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Three Michelin stars! Meet the first woman to smash America's boys' club

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/02/2019 Miranda Bryant

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12:  Chef Dominique Crenn attends the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Chef Dominique Crenn attends the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) In November, three decades after arriving in San Francisco from France with no professional cooking experience or even training, Dominique Crenn got a lifechanging call from the Michelin Guide. Surrounded by staff, she answered the phone: “Ah, bonjour!

First, she excitedly relayed the news that Bar Crenn, her 1930s Paris-inspired wine bar, had earned its first Michelin star. Then, her composure erupted into what can only be described as ecstasy. Jumping around sandwiched by staff members, she whooped and screamed.

Her only audible words: “Oh my God!”

Her restaurant Atelier Crenn had been awarded not one, not two, but three Michelin stars.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 13:  Chef Dominique Crenn prepares a Dinner with Dominique Crenn and Alex Guarnaschelli part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Arabelle at Hôtel Plaza Athénée on October 13, 2017 in New York Ci  (Photo by Chance Yeh/Getty Images for NYCWFF) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 13: Chef Dominique Crenn prepares a Dinner with Dominique Crenn and Alex Guarnaschelli part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Arabelle at Hôtel Plaza Athénée on October 13, 2017 in New York Ci (Photo by Chance Yeh/Getty Images for NYCWFF) It was the first time a woman in America had ever been awarded the top classification by the prestigious French restaurant guide (she was also the first female in the US to get two stars in 2012). Not only did it confirm her status as one of the world’s top chefs, but it also marked the smashing of America’s boys’ club cooking elite.

Chef Nancy Silverton says Crenn’s achievement broke the glass ceiling for everyone. “It means there are no limits, no roofs, no barriers. Dominique took a sledgehammer to the walls,” she tells me. Eric Ripert, executive chef of three-star New York restaurant Le Bernardin, describes Crenn as a “pioneer” and a rule-breaker. “It’s not many women worldwide who have that achievement,” he says. “And it’s a big deal for the US. It’s not too many three-star Michelin in America to begin with.” (There are 15 in total.)

Today Crenn, 54, sat in her favourite corner of Bar Crenn, surrounded by sheepskin-style throws, tactile upholstery and stylishly scuffed up furniture. She is wearing a tweed flatcap and clutching a reusable coffee cup. It’s a January weekday morning on a bright, sunny day in Cow Hollow, San Francisco, and behind the scenes, neighbouring Atelier Crenn is in full swing preparing for this evening’s two sittings. In the kitchens, there’s a huge stock pot on the go and freshly made breads cool on racks. There’s a sense of buoyancy and focus and a distinct lack of shouting.

She opened Atelier Crenn, her first restaurant, eight years ago. The grand tasting menu, which centres around seafood and costs a considerable $335 per person (not including wine pairing), is written as a poem.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12:  Chef Dominique Crenn attends the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Chef Dominique Crenn attends the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) The signature dish is Brittany speciality the Kir Breton, but Crenn’s take on it is a cider-filled white chocolate sphere finished with a little turret of crème de cassis. Her brioche comes as a glossy voluminous loaf with a slab of homemade butter decorated with flowers. The coconut mousse, herb sorbet and candied pineapple comes in an entirely edible dish and the caviar sparkles like tiny precious stones on beautiful ornate dishes.

Crenn often appears in the eight-table dining room to chat with guests – much to the delight of giddy Yelp reviewers. But do not be mistaken, this is not a customer satisfaction survey. She never asks if they like the food. Rather, it’s about creating a dialogue. “I discover a little bit more of the world also through their voice and their eyes which is very interesting to me. It’s exciting.”

The restaurant walls are decorated with her father Allain’s paintings – scenes from Brittany, where Crenn spent much of her childhood – and the poem that she wrote the day he died. The honesty emanating from the beautifully assembled room is striking; Crenn compares it to opening a drawer where “everything has a purpose”.

She shares more in this room than many people do to their closest friends and family. Does it ever make her feel vulnerable?

“Well I mean, yes, it is vulnerable. But I think one of the greatest traits of a human is being vulnerable because …” She starts again. “People think it’s a weakness, I think it’s a strength because it allows you have authenticity, it allows you to tell people who you are. There’s no lie, there is no hiding behind something. I’m not in politics here. What you see is what you get,” she says, unravelling the patterned scarf from around her neck. “It’s nice. It allows you to grow as a person, which is great.”

Chef Dominique Crenn at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl Food for Soul at the Ace Hotel Downtown on Friday, May 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Los Angeles Times Food Bowl/AP Images) © Getty Chef Dominique Crenn at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl Food for Soul at the Ace Hotel Downtown on Friday, May 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Los Angeles Times Food Bowl/AP Images) But she has also had to be strong. Female chefs often have to work even harder than men to succeed in an industry already notorious for its relentless work ethic and unforgiving hours. Crenn was named “best female chef” by World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 (although she later criticised it for being gender specific, saying: “It’s stupid. A chef is a chef”) and last year the James Beard Foundation named Crenn “best chef: west”.

Earlier in her career, she came across a lot of men who believed they needed to act tough. But she fought this mentality by not caring what other people thought