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 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 Vogue 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. Me and my wife-to-be are both big vintage lovers. My first style 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.
“We all have a responsibility to keep fighting hunger. Last time I was handing out our food in downtown San Francisco, a homeless man came up to me and said: ‘You’re not feeding me trash. I can taste the love in your food’”
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.
Speaking of activism, during the pandemic, you turned your second restaurant, Petit Crenn, into a community kitchen.
People are starving right now, and we have all this food ‘waste’ we’re not using. Being able to cook with a purpose has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life—every business should make it their mission to give back. We all have a responsibility to keep fighting hunger. Last time I was handing out our food in downtown San Francisco, a homeless man came up to me and said: ‘You’re not feeding me trash. I can taste the love in your food.’ Food is one of the few things bringing people together.
You were adopted as a young child. What impact has your background had on who you are today?
It has allowed me to come into this world without prejudice. My biological mother was born to a French woman and a German soldier during the occupation of France. I used a DNA test to trace my roots back to France, Germany, Italy, all the way to North Africa and Berbers. I’m a child of the world and it’s helped me understand that we’re all the same, regardless of where we were born or the colour of our skin.
On [the Netflix series] Chef’s Table, you said that “a lot of people come to San Francisco to find an answer”. What was your question back then and have you found the answer?
My question was, ‘Where can I be a creator?’ My home country, France, is beautiful, but I’ve always felt a little boxed in there. San Francisco is such a liberal, multicultural city, buzzing with limitless creative energy. The city rewards those with open hearts and minds, who are unafraid of the unknown. It’s that curiosity that’s kept me going, that has helped me evolve. I’m still curious to this day.
It’s been said that the greatest destroyer of creativity is success. Since opening Atelier Crenn, have you faced any challenges you didn’t before?
There’s a lot of damaging rhetoric I hear here in the US that I wasn’t exposed to before. Something happened to me at the start of this year. I was driving back from the hospital. My hair had fallen out because of the chemotherapy so I had wrapped a scarf around my head to keep warm. My two six-year-old girls were sitting in the back. Suddenly, this guy in a big truck cuts me off and starts insulting me, telling me how I’m a Muslim and that I need to ‘go back to my shit hole country’. When I called the police, all they said was: ‘He has the right to talk to you that way.’ We still have so much work to do.
Patti Smith once said: “Punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful.” With chefs often called rock stars, do you give yourself permission to not be successful?
That depends on how you define ‘success’. If you chase a dream—whether it’s rock star or chef—it’s incredibly easy to lose sight of who you are. Don’t let those things define you. When people look at me, I want them to think I’m punk rock, but not because of my Michelin stars.
You’re an avid reader and have been writing poetry since you were four years old. What is your desert-island book?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Every time I read it, its meaning somehow changes and intensifies.
You infuse your dishes with your own personal memories—that must make you feel vulnerable at times.
Your plate should tell a story. Whether it’s an intimate conversation I once had with a loved one or a moment with a stranger that triggered something in me, I want my food to reflect that. Yes, it can make you feel vulnerable, but for me to excel at what I do, I need to allow myself to peel back the layers of who I am in front of strangers. Being vulnerable is not a weakness, it’s a strength. The most beautiful thing is that if you allow yourself to open up, it will inspire others to do the same. It’s the same for fashion—look at the way Coco Chanel allowed herself to be vulnerable in order to unlock her creativity. I’m blown away by it.
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.