Dominque Crenn’s mother laughed when she told her she wanted to be a chef. So she put those plans on hold and studied international business instead.
After graduating, Crenn still wanted to study cooking, but even as late as the 1980s she says that career path was very limited for French women. So she moved to San Francisco and ended up working for Jeremiah Tower, whose farm-to-table philosophy was in sync with Crenn’s own approach to food.
Both of Crenn’s parents were from farm families in the French Province  of Brittany, and she spent the summers luxuriating in that region’s culinary bounty. During the rest of the year, Crenn was in the Paris suburb of Versailles, where her father, a politician, would take her to the fine-dining establishments of the area.
Those two influences—French fine dining and appreciation of farm-fresh goodness—have put her in good stead in San Francisco, where she is chef de cuisine of Luce, an Italian restaurant in the Intercontinental hotel there.
Most of Crenn’s culinary career has been in the City by the Bay, but she also spent two years in Indonesia, where she headed up an all-woman team at the Intercontinental hotel in Jakarta.
Why did you have an all-woman brigade in Jakarta?
That’s what [management] wanted to do. It was their idea. That’s why I took the job. Indonesia’s very male-oriented; the women are very much in the back, so it was very, very challenging, but I love a challenge. I’m an Aries. It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life.BIOGRAPHY
Title: chef de cuisine, Luce restaurant, San FranciscoBirth date: April 7, 1965Hometown: Versailles, FranceEducation: bachelor’s degree in international business from L’Academie Commercial International, ParisCareer highlights: working under Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco; setting up an all-woman brigade at the Intercontinental in Jakarta; being chef de cuisine of Luce
Even in the United States, I hear stories of female chefs who have trouble convincing men from certain cultures that it’s OK for them to have a woman as a boss. So maybe it was easier to have only women working with you.
I hadn’t thought about that because I would have kicked their ass [laughs]. The women I worked with in Indonesia were very, very dedicated. They knew this was their chance to rise above the challenges that they’d faced working under men. When I was interviewing them they said every time they applied for a job they were put in the back of the kitchen peeling things and never learned anything. They said, ‘Give us a chance and show us what we need to do, and we will do it for you.’
What kind of food did you cook there?
Californian with a little bit of Italian, but what is Californian? We had a firewood oven, so I did a lot of homemade flatbread and pizza. We did all of our pasta there.
Was there any Indonesian influence?
No. They closed the restaurant after [former president] Suharto was overthrown. His brother was the owner of the hotel, so…
When were you there?
From 1996 to 1998.
So you were there during the 1997 economic crisis and the violence that followed.
Yes, I remember I was there on Christmas Eve, and I was ready to go out, and [the soldiers] wouldn’t let me out. It was a little bit frightening, but I didn’t grasp what was going on.
Did you learn a lot about Indonesian cuisine?
Yeah. It’s kind of interesting. It’s not Chinese, it’s not Indian. They have their own spices. I had a cook who asked me to teach her about French food, and she would teach me about Indonesian food, and she made a little cookbook for me, which I still have. I don’t know how you describe the cuisine: It’s Indonesian.
Did you bring any of the techniques back?
Well, I’ve always loved spices, and some people say I might have some Indonesian influence in the way I cook things, but I don’t really know. The way I cook comes from every experience in my life, so I would say, ‘yes.’CHEF’S TIPS
Marinate chicken in yogurt before frying it to tenderize the meat.
For short ribs with better color, brine them and then cook them sous-vide style with the brine, instead of braising in red wine.
For smooth, white ice cream with interesting flavors, soak whatever you want to flavor the milk with—blue cheese, coffee, roasted hazelnuts, bacon—in milk overnight. The milk picks up the flavor of whatever is soaking in it, but not the color.
I try to balance everything. I don’t want to be categorized as a French chef, or Italian, I’m really a cook who lives in America, tries to do things locally. I would call it New American. It’s a melting pot of a lot of your own experiences.
So much of it now is really cuisine de chef, reflecting a chef’s personal style.
Exactly. Obviously a lot of techniques come from France, but from there you do your own thing.
Are there trends you see in San Francisco besides local, farmer-produced sustainable products that has been there for years?
I think that’s pretty much it. In March I’m going to start doing farm-to-table dinners called Moveable Feast, in which I bring a lot of products from one farm into the restaurant, and a lot of the proceeds go to support their organization. [This trend] has been going on for a long time, but I think it’s important to support people locally. I’m not here to be political about it or to put anyone out of business, but in San Francisco we have great farms, we have great people. Let’s get things from them. Of course I’m going to order some cheese from France and whatever, but I have to balance it.
These days, because of the economy, I see people really going back to basics.
What do you do to cope with the economy?
I do farm-to-table dinners on Sunday, which is a $45 menu for three courses, which I think is a good deal. I make dishes like fried chicken and waffles, and chicken is not that expensive, and people love it. But also I think now people are looking for value.
I think the idea right now is not to make money but to make sure that people are happy. But I’m not going to sacrifice my ideas.
I also think you have to get closer to the customers and be warm to them. And I’m not charging $100 a plate. I have a tasting menu for $85. It’s seven courses, but people really get more like 12 courses [because of free extra courses].
People love tasting menus in San Francisco, and it’s a good deal, too. I think really high-end restaurants are having problems now, though.