Dominique Crenn is a unicorn. Not because she is the first and only female chef in the US to have obtained three Michelin stars, making her one of five women in the world to have been awarded the restaurant guide’s highest honour. No, she’s a unicorn because, after a hellish year, which saw her stage-two metastatic breast cancer go into remission and her entire industry nearly wiped out by COVID-19, she is still smiling.
Crenn, who was adopted when she was 18 months old, grew up in Brittany, France, where she was introduced to fine dining by her parents at a young age. She began her formal training in San Francisco before accepting a job in Jakarta, Indonesia, as the first female executive chef to head the InterContinental Hotel’s kitchen. As it turned out, the pull of the Bay Area proved to be stronger and she eventually moved back to San Francisco where she launched her modernist restaurant, Atelier Crenn.
Today, Crenn is more hopeful than ever. She sat down with the magazine to talk about the importance of staying vulnerable, her love of fashion and thriving in a male-dominated industry.
Congratulations on your engagement to actor Maria Bello, being in remission and the recent election results. How are you feeling?
“I feel amazing. I’ve been in remission for the past year now. It’s been a tough battle, but [meeting Maria] helped save me. With regards to the election, even though my mother is a religious woman, in our household, we’ve always believed that love is love. We’re talking about an 87-year-old woman, Catholic to her core, who cannot believe how [in the US] religion is being used to stoke hatred in people’s hearts. If someone is elected as a leader, that person has a responsibility to lead with love and dignity.”
You’re the only female chef in the US to have been awarded three Michelin stars. Why are women and minorities still so underrepresented in your field?
“We’ve been living in a male-dominated culture for a long time and that extends to gastronomy. We’re all born as equals and then, at some point, society starts feeding young boys and girls completely different narratives. Originally, the structure of restaurant kitchens was based on that of a military brigade — very male, very macho. We have to change the conversation and we have to provide opportunities.”
You’re known to be a fashion aficionado. What does fashion mean to you?
“Fashion is the ultimate means of self-expression. I and my wife-to-be are both big vintage lovers. My first style of investment was a beautiful leather bracelet from Hermès. The craftsmanship that went into that bracelet was unbelievable. Oh, I have to show you my idols [points camera at a wall decorated with framed black-and-white photographs]. Look at this beautiful woman — that’s Coco Chanel working in her Paris atelier in 1962. I’m a big, big, big fan of Chanel. They love dressing my fiancée. I’m also fascinated by Maria Grazia Chiuri. I have such admiration for the way she expresses herself and understands not only the artistry involved but the person behind the work.”
What role has food played in the way you approached your illness?
“I’ve always had the philosophy that food is medicine. We have to become much more conscious of what we put into our bodies because it will catch up with us eventually. For me, it was about going back to basics and really reconnecting with nature—for my sake, but also for the planet’s sake. Eating is an act of activism. As parents, we want things to be better for our children.”
You’ve had to deal with tragic loss and strokes of fate, yet you come across as an extremely hopeful person. What’s your secret?
“Regardless of what’s happening around us, it’s up to us to approach things with an optimistic outlook. Even when you find yourself in a seemingly hopeless situation, you have to know there’s always a glimmer of light. At the end of the day, people are good. I really believe that.”