In the years before the start of WWI Pablo Picasso and Georg Braque together invented what we now know as Cubism. It would have been impossible for either of them to do it alone, as each painter compelled the other to greater and greater heights. Braque famously quipped about the collaboration with Picasso in his later years: “We were like two mountain climbers, roped together.”
Something similar may be happening at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. The restaurant has three Michelin stars, and Crenn is famously the first woman to receive a triple star rating in the United States. But the place feels much more like the studio of an artist than a fine dining establishment—hence the “Atelier” in the name. And for the next six months, the restaurant will be the site of an extraordinary series of culinary collaborations: The Crenn World Chef Series, a dinner series featuring nine Michelin-Starred chefs, each of whom will visit Atelier Crenn for a Braque-meets-Picasso type collaboration.
The first chef was Martha Ortiz, a celebrity in her native Mexico who’s been a friend of Crenn’s for many years. Their personal stories are quite similar: neither are formally trained, both are the daughters of painters, and both express their own artistic leanings through food. Ortiz, in particular, is known for changing the color palette of her food on a monthly basis. In October, all of the food she plated at her restaurant in Mexico City was pink, in honor of breast cancer awareness month. But with the coming of El Día de Los Muertos in November, that palette changed—to black.
Indeed, the first food and drink pairing at the inaugural meal of the Crenn World Chef Series, in mid-November, was devoid of any color at all. Ortiz’s “Lady in Black,” activated-charcoal margarita (hiding an ice cube carved into a rosette), washes down Crenn’s, “Kir Breton”: a very dark chocolate amuse-bouche filled with a shot of cider. From the very first course, inky darkness pervades the plate. Yet the food is positively alive with flavor and creativity.
For the second course, Crenn responds to Ortiz’s rosette idea with a rosette of her own—one made not of ice, but of tiny slivers of geoduck clam, served raw yet fully dressed with citrus and uni. And then for the third, Ortiz riffs on Crenn’s clam with her take on raw — a ceviche of sea bass dressed with berries, avocado, radish, flower petals and served with a black chimole that’s literally stenciled onto the plate in the shape of a dog’s head. (Specifically the Xoloitzcuintli, the hairless Mexican dog that the Aztecs and Mayans took to their graves, believing that it could guide them in the afterlife.) Ortiz stops by the table not long after to tell this reviewer that “Seabass Ceviche Chileatole” may be her favorite dish of the night, as “the combination of mole and fish,” says Ortiz in a lightly-accented English, “is very interesting.” Indeed it is a delicious seduction away from the fresh flavors of the first few courses, to the more sophisticated palate of the advancing evening.
The full dinner is a fifteen-course meal and at every step of the way the two chefs up the gastronomic ante. The high point was a one-two punch: Ortiz’s take on the tamale quickly followed by Crenn’s crab. “Black Maiz” is how Ortiz describes the tamale dish on the menu card: but what comes to the table is an orb the size of a golf ball, encrusted with toasted quinoa and sitting in a sauce of ground pepitas. Fried bits of corn cob grace the plate. Under a fork, the ball breaks to reveal a deep purple masa around a core of melted goat cheese. Crenn’s “Dungeness Crab, Seaweed and Whey” features a crustacean native to waters less than a mile away, tossed with edible seaweeds: locally foraged nori, sea grape, and mermaid hair. Around the edge of the plate is a simple stencil of a circle, made from the ashes of a burnt onion—yet another nod to Ortiz, a stylized culinary quote of her Xolo mole.
Ortiz’s “Black Maiz” is Arte Povera on your mouth: earthy, and deep, rooted in the land. It’s more than a tamale, it’s the platonic essence of a tamale. Conversely, Crenn’s “Dungeness Crab, Seaweed and Whey” is about the flavors of the sea—and in this reviewers opinion, may the best crab dish in San Francisco, a crab-crazy town if there ever was one. Here, at the meal’s high point, it’s no longer about Ortiz vs. Crenn, San Francisco vs. Mexico City, the twin elements of earth and the sea. “It’s a duet,” says Crenn, stopping by the table, her toddler in tow. “A collaboration,” says Ortiz, adding that “I don’t think a collaboration has to be soft.” It’s that Braque-Picasso dynamic: collaborators in competition, pushing state of the art.
Sadly, the Crenn-Ortiz collaboration is done, never to be repeated. But the Crenn World Chef Series will continue through the spring, featuring Crenn roped together with some of the world’s best (Michelin-starred) chefs from around the globe, reaching for ever greater gastronomic heights.
About Crenn World Chef Series
Michelin-Starred Chef Dominique Crenn and American Express are pleased to present the Crenn World Chef Series, a dinner series featuring nine internationally acclaimed chefs, each of whom will visit Atelier Crenn for a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration. The chefs featured have been selected by Dominique for their trailblazing style and critically acclaimed food; their collective contributions to the industry are an inspiration to chefs and diners across the globe.
This special series began on November 19th, 2018, and will end on May 15, 2019. Each evening will feature a one-of-a-kind multi-course meal; there will be two seatings per night, each of which will seat 40, and two nights per chef (see exclusions below). Tickets are $450/person and will include food and service; two wine pairing options (not included) will be offered.
As Chef Dominque Crenn is a part of the American Express Global Dining Collection, American Express Centurion & Platinum Card Members will have the opportunity to purchase tickets during an exclusive pre-sale period 48 hours before tickets go on sale. To purchase tickets, Card Members can contact their American Express Concierge via the number on the back of their cards. This pre-sale period will begin approximately eight weeks before each event (see below for dates and exceptions) at 1:00 pm EST. Reservations made after the presale will be available exclusively on Tock.
Tuesday, January 8
PERU: Chef Virgilio Martínez (Central)
American Express presale begins 11/13; general public 11/15
Tuesday, February 5 and Wednesday, February 6
SPAIN: Chef Ángel León (Aponiente)
American Express presale begins 12/11; general public 12/13
Wednesday, February 20 and Thursday, February 21
FRANCE: Chef Daniel Boulud (Daniel, New York City)
American Express presale begins 12/18; general public 12/20
Tuesday, March 19 and Wednesday, March 20
BRAZIL: Chefs Alex Atala (D.O.M) and Manu Buffara (Manu)
American Express presale begins 1/22; general public 1/24
Tuesday, April 23 and Wednesday, April 24
GERMANY: Chef Jan Hartwig (Atelier)
American Express presale begins 1/22; general public 1/24
Tuesday, April 30 and Wednesday, May 1
BELGIUM: Chef Gert De Mangeleer (Hertog Jan)
American Express presale begins 1/29; general public 1/31
Tuesday, May 14 and Wednesday, May 15
SPAIN: Chef Quique Dacosta (Quique Dacosta)
American Express presale begins 2/19; general public 2/21
Chef Dominique Crenn is a member of the American Express® Global Dining Collection, a benefit for Platinum Card® Members offering special access to reservations around the world, exclusive culinary events and unique experiences at celebrated restaurants. To learn more, visit americanexpress.com/globaldiningcollection.