Chef Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn is a self-proclaimed citizen of the world. She shares this unexpected tidbit of information from a recent DNA test result, just a few moments into this interview:
“I just did my DNA test and it’s all over the world. [...] The beginning of my DNA comes from Southeast Asia," she says. "And obviously a part of East Africa and then it went up to the Balkan and up to the Mediterranean and up to Finland. I mean, it’s all over the place. I was just, like, really thinking about who I am. I am just a person of the world.”
Even though she grew up in France, she knew she was adopted by her French parents when she was just a child.
“From a very young age, I just understood it. [My parents] told us at a very young age that we were adopted and I looked at them. It was a gift to me so I took the gift and I just embraced it.
“And I remember when I started to look for my birth mother, I went to a place in France where you can find files. The director of that association started to talk to me and she was like ‘You are so different. You are not angry.' I just wanted to know, I just wanted information [to] help me a little bit.”
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Crenn says she is so comfortable in her own skin because of her parents' love.
“When I was very young, my parents told me and I remembered my dad saying, ‘You know, you are born here and your nationality is French, but remember you’re a person of the world and you’ve got to go out there and find yourself. When you interact with other people that come from a different place, really make sure you listen and don’t let them feel that you are entitled, that you are better than them. Remember they are not better than you either.'”
Crenn also says being comfortable with herself is a result of knowing herself better.
“It’s about understanding who you are as a person, but also understanding the surroundings. And it’s about being respectful. Knowing that everything you do in life has consequences and you can affect others. But if you do things that comes from within instead of coming from outside, I think it is so much richer and more powerful. If you do what people want you to do, then you're not finding yourself, but kind of losing yourself.”
In her appearance in the Netflix series Chef’s Table, she opens up freely about anecdotes from her childhood. These experiences have affected her worldview as well as her attitude towards life in general.
“I felt very nomadic within myself, you know, I think I am traveling. Growing up in France, I was always curious about things that were not part of my daily life,” she says. “I want to understand the story of humans, I don’t want to be living with instant gratification and everything is convenient around me. I want to live life doing good things for others.”
Which may be why she initiated the Root Project in Haiti, with the goal of helping farmers replant coffee and cocoa plants after Hurricane Matthew. The project has a goal of planting one million trees alongside Haitian farmers and chefs.
Reflecting on her travels, she says, “Learning about how the world started gives you a sort of humility of who you are and you start to understand that you have to really respect things around you and learn.”
“You know, I am a student,” she adds. “To do meaningful things, this is really important, you know ... it’s about being human. Society tells a young child, 'You’ve got to be rich, successful, you’ve got to be this and then you become a star.' But what does it mean?”
Using herself as an example, she says that even though the stars her restaurant has garnered are great honors they “don’t define you.” Rather, it’s “what you do with these now” that matter.
“I am not a Michelin-starred chef. I’m Dominique, and I have a great team and then we achieved two Michelin stars. We probably will achieve the third one,” she says with a laugh. “I’m kidding. Probably we will, because we don’t wake up in the morning to do this but this doesn’t define us. And then you have a platform and then people look at you and you have the responsibility to make sure that your voice is inspiring and that’s the most important thing for me. I want to inspire people. I want to be inspired by people.”
If anything, her Instagram account, which has a following of over 200,000, certainly expresses this desire further. Apart from creations from her team, there are quotes by famous people, sometimes urging one to look deeper inwards and to inspect life with a new pair of eyes.
There are also very personable takes on her travels, like a recent trip to Vietnam, which left her writing, “Love letter to Vietnam. I came to you in the most respectful way not knowing what to expect. I found myself wandering through your beauty, kindness and knowledge. You touched me in a way that changed me forever. Your humility and thoughtfulness have [empowered] all my senses, I am grateful for all your teaching. Vietnam I love you.”
Love letter to Vietnam. I came to you in the most respectful way not knowing what to expect. I found myself wondering through your beauty, kindness and knowledge. You touched me in a way that changed me forever. Your humility and thoughtfulness have empower all my senses, I am grateful for all your teaching. Vietnam I love you.
These words embody her spirit and parallel her love for expression, just as she would, writing her menus in poetry.
“I never liked menus," she confesses. "Salmon and salt ... oh my god, but if I can, like, tell a story of where the food comes from, maybe in the form of a poem ... that’s what I want to do. But that’s just me.”
“You know, words matter and I think the meaning of one word is very impactful and very powerful," she adds. "Like music, poetry is also very powerful because it helps you understand whoever wrote it and gives you a window into their life.”
Between cooking and writing, she puts in time for traveling and is fascinated by photography. But above all, Crenn makes it clear that it is the attitude that matters.
“To evolve, you’ve got to be open, but it’s not easy sometimes. With myself, I understood very much that less is more, that it’s not about stardom but it’s about you—the worth and the richness inside you.”
Ask her where she sees herself 10 years down the road and she smiles. “I don’t know and I am not going to tell you 20 restaurants. I think I will probably do much more humanitarian work and continue to just give myself to others until I am in my 90s or so. I just want humanity to become a better world. I really do. And we are not long enough on Earth, who are we to be selfish and not care about the next generations?”
“But I don’t like to follow. I like to learn. I have no rules. I make my own rules, with due respect to others. I think the secret is for me to be present.”