Dominique Crenn

Taste Bud Profile

Dominique Crenn

Occupation: Chef
Location: San Francisco, CA
Known For: Being the first woman in America to win three Michelin stars
Restaurants: Atelier Crenn, Bar Crenn, Petit Crenn
Books: Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste, Rebel Chef
Comfort Food: Parmentier
Favorite Ingredient: Tomatoes

I was lucky enough to experience Chef Dominique's food at Atelier Crenn some years ago. It was presented in the form of a poem, each dish an homage to a memory—a person, a place, an ingredient she loved. Chef Crenn is a natural story-teller. She has done it for years through her food, and was generous enough to share some of the inspiration points of her life with me for this interview. She connection to her own memories, to the lessons she learned from her mother and grandmother, and her commitment to leaving this world a better place for her daughters is as admirable as any award.

Dominique Crenn
Dominique Crenn
Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn: When I was very young, I was always with my mom or grandmother in the kitchen. I think the garden was always a fairytale for me. I used to poke around, and pick things, and bring them back to my mother or grandmother to cook and eat. I think it was a tomato that changed my life. It was what made me understand that communing with nature was so powerful. It wasn’t just about food on my plate, it was a connection that I didn’t have any answer or explanation for. In picking a tomato from the vine and eating it, I found an understanding of the connection of the vine to the earth, and how the earth had brought that magical vegetable there for me to put in my mouth. I asked so many questions of my mother and grandmother about the garden. 

My family had a fruit farm in Brittany, so food was always part of my education. I’d help my grandmother with tasks, like cleaning up peas. With everything I did with her, there was always a story behind it. And even though I can’t say that I understood all of the words that were said, there was something that was built in to my childhood from the beginning. I think it’s so important for kids to have that built in. My own kids are living on a farm right now, and they wake up every morning and go out into the garden and they experience it for themselves. Olivia is obsessed with fennel right now, the smell and taste of it, and as an example, I can use that interest as an opportunity to teach her about all its different uses, and how it shows up as the vegetable, as pastis, and as licorice flavor. 

Dominique Crenn

One of the incredible things about young people is that they are naturally curious, and it’s the job of an adult to foster and encourage that nature.

When I was growing up, food was always part of the school curriculum, and I think it should be of education now as well. Food is so important in France. It’s not about just picking up a product and cooking it, it’s really about the taste of it, how it makes you feel, and also why it’s good for you. It’s also about whether it’s good for your soul, for our souls, and for the environment. When I talk to farmers who grow the produce for my restaurant now, I am reminded of my talks with my grandmother—why we grow this and not that, and the reasons things are done a certain way.

Food was connected not just to your personal experience of it, but to the purpose of growing it, and its effect on the planet. If you talk about food with children, they will grow up with healthier ideas about food.

There’s a hearth from the 1600s on my grandmother’s farm, and the smell of the fire and the wood and the food that came out of it has always been the thing that takes me home when I smell it. That smell, and the spices in the stews that we made at home. Often I can walk in to Atelier Crenn and feel immediately at home just because we have those spices there. I walked in to the kitchen the other day and asked “what are we cooking?” Though I already knew—it was bouillabaisse, the recipe I had given this cook, and honestly I already knew it from the smell. It’s so distinct, and it is so ingrained in my nose. I think this happens a lot to kids. I could describe it without even smelling it. I try to describe those feelings even when the smell isn’t there—I would tell my kids that the smell is life walking into a beautiful room and suddenly it feels like something has wrapped you up and made you feel warm and cozy like a blanket, and you just want to cuddle with it. I’d tell them that because that’s how it made me feel, and that's what stays with me. And it’s the kind of description that would make them say “Oh I want that!” I think these things become part of us when we are babies and children, so it’s important to make sure those scent memories are strong ones. Food anchors people. Somebody could be very angry about something, and then suddenly smell something that reminds them of a good point in their lives, and it’s that smell that anchors them and brings them back to who they are. 

Dominique Crenn

I think you have to immerse kids in their sense of smell even when they're babies, and to not take that communion of food and family for granted.

Parents are busy, they are on the go, and of course not everybody is cooking all the time—but I would say the same thing in terms of connection. Even if you just make mint tea for yourself, just something small to make yourself feel good, have them smell it. That smell will stick with them too, the same way it does with cooked meals. Connect them with that smell. When they eat, ask them to smell their food. When I cook for my kids, I always ask them to smell everything—can you smell this ingredient? Can you smell these herbs? They love doing it, and this way I’m teaching them that the taste isn’t anything without the smell—the scent is what creates a feeling, and the feeling is the memory that sticks in your brain. 

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Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the co-founder and Chief Imaginator at Kalamata’s Kitchen. As a former sommelier, she’s also very proud of her unofficial title as  “Professional-Try-Things-Twicer”, and is on a mission to keep minds open and forks ready everywhere.

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