Chef Dominique Crenn is well known for rising to the occasion when there are people who need to be fed. Last week, Petit Crenn, the chef's popular Hayes Valley bistro that closed its doors for commercial service on July 7th, rose from the rubble of the COVID-19 crisis in a new iteration: The restaurant has been transformed into a community kitchen devoted to nourishing the city's food-insecure.
Each week the fine dining restaurant will prepare 1,500 meals for distribution to San Francisco's most vulnerable residents through Glide, the Tenderloin's long-standing social justice and social services organization.
The new initiative is the first West Coast collaboration for the New York–based organization Rethink Food, which is dedicated to building a more sustainable and equitable food system. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Rethink worked with around 20 restaurants to turn their daily excess food—food that would otherwise be thrown into landfills—into 8,500 weekly meals to feed struggling New Yorkers.
But when cases of COVID-19 suddenly spiked, shutting down New York overnight back in March, Rethink had to pivot quickly to face a new reality. With no time for restaurants to use up the perishable items in their kitchens and store rooms before suddenly having to close, "we basically had the world dumping all their excess foods," says Winston Chiu, cofounder of Rethink. The organization received 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of excess in just a matter of days. Meanwhile, restaurant staff, along with workers from all walks of life, were suddenly unemployed. Many were left to wonder where their next meal would come from.
Chickpeas wait to be added to Petit Crenn's first Rethink meal.(Kimberly Zerkel)
"We knew what a meal can do," explains Chiu. The question was "how do we use restaurants at this time to stabilize the economy, rehire workers, and feed people?" The organization realized that by subsidizing Rethink's existing restaurant partners, they could not only keep them and their staff afloat through the crisis, but keep them preparing thousands of meals a day that could be distributed through their trusted nonprofit collaborators to food-insecure households.
Crenn followed Rethink's work closely. For years she had been thinking about ways restaurants could use their assets to feed not just their guests, but the community as a whole. So when the coronavirus erupted, so did an opportunity for collaboration.
"It's literally a win-win situation," she says. "COVID or not-COVID hunger is going to be around forever, but when a restaurant opens their doors, they also have to have a part of the business that will give back to the community. When you give back to the community, you also rebuild."
With a grant, Petit Crenn has been able to rehire a team of staff to feed those in need. The vegetarian, dairy-free meals—like couscous with smoky eggplant and vegetables, the first meal the kitchen produced last week—cost the restaurant $6 a plate to prepare using organic produce from Crenn's farm as well as other locally produced foodstuffs. When the meals are ready, representatives from Glide distribute them to 300 individuals within their assistance network.
Working through established social services organizations is an important aspect of the program's success. "A lot of times emergency food is not dignified," explains Chiu. Distributing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the community in Chinatown, for example, doesn't do much to build trust. Working through existing culturally sensitive organizations that local people recognize and respect is far more successful. "They've laid out the groundwork. They have a real relationship and we want to allow them to strengthen their ties."
Masked team members prepares meals at the transformed Petit Crenn.(Kimberly Zerkel)
Petit Crenn is the first Rethink-certified restaurant in the Bay Area, but it won't be the last. The organization is currently working to expand the initiative here into a network similar to the one they've built in New York. Other programs, including the Horn Initiative launched by Oakland restaurant Horn Barbecue and the Lee Initiative, have similarly begun to collaborate with chefs in SF, Oakland, and beyond to feed the food-insecure as well as frontline healthcare workers.
One of them is Nelson German, chef-owner of Oakland's AlaMar and Sobre Mesa. Since the crisis began in March, "instead of just being open for service, we have also been a relief kitchen," he says. After working with the Lee Initiative for close to three months, AlaMar is now preparing 100 to 150 meals per day for the homeless through World Central Kitchen, and Sobre Mesa is making breakfasts for frontline healthcare workers through East Bay FeedER. "Give back and better things come towards you. I learned that from my mom and grandma," German says.
While Petit Crenn will remain closed to the public to partner with Rethink for the next six months, Crenn herself has plenty of ideas for the future. She envisions a food infrastructure in the Bay Area that revolves around its restaurants, mom-and-pop and Michelin-starred alike. From production to plate, feeding everyone from the homeless to school kids to the elderly would be in the hands of small local farms, producers, businesses and organizations, replacing the corporate structures that currently provide institutions with over-processed foods with low nutritional value.
"We need to go back to feeding the community the right way, feeding the community with food that is good—good for the food system, good for your body," In the meantime, she says, don't forget that small actions can have a big impact. "Think about where you're buying your things because eating and buying is an act of activism."
// Petit Crenn, as well as Bar Crenn, remains closed for restaurant service but hopes to reopen to guests in 2021. The fine dining restaurant Atelier Crenn is open for takeout of farm-fresh brunches ($38/person), Crenn Kits ($145), and outdoor brunch and dinner service; place orders and make reservations on Tock. Follow chef Dominique Crenn on Instagram.