dominique crenn / poetic culinaria
words: samine joudat
photos: matt edge
Atelier is a French word. It loosely means workshop, and suggests that those laboring inside its hallowed walls are not simply workers, but artisans. When you begin to understand who Chef Dominique Crenn is, it becomes quickly evident why her restaurant bears the moniker. It’s a signal that what she is striving to create is a narrative meant to awaken emotions deep inside you; food is simply her medium of choice. It’s also an homage to her father, a painter and politician that inspired her to covet more than what is material in this world.
Dominique is, in many ways, the embodiment of Baudelaire’s flâneur - a figure who at once evokes a melancholic yearning for the past, a drifting contemplation of the present, and a longing for the eternal. She writes poems evoking memories of her childhood in France that function as menus for her restaurant. Like her father, she is as interested in human creativity, emotion, and dialogue, as she is in food. This is the vision that she has carried with her from the start, and she tells me that it’s this vision that colors everything she chooses to do, regardless of the financial or critical implications.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with her in Downtown Los Angeles before she took part in a recent panel to discuss the topic of food waste and sustainability. I had first learned of her in an article by food journalist Alan Richman in 2011, and immediately I felt connected to her voice and vision. Since then, Crenn has won numerous prestigious awards and accolades. I won’t list them because I think they’re peripheral in the context of what she has set out to do. You only need a few minutes with her to understand how passionate she is about life, how much she cares for people, and how deep her influences run.
She tells me about a recent trip to Japan (she tries to travel often for research and inspiration) and the beauty of how much purpose things have in Japanese culture. She says she was fascinated by the grandeur of Dover Street Market Ginza in Tokyo, the flagship retail store of Comme des Garçons genius Rei Kawakubo. As she tells me, I can’t help but link the two of them. Neither received formal training in their respective field; Crenn studied economics and Kawakubo studied aesthetics. And both have managed to become influentially successful artists in spaces long dominated by men.
Our conversation meanders onward towards the role of food and the state of socioeconomics in the world. Here too, Crenn is progressive and innovative. She is a champion of seasonal dining and local farming (and farmers). Her menus serve only fish and vegetables, maintaining a sustainable impact on the planet. She recently visited Haiti as part of the Root Project, an initiative she is co-leading with Michelle Jean and the Pan American Development Foundation to help local Haitian farmers plant coffee trees and rebuild the infrastructure they lost to natural disaster.
Her newest restaurant, Bar Crenn (her third, after Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn), is meant to evoke a sense of home, where people of all backgrounds, races, and notions can come together to enjoy food and wine while they share stories and exchange meaningful conversation.
Wherever important dialogue pops up in the world of food, she seems to be there, eager to collaborate and lend her creative ideas to help push humanity onwards and upwards. As she evolves going forward, it will be a joy to see how Dominique Crenn’s aspirations continue to unfold as new works of art.
When I ask her if she has read my questions in advance, she says: ‘You know I never read questions, I like to be spontaneous.’
You’ve said before that you were lucky to have parents who allowed you to look at the world through art and literature and politics, all of which are part of who you are and how you approach food, among other things. How is preparing food informed by your way of viewing the world?
When you think about food, it is the core of society. And when you look at food and where food comes from, it kind of gives you a window into what the society or community is about. That’s also part of every animal kingdom, to attain food is a survival instinct. It’s also about how we treat the planet, this is going to define who we are going to become. Because who are we becoming right now? It’s a very important thing to understand that everything is connected with food. The social economy, social changes, political issues are also connected to food, everything goes back to food. I think sometimes people use food to suppress other people, I really believe that.
But, food is also energy, you know. As an artist, I’m looking at food and I’m looking at the energy, it’s about thinking about things, thinking about life.
Food, art, philosophy, music, and fashion all seem to be linked. It’s one of the reasons I started this magazine. What do you think it is that links them?
It’s human emotion obviously, it’s the ‘cognitive-ity’ of things, or how you think about things. For me the ingredient is the color and I’m painting on an empty canvas. So if the ingredient, the color, is not good, the finished product is not going to be good, or the message and the narrative is not going to be good. If I’m using food that is not produced properly - the final result here will also be going inside of your body - the energy that you will be putting in your body is not the right kind of energy. There needs to be a sense of purity with food.
What do you say to those who adhere to the idea that food should be gastronomically simple, and that it should appear on the plate like it was farmed?
