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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

'I'm Always Writing the Menu as a Poem': An Interview with Dominique Crenn

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 12:32 PM

  • Mary Ladd

Dominique Crenn was born in France but has been working in American restaurants for nigh on two decades. As I was finishing up this week's review of Atelier Crenn, I talked to Crenn about her experience opening a restaurant in Indonesia, the farm she works with, and the meaning of the restaurant's tagline.

SFoodie: How did you come to be the chef of Luce?

Crenn: I came to the U.S. in the 1990s. I worked all around, including at Stars, and in 1996, I became the chef of Yoyo Bistro, which used to be Elka. During my one-year tenure there, I met a lot of French chefs at the time. They introduced me to the Intercontinental, which invited me to open a restaurant in the Jakarta property. The thing was, since Indonesia is a Muslim country, they wanted me, as a woman chef, to build an all-woman brigade in the kitchen. It was a challenge! I struggled to build a team with just women, but that was one of the best experiences. I was there for a year, until the the 1998 civil war.

Then I went to Los Angeles, but I kept in touch with a few people at the Intercontinental. In the summer of 2007, the hotel came to L.A. and asked me if I was interested in opening their restaurant in S.F. Of course, San Francisco is not my home town, but I'm attached to it. I feel very lucky to be here.

I always wanted to open a small place. I almost leased a property in Jack London Square, but 11 months ago, PlumpJack became available. It felt like it was the right space.

On the menu, you describe your food as "poetic culinaria"? What do you mean by that phrase?

I've been writing poems for a long time. I grew up in an artistic family. My dad was a painter, a great writer, and we grew up with a lot of books in the house. So I write a menu that inspires me ― I'm always writing it as a poem. If I'm somewhere, outside in the country, in a city that touches me, having food that gets to my heart, I try to create a menu around it.

Are you planning on changing the tasting menu seasonally?

It's in the process of changing. We get most of our produce from [Gouge Eye Farms] north of Sacramento, but we had such a hard winter, and the rain has been a disaster. The quality of what has been given to us was not up to the standards. But for the last few days, it's been really exciting to get peas, fava leaves, artichokes, and asparagus ― the spring is coming. Three dishes I've already changed, and then I'm putting three new dishes on the menu in a few more.

At the beginning, too, it takes time to bring our team together, both in the back of the house and the front of the house. You have to teach the staff your philosophy, and there are so many personalities that have to come together. So it's harder at first to change dishes.

Who's your pastry chef? He's doing some spectacular dishes.

Juan Contreras has been with me since 2006. He came to work for me from cooking school in L.A., and we've been working together since there. He's meticulous. He was working on our savory side at Luce, but when we talked about opening a restaurant, he said, I think I want to learn about pastry. So he left Luce for a few months and went to work at Alinea in Chicago and then De Librije in Holland.

I read a Chronicle article a few weeks ago about your relationship with Gouge Eye Farm. What portion of your ingredients is it growing for you?

Right now, it's about 60 percent. I talked to Greg, the farmer, and I think that by the second week in April we will be able to get everything ― squab, goose, Muscovy duck, all the vegetables. They built about five greenhouses for us, and we brought 100 chickens up there to fertilize the land and produce eggs. The thing I'm very excited about is that they give you these amazing products, and you get to design something around it. It's inspiring.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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