Tucked in between too many restaurants to choose from amongst the complex scene that is San Francisco, California, is a movement created by one woman. One amazing woman. In the small space that is Atelier Crenn, Chef Dominique Crenn has deeply intertwined the roots of her restaurant with those of her menu ingredients to the point where you can’t tell where the story starts and the supply ends. They are one.
“The restaurant and the farm are intertwined, they have to be. As to how that changes Bleu Belle Farm’s story, as Dominique and I both say, she has a general direction she wants to take the farm and hired me the way she would a chef. I have my own ideas and aspirations for the farm—my kitchen—and we sit down together to talk about what is out there, what we want, and I run with it. It’s very collaborative.” I am speaking with William Henpenn, who runs Chef Dominique’s Sonoma-based Bleu Belle Farm, the source for the unique flavors propelling her style into a sensation.
Seemingly a world away from Atelier Crenn’s urban home, I am standing on the soil that produces those flavors on a temperate morning. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, William assures me the mild chill and warm sun are present most days in this microclimate haven.
Bleu Belle Farm looks to be what we agree can only be described as “grandma’s garden gone haywire.” A single house, barn, and stand-alone greenhouse sit on about an acre. Hearing chickens, William shows me around behind the house where a solar-powered fence keeps the hens and roosters from wandering near rows of almost-ripe tomatoes.
As William explained, Chef Dominique treats him like a chef in her kitchen, and he, in turn, treats her farm as though an extension of the walk-in or the salad line.
“The goal is to grow everything for the restaurant,” he shares, offering me what looks like a berry-sized watermelon, but gives a crunch that reveals itself to be a cucumber. “Obviously, there are some items—citrus, mushrooms, onions—that I can’t grow in the quantities we need, so we have partner suppliers, but the goal is to truly be farm to table.”
It’s in the specialty items tucked into every available corner of Bleu Belle that Atelier Crenn finds the flavor notes to tie back to an intention William says is at the heart of Chef Dominique, helping her restaurants stand out from the sea of options in California’s Bay Area.
“If you have been lucky enough to eat at any of her restaurants, her style is truly about the story. It’s about her past, it’s about what she’s done, and it’s about telling that story through food. It enables her guests to have the experience she’s trying to give them. It’s poetic. Having the farm is an intricate part of that story. I think that is what has enabled her to rise to where she is,” William muses.
He has more than firsthand knowledge of this, having been on every side of restaurant life possible. Before governing the farm that brings the flavors of the plants directly to patrons of Atelier Crenn, William was a chef and restaurateur, having plated, sipped, and spooned in both Portland, Oregon, where he owned his own restaurants, and New York City, New York.
“I was a trained chef for about 15 years, and I owned a couple of restaurants up in Portland for about five years. I then went to the front of the house to see what they think and ended up in New York City for a while. I’m very happy I survived those years in New York; weather-wise I’m a West Coast person. I grew up outside, and in the end, that’s just what I wanted. That eventually led to ag and working on a farm,” he shares of his journey to this current world he is now immersed in. “I was always drawn to farmers. All my restaurants, even in Portland, worked farm-to-table. So I knew I wanted to supply local restaurants.”
It was two visions meeting to form a perfect picture. William tells me he and Chef Dominique, as well as her team, work together toward the direction they want to go with growth, and she often gives him a culinary direction to seek out unique flavors and products.
“As a farmer, I want to offer the unique vegetables that Dominique can then offer her guests. I question whether consumers go into Crenn knowing they won’t get a piece of meat because I think everyone assumes you will see some sort of meat in any top restaurant. Pescatarians and vegetarians aren’t looking for one or two Michelin Star restaurants to eat at, they are just hoping to find a place with no cross-contamination. Maybe they come in knowing of Dominique because of her notoriety, maybe they even know that it’s farm to table, or maybe they don’t. But they certainly do when they leave,” William laughs.
Yes, Atelier Crenn is pescatarian, produce-centric, and has not one, but three Michelin Stars. I ask if, as this continues to grow from a niche to more of a demand, William can see this populating in other areas besides San Francisco.
“Absolutely. There is a lot of farm-to-table places, but they don’t focus on fish and vegetables. This is an additionally elevated experience. In this case, the vegetables become a star,” he says definitively.
“...her style is truly about the story. It’s about her past, it’s about what she’s done, and it’s about telling that story through food. It enables her guests to have the experience she’s trying to give them.”
— William Henpenn, General Manager, Bleu Belle Farm
William’s own culinary background shines through as he details how a sauce or any component of Atelier Crenn’s menu will always have an addition to heighten the flavor. And getting produce straight from the farm, he assures, does so much for that.
“A portion size of a dish is huge, and bringing in more vegetables and fruits to weigh that out brings a necessary balance. Where Dominique finds those fruits and vegetables, how direct she is in getting them, and their freshness is a huge part of our success,” William says.
And, like nearly anything else, location and passion are key. Bleu Belle is located at the foot of a few hills producing chilly weather-loving wine grapes, enjoying a microclimate William has practically earned a meteorology degree studying.
“The previous General Manager made all the right decisions, but he commuted from an hour away, and ten miles from here in any direction is completely different than what we are experiencing weather-wise. What the plants are fighting, what can grow, and what they need to grow the best they can is completely unique to this area,” he explains. “We take extra steps, too, to be as natural as we can and to utilize everything we grow. What can we do with fruit once it falls from the trees? Can we pickle it? Those are the questions we are asking to try to use everything we can on the farm, even if it comes to the aromatic accents chefs might be able to add to their recipes.”
“What can we do with fruit once it falls from the trees? Can we pickle it? Those are the questions we are asking to try to use everything we can on the farm, even if it comes to the aromatic accents chefs might be able to add to their recipes.”
— William Henpenn
It’s the definition of a labor of love, for William and all with which he works.
“Talking to chefs and farmers is exciting to me. My connection to restaurants comes the way it does because I love it so much,” he smiles.
It’s a love story I have so much fun telling that I don’t want it to end—much like I didn’t want to leave the serene, calm summer cool of Bleu Belle Farm. But the leaves are turning, and it is time to go. One thing is for sure, I cannot wait to sit on the other side of the table and see the vegetables and fruits realized in the prose of Chef Dominique’s story-telling.
I cannot wait to taste the poetry.