"I will last for maybe 2 months if we don’t have any help." We are on a long-distance call to chef Dominique Crenn in San Francisco, as she explains the harrowing impact the coronavirus emergency has already had on her Crenn Dining Group. A crisis that has already seen her lay off 50 staff.
The enormity of the unprecedented emergency, as mandatory restaurant shutdowns ripple across the world, is forcing chefs into a position they could never have prepared for, telling staff to go home with no end date for their return. "OMG., I spent a day, I couldn’t stop crying. It was hard for me, I wanted to be strong. We are a family at Crenn Dining group. They just come up to me and look at me and said: "It’s ok chef, we’re going to be ok, we will wait for you guys, because you took care of us all those years."
"People are literally living day by day. We have a three-Michelin star restaurant and two others. We are in the same boat right now. Because we are also very small restaurants – we don’t have deep pockets either. I still have 21 people on my staff that I need to take care of."
Crenn is known for her activism and she's tackling the fight with characteristic passion and drive despite being in remission. "I’m still in cancer recovery, I’m cancer-free ... I go to work every day. My system is still very weak but I’m here because I want to make sure that my staff is supported."
So what does she need to happen, to see her restaurants come out the other side, her staff stay safe, as well as others in San Francisco, and her chef colleagues across the states.
"We need official leadership, on a local level, also on a federal level and obviously on a national level. That’s the three things. The same message for everyone and to make sure that they work, that they understand that the food and drink sales of the restaurant industry in the U.S. reached 880 billion dollars in 2019, that's 15 million workers generating 4% of America's GDP."
"In U.S. there is no free medical anywhere, there is no free school for kids. We don’t have that stuff that we have in France."
"The people that work in my industry, most of the small businesses don’t pay insurance. I was paying insurance and when we re-open we’re going to re-instate the full workers' medical insurance to all my staff."
"But that’s what I sacrifice. Instead of taking money out of my business. This is what we’ve been doing to we re-invest in the people."
"We are lucky that we have a platform so I can speak up. But at the end of the day, I’m not a millionaire either."
But it also runs deeper than this, and the three-Michelin star chef who's known for her poetic cooking is aware that cooking as a cultural institution is ultimately under threat here, "Weare on the edge of losing what is the core of society, which is food. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. That’s something people need to understand. Instead of giving money to things that maybe could wait, they need to really look v deeply about what’s going on."
Giving Back to the Community
Alongside managing her businesses, Crenn and her team are also being "samaritans" trying to support her local community, by supplying nutritious vegetarian and vegan meal kits to those most in need. They are also donating to the medical workers at UCSF.
Each contains a warming vegetable soup, homemade bread, vegetable lasagne with a nice bechamel and cheese, fricassee of vegetables and a koji of rice and lentils. All healthy, nutritious, organic and straight from the farm.
"I’ve been eating those bowls and I feel so full and so happy. They're good for the immune system."
"We are trying to get people to buy two for one – donate one to someone in need. Maybe we sell 120 kits and if we have 20 kits left we post them online – first come first served – if you’re in need financially, we have food for you, just come."
Change for the better
Crenn's tired of the negativity and the harsh comments on social media. "Someone commented at the end of the day you’re marrying a famous actress. Dude, she’s nothing to do with it, she’s in the shit too, people In her industry, she’s off right now."
"People need to be living more consciously and thoughtfully. The thing in America, Let’s stop the negative comments right now, let’s all come together. We’re doing our best."
The future looks like people being more "conscious" where they're eating. "I think we’re going to see a surge of local farmers that will finally be able to run with their farms. Because people will be more inclined to support their community than a big industrial company. I have that feeling."
It's also a positive moment in the history of climate change right now she reminds us. "In climate change, some things are getting some benefits right now. I don’t know if it’s the planet giving us a warning. I always thought that nature will make a powerful impact.
And, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. "We need to look at that when we come out of this. Wow, we were in the shit for a few months, and it was hard and people lost their jobs, but we're going to rebuild because this is who we are."
"The first thing people are going to want to do when they come out of this is to eat in a restaurant. We need to be ready. And to be ready we need help. And to be ready we want to keep our staff."
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Thomas Keller currently holds seven Michelin stars, making him the most decorated chef in the United States. His Bay Area restaurant, The French Laundry, has held three Michelin stars since 2007, while its New York counterpart, Per Se, has held a further three stars since 2005.