Dominique Crenn is the first female chef in the United States to receive three Michelin stars—earned by her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, which she opened in 2011. She went on to launch Petit Crenn, a bistro focused on Breton cuisine, and Bar Crenn, a 1930s Paris-inspired salon. Needless to say, she knows a thing or two about entertaining, and these are her guidelines for cooking for guests.
Tell us about your kitchen at home. What does it look like?
Dominique Crenn: I live in a condo outside of San Francisco, in a town called Larkspur, near a marine area. When I was designing my home, I wanted the focus to be the light coming into the space from the water. So I tried to think in a very "less is more" way. This kitchen is a space where I can be more engaged in my craftsmanship than I am at work.
It’s compact, and all of my appliances are arranged up against a wall. There’s a big, steel counter in between the formal kitchen space and the living room, which I can use both for prepping and for entertaining. The color scheme is gray with stainless steel finishes. I also have a marble table that I can seat people at for dinner or make pasta on. It’s great.
Do you like to have guests over at home to cook?
When you have people over, how do you usually go about planning a menu?
I think it really depends on what's available, what’s seasonal, and who my guests are, first of all. I don’t go crazy with the menu. I try to craft a menu that is very welcoming. I like to make vegetables and seafood, and I love to make pasta. The other night I had people over, and I just made a roast chicken the way my mother used to do it, with roasted potatoes, a little salad on the side, and that’s it. Oh, and a lot of wine.
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What are some of your all-time favorite dishes to cook at home for groups?
I love meals where you have maybe 10 side dishes spread on the table. People get their plate and they can then pick what they want to eat. I think that’s really cool. Also, a whole smoked salmon, done simply with lemon and herbs.
So when you have folks over, how does the timeline usually work for you? Do you begin preparing well in advance?
I try not to spend 10 hours in the kitchen when I cook at home for guests. That’s why I try to be really organized and have everything thought out. What is the step that I need to do now? Can I prep this the day before?
When you have guests that come to your home to see you, it’s important to give them an amazing experience. You’re not there to impress them with your culinary skills. You’re there to welcome your friends. So you should do the things that you know and love to cook. Also, your guests can totally pick up on your stress if you’re not prepared—or if you spend three hours in the kitchen, not interacting with them. It should be fun.
When your guests arrive, how do you like to welcome them?
First, they need to take their shoes off. Then I’ll offer them a glass of wine, or champagne, or a Kir Breton, my favorite cocktail. I always have what I call a pu pu platter ready with a mixture of cheese, nuts, or little things I made for people to munch on. I always have bread in the house, too, which I’ll pair with some cornichons, pate, smoked salmon, or more cheese.
How do you handle cooking for a group of people with varying dietary restrictions?
You know, I used to be vegetarian, but I’m not anymore. Now, I make a lot of vegetarian food, but I’ll add a protein like seafood on the side. I always try to get the freshest, best seasonal vegetables, and to extract the best flavor out of them. I keep it simple, delicious, and provide lots of options.
You recently announced that your restaurants are going meat-free. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to that decision?
Meat is a very complicated subject for me as a chef. I realize my responsibility as a chef is to take action in the way that I’m doing things, and with the food that I’m cooking [Petit Crenn has always been meat-free; Atelier Crenn and Bar Crenn followed suit in 2018 and 2019, respectively]. I consider myself a climate change activist, and I believe sometimes you need to take action and make sacrifices to rebalance the way things need to be.