French-born Dominique Crenn knew she wanted to be a chef at an early age. "My parents would take me to fancy dinners, and the whole experience—that dance of beauty and timing—spoke to me," she says. Now, at her tiny San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn
, she transforms such ingredients as beets, tomatoes, venison, wild herbs, and daubs of freeze-dried horseradish cream into edible masterpieces, meticulously arranging each element to create plates as stunning as they are flavorful. Last October Crenn's work brought her an unparalleled honor when she became the first female chef in America to earn two Michelin stars.
"My food is about texture and technique," says Crenn, who often manipulates ingredients with molecular gastronomy techniques and makes use of such methods as dehydrating, fermenting, and pickling. "For a menu to come together, you have to have sweetness, saltiness, crunchiness...it's all about balance," she says. Atelier Crenn's seasonal menus are unconventionally lyrical (a course might have a title like "The Sea" or "Walk in the Forest"), and each is imprinted with a poem by Crenn that describes how her life experiences have imbued her dishes. "My restaurant is an expression of myself—my fantasies," she says. "Where I've been, and where I want to be. I think of my cooking as very emotional."
Crenn finds her greatest inspiration in collaboration—she often hosts "dialogue" dinners, in which she and a visiting chef alternate dishes throughout a meal—and, of course, in the pursuit of beauty. "Since I can't paint, this is my homage to nature and to ingredients," she says. "I want to treat every ingredient in a way that conveys its most pure qualities, but with a little bit of a dreamy twist.
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