2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Juan Contreras of Atelier Crenn

2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Juan Contreras of Atelier Crenn
May 2013

Biography

Having discovered a persistent interest in food at an early age, Los Angeles native Juan Contreras jumped right into the industry after high school. He enrolled in The Art Institute in Los Angeles and simultaneously started his first culinary job at a local fine-dining steak house. Contreras worked his way from pastry manager to grill station before moving to L’ Orangerie, where he developed a foundation in French cooking techniques. On the constant hunt to learn, Contreras spent many days off staging for some of Los Angeles’s best chefs.

In order to snag a spot in the new kitchen at Abode, Contreras persistently called and emailed Chef Dominique Crenn. His determination paid off, and as part of the opening team Contreras was able to work every station. He quickly became sous chef, a position in which he nurtured his appreciation for modern cooking and pastry. When Crenn decided to move to San Francisco to head up Luce in the InterContinental Hotel, she asked Contreras to come with her as executive sous chef. At Luce, Contreras played a pivotal role collaborating in menu development and execution.

After two years, Contreras decided to reboot his inspiration and left on a one year sabbatical, which encompassed stints at Alinea, De Librije, and Oud Sluis. He then returned to San Francisco and joined Crenn in opening her new project, Atelier Crenn. As chef pâtissier at Atelier Crenn, Contreras’s philosophy and inspiration comes from respecting the past, searching for the small intricacies within nature, and highlighting landscapes, flowers, and aromas.


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Interview with 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Juan Contreras

Katherine Sacks: What made you interested in pastry?
Juan Contreras: I’ve always had that ambition on the backburner, but never had that as my station. There were a lot of things I wanted to express that I didn’t think was possible as a savory chef. I like challenging myself too. I'm having fun with it. It’s been two years. Coming on board with this project, I helped run the kitchen for 6 months before told her [Dominique Crenn] I wanted to switch and do pastry. In my culture, my family, my mom, grandmother everybody just cooks all the time. I went to the Art institute in Santa Monica. I’m from San Diego and originally went to school for film and graphics. I was working at a restaurant to pay bills and the passion kept going. I finished school and went to culinary school; my first job was working garde manage at a steak house.

KS: How would you describe your style?
JC: I don't know, free form, organic. There is a lot of technique in what we do here, but I like that to be subordinate to what we do. I don’t want people to think about that.

KS: What inspires you?
JC: Anything: music, nature, life, talking to people. I work on dishes three months ahead of time, I’m working on spring right now. It’s very elaborate, every dessert gets a new plate, a custom plate. It takes a long time to find resources, and a lot of stuff progresses from mistakes. I have a list of things I want to do next year, but who knows how many will happen.

KS: How do you inspire staff?
JC: You do what you preach, keep telling them organization, cleanliness, having them think about food all the time. Lead by example. You work long hours so you have to get something out of it. If it’s not money, then usually that something is knowledge and inspiration and it's got to be fun too.

KS: What are the three rules to pastry success?
JC: Dedication, cleanliness, and organization. There is a lot of precision involved, you can be multitasking everything but you have to be super precise, have to be super organized.

KS: What is your biggest challenge right now?
JC: Not getting bored, I’m always trying to do something on the previous level or higher than the previous task, not staying stagnant. Taking familiar flavors and creating something the guest doesn't expect. You have brioche, almost like pain perdue, how do you take that and translate it into a whimsical presentation. People come here for an experience. There is nothing wrong with crème brûlée, but people don' t come here for that.

KS: Where will we find you in 5 years?
JC: If I'm not cooking on the beach, maybe at another restaurant. Smaller, 20 seats, probably my own; I’ll be running the whole concept.

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