I remember when David Chang from Momofuku talked down the San Francisco food scene. He called us out for having “only a handful of restaurants that are manipulating food ... fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate with nothing on it.” As an Alice Waters groupie, I felt defensive. Okay, so most of the dishes on the menus at my favorite restaurants were simple. But not one could deny their hearty deliciousness.
Then I dined at Atelier Crenn, a restaurant known for sculpting ingredients into artful pieces using modern, international techniques. I was readying myself for a trip to Spain, where molecular gastronomy is par for the course, and I knew it was time to expand my horizons. Halfway through the Chef’s Tasting Menu (somewhere in between the lemon-foamed oyster and the flash-frozen foie gras), I had a revelation: This is the future of food in San Francisco!
I spoke with Dominique Crenn, the Michelin-starred mastermind behind Atelier Crenn, to find out where her restaurant is leading us.
Where did your inspiration for food artistry come from?
My father. He was a politician but he was also a painter. We had a lot of art and books at home, and his friends were very involved in the art world. It's beautiful when you are a young child and different forms of expression are sparking your imagination. You might not understand it at the time, but being exposed to art at such a young age informs what you do later as an adult.
You seem to follow your own rules.
I follow the rules of my own integrity. Some people may not agree with what I'm doing at Atelier Crenn, but everything is subjective in life. You don't have to like what we are doing, but we want to start a conversation.
With so much emphasis on the aesthetics of your food, do you ever worry you will compromise the flavor of your dishes?
I've always loved presentation, but not in a contrived or over-the-top way. Nature is beautiful — it's imperfect and organic. So it's not about making a pretty plate. It's about telling a story with the ingredients. If I use mushrooms, I'm not just putting them on the plate. I'm telling the story of what inspired the dish — walking into a forest, foraging for the mushrooms, seeing the path. It's a journey. I use my sixth sense to get the presentation of the dish and the smell and the taste to come together.
For a long time, the Bay Area has been smitten with the way of Alice Waters - fresh, local ingredients that are simply prepared. Do you see things changing?
Absolutely. Alice Waters brought the French way of doing things to San Francisco, and that was great because the city was very Italian for a long time. But her thing is not the only thing going on. I work with my local farm. I may manipulate the ingredients, but I keep their integrity. When you have new and modern techniques, you want to evolve with them. I like to push people's boundaries.
Do you think diners are becoming more open minded about other styles of cooking?
Yes, and they have to. Chefs are finding their own voices and food artistry is just another school of cooking. In painting you have modernists, cubists, impressionists, naturalists, and everybody comes together. You don't compare Van Gogh with Picasso. You appreciate them for being two different painters. What I foresee is that San Francisco will embrace both philosophies. Because at the end of the day, it's about putting good food on the plate.
What international chefs have inspired you?
I come from France. It's a beautiful country and it's very inspiring for a chef. I'm pretty much in the school of Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger (who had a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Brittany on the west coast of France). These two men greatly inspired me when I was a young girl — their philosophy and the way they were approaching food. When I ate their food for the first time, my mind was opened very quickly.
Their food is about nature. It's about connecting with the ingredient and understanding its history. There is so much more to cooking than just picking the vegetables and putting them on the plate. It's important to understand where they come from and the way the farmers work with them. If you have this kind of knowledge and integrity, your story will come through to the plate.
What sort of culinary San Francisco do you imagine in five years?
I think in five years San Francisco is going to be on top. We'll be the city people come to in the United States for a diversity of culinary experiences. In Spain, chefs are expressing themselves in so many different ways and it's beautiful. You go to San Sebastian and you have restaurants like Arzak and Mugaritz and so many amazing pintxos places. You drive a little bit away and you have El Cellar de Can Roca. San Francisco has the best weather and the and the best wine, and the soil can produce some amazing things. We also have an amazing community of artists. We can be a culinary destination like Spain.
What do you wish was different about the San Francisco food world?
I want to create a chefs council that gathers a lot of restaurateurs. I want to brainstorm with the local and federal governments about what we can do to promote restaurants and help them to survive so we can keep bringing tourists to the city and country. This is what they do in Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Their governments help the restaurants to stay alive so they can continue to spur the economy.
If you are looking for a palate trip of astronomical proportions, reserve a table at Atelier Crenn, and fasten your seat belt. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6–10 p.m. Break open your piggy bank and spring for the Chef's Tasting Menu for $115 per person. You won't be sorry.
This story originally ran in The Bold Italic's Volume 2: What's Next? magazine, which is available for purchase as a single issue or with a subscription here.