Embracing the New Normal with Dominique Crenn

I’m a big fan of dancing. I don’t need a party or a fancy dance floor to be motivated, either. All I need is a good song playing and I start moving, whether I’m at the restaurant, at my house, or walking down the street. It’s stronger than me, I can’t resist it.

There have been many moments in my life when I was encouraged to sit it out—to stop moving to my favorite music, to rest, recollect, and come back later. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, I was told that I should wait to dance another day. But I refused to stop. I woke up every day—of course, some days, it was harder than others—and tried to pour the same amount of enthusiasm I have for life into that moment, even if it was spent at home or the hospital.

I continued to work as often as possible despite feeling weak. And yes, I danced. Because I recognized that a hardship like my cancer was a blessing in disguise. It was an opportunity for me to come to a screeching halt, reevaluate my priorities, learn from past mistakes, and recenter my focus. I’m thankful for the experience because it woke me up to the importance of health, family, friends, and daily gratitude.

I believe that we can approach the COVID-19 crisis with the same belief system. The restaurant industry was hit the hardest out of any industry when coronavirus forced us all to shelter in place. Every restaurant, from your favorite corner takeout spot to a three-Michelin-star dining room, had to close. There were lots of people who went into either panic-mode or mourning. I don’t blame them. This has been a serious world event and it should be treated seriously and soberly.

It’s normal to be panicked when your livelihood and the livelihood of all your employees is at stake. It’s normal to feel sad when the place that you love most in the world, the place where your creativity can be on full display, where you can take care of people, where you can essentially throw a party every single night, is closed. But what if we also looked at it as an opportunity to learn?

This crisis was a great equalizer. It put us all on the same level. Your pizza delivery place, local coffee shop, and favorite fine-dining restaurant all had to stop and come up with ideas on how to adapt. No one was exempt from this lesson, not even the greatest or most famous chefs in the world. Everyone had to think fast. And for me, as scary a challenge as that was, I also recognized that it was a beautiful invitation to pause and look at what we can do better.

My first concern was the health and well-being of the community. Not only how do we flatten the curve of coronavirus, but how do we feed people right now? What kind of food do we all need for our bodies and souls? And how on earth do we stay safe as a business while preparing such food? These questions didn’t frighten me. They inspired me. I felt like I was suddenly being delivered a challenge that I knew my team and I could surmount. And if we could find answers, then it meant we could share what we found with others in the industry to help support them as well.

We decided to create nourishing, nutrient-dense meals with the products from our farm in Sonoma, Bleu Belle Farm. Believe me, our team loves champagne and caviar and elaborate dishes, but this was not the time for that (not yet, anyway). This was the time for meals that you could share with your family at home, meals that would leave you satisfied without being overly heavy or rich. We partnered with other local businesses, like Juice Shop, to sell healthy tonics, as well as Vitabowl, to create vegan dishes to go. I think the biggest takeaway from the entire experience is that we didn’t waste time wishing things would go back to “normal.” We saw that we had to start over again, we had to rethink our entire game plan, we had to embrace a new normal, and we did just that.

I think another wonderful change that we as the restaurant industry came to adopt was the sudden realization that we should be feeding everyone. When we changed our business model and started selling Crenn Kits (meal kits to prepare at home) instead of serving in our dining rooms, we knew that those kits needed to be going to frontline workers. Our guests agreed, and people began to buy kits to be sent to the incredible staff at UCSF once a week.

Suddenly, we had our friends at Lexus saying, “We’re going to help you feed those medical workers every week and you can expand and start feeding other members of the community.” So Lexus now helps us feed the doctors and nurses at UCSF while we as a company are able to send meals to domestic abuse shelters and the elderly. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s inspiring to me and my team to see our work going to nourish people all over our community, instead of just in our small, intimate dining room.

There is so much that is still unknown in the near future, for the world, but also for the restaurant industry. The latest statistic says that 85% of restaurants may close and never reopen again. That statistic is real and we need to face it and understand what it means, particularly when it comes to our economic security. But I believe in our young people and want to continue to help to mentor them because they are going to rebuild something so much more powerful for the future.

If we have created this temporary “new normal” just in the past few months, imagine what kind of long-term future they can create with our support. Not only have I watched my team be so nimble and adapt during COVID-19, I’ve seen how passionate they are as well for the incredible social movement that’s happening right now around Black Lives Matter. I’m passionate too, and now this opens up an entirely new way of thinking about egalitarian practices in our businesses.

These past few months have felt so tumultuous but I know that there’s a better world and industry waiting on the other side. Why would we ever want to go back to how things were before?

Now I need to get back to work because there’s still so much to do! We are continuing our Crenn Kits to be enjoyed at home, but we are also preparing to open up the doors of Atelier Crenn on July 14th for dining in. Like so many things this year, it feels a bit scary, it feels like a challenge, it feels like we’re going to have to completely reinvent our service—but I’m excited to do it and see what a fine-dining experience in this new world will look like. I’m hoping to take whatever lessons are learned and share it not only with my team, but the broader restaurant community, so that we can keep moving forward doing what we love but in a brand-new way.

Dominique Crenn, as told to Kimberly Zerkel

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Dominique Crenn ABOUT Dominique Crenn Dominique Crenn is the co-owner and chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, where artistry is at the forefront, cuisine is a craft, and the community is an inspiration.

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