every day.


Were there any small things you learnt the hard way?

I don’t think I learnt anything the hard way. I have had struggles, but I never get beat down. I am serving the world and the people around me, and I learn to be a better person. I think I have been lucky in life to have good people around me.


How has on-the-job-training helped you retain your essence while developing your craft?

School gives you some structure that is good in a sense, but for my craft, I got that structure from my parents—they taught me how to do things. After that, you learn on the field. If you haven’t gone to school, it’s more flexible, and maybe it’s better to try being more creative when you don’t have any set expectations.


How can fathers’ create memories with their children?

You can tell children a story about your world, but be curious about who they are; be curious about how children feel.

Parents are not curious about their children nowadays. They don’t ask: “How was your day today? Did something happen? Tell me about it.” You need to go back to making connections. This investment in children will be impactful when they grow up 20 years from now; children will remember those moments. I remember my dad asking me questions, and my mom, in front of the ocean, would ask me: “What do you see? What is the colour that you see?” They were curious about what I was seeing; that is very important.

It’s also essential to bring out the curiosity of children. Ask children how they feel, and make children ask questions. Ask children questions when you are with them in the fields or next to the water. And don’t impose anything on children.


What is the nature of dialogue you want your poetic culinaria to evoke?

The dialogue of an open mind—about others’, about diversity, and to what we do at Atelier Crenn.


Within the framework of your everyday life—that demands perfectionism and long working hours—how do you invest in and nourish your soul?

[Laughs] Meditation. Quality. Balance.


Do your pursuits as a chef and quests as an individual differ or do they seamlessly merge?

Oh, everything is merging. We talk the talk, and we walk the walk.

You say: “Atelier Crenn was a part of my dream, but when you realise a dream it is not a dream anymore. Other dreams come to you.” I wish you continue dreaming and for all your dreams to grow into reality. Merci beaucoup.

Thank you very much for your time.


To learn more about Chef Dominique Crenn please visit her website.