I think you’re going into a more intellectual and cerebral way of looking at things; I believe that we need to trigger all of the senses. As the humans that we are, it’s the nose and the visual that are the most important to me, especially the visual. And when you focus on the visual, you need to celebrate the environment where that idea came from, because it connects you back to a place. ‘Oh my god, it’s a mushroom but it looks like a forest.’ Yes of course it comes from the forest and then in your mind you get transported somewhere. It’s the same thing for a movie, if it doesn’t take you to a place intellectually or emotionally then the movie is whatever, it’s not that great. It’s the same thing when you’re looking at a painting or you’re listening to music and you listen to the words. If you say, you know what, I’m going to put a grilled fish on your plate and that’s it, okay yeah you’re going to eat it and it’s great, but there’s so much more that you can do with that fish. We all have a narrative that is unique to who we are and food is language. For me that language helps to create a conversation between myself and the recipient. This goes back to before I purchased that ingredient. What narrative am I trying to tell, where am I trying to take you?
If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?
I think I would have been a photographer.
Who is your favorite poet, and do you have a favorite poem?
(Laughs) Oh I’m going to make people upset, I mean there are so many that I love, I couldn’t even tell you. Paul Verlaine, The Fables of Jean de La Fontaine - it’s so poetic, it’s beautiful. It’s not all poets per se, it’s people who write stories. Poets, philosophers, littérateur, I love all of those people. I will say that most of what I like are much more connected to French culture in a way, but I read anything, it doesn’t have to be well known. When I listen to or read something it needs to touch me inside of my heart, and it doesn’t matter if they are known or not known, it’s about whether the words penetrate my brain and my heart and make me feel and think. This is when I find fulfillment.
How does San Francisco inspire you?
I mean San Francisco is such a beautiful city, it’s a place where you can do anything you want. You’re also surrounded by so much diversity and so much creativity. You’re also surrounded by struggle, it’s a very imperfect city, it’s a city of evolution, and that’s what I love about it. It’s not overly manicured, in San Francisco it’s the imperfection I find so beautiful. For me looking at the world, I look at something and I see the surroundings of it, because I think it’s more meaningful to look at the outskirts instead of specific things. When you look at things this way it also opens up your mind in a different way. You’re more receptive to things that perhaps you don’t know and I think that’s very important as a human to look at life like this, you need to be curious in life. If you’re not curious, you’re not going to go anywhere. (Chef taught me this lesson personally when she had me turn around during our talk and go introduce her and myself to a group of three strangers, which ended up becoming a wonderful acquaintance and an inspiring experience).
You are proudly an immigrant, with a deep love for the United States. Tell us about why you think immigration is important to our culture?
I think for me personally the areas that succeed the most are where you tend to find the most diversity. Areas where you find different ways of thinking and living, where people come together as a community and try to become a better place to live. If you want to alienate others because they don’t look the same, because they were not born where they were supposed to be born, or their hair is darker than yours, or their skin is different than your skin, or the way their religion is different than yours, this creates so much animosity and hatred and breeds ignorance. That’s why welcoming others and growing a community that talks with each other and collaborates with each other is so important. That’s where beautiful things happen. When we start to think that we are better than others that’s when a lot of problems start.
Do you feel that as a chef you have to facilitate this dialogue?
Absolutely! As chef we are privileged, we work with different communities all the time. We work with farmers, with ranchers, with fishermen, and we feed people from all over the world. We also end up creating a community within our spaces with people that work with us, and they are from everywhere. So you have the responsibility to make sure that you talk the talk but also walk the walk, and bring people together. If you don’t do that, you are a hypocrite. We talked about this with instant gratification earlier, but we interact with humans every day, and we have to celebrate them. You have to talk to them, listen to them, bring ideas to them. Immigration is super important.
Have we overly commoditized the food industry in the United States? Is it too for-profit?
Oh my god, we live in a place where everything is for profit, it’s all about greed. We walk on each other without caring for each other. That’s why I’m such an advocate of community work, of farmers and artisans and people who believe that smaller things do greater things in life. It’s important to understand that the value of money doesn’t define who you are. Maybe money helps you to get better at things in life, but you have to remember that you are destroying all of your value as a human when you start to think about money too much, does that make sense?
Big companies a lot of times end up hurting the community, big chains are destroying a lot of local farmers, I want people to go to the farmers’ market. People need to go much deeper than the headlines, it goes back to education. How can we educate people to inquire deeper than the tagline? We need more communication among us. When you look at life, everything is political. But I believe change happens through communities, with the people, the citizens, and the core of the society. When people start small, you can create impact, and it has a network effect where it can spread. Politicians can’t do this. Lots of times they forget who they are and where they came from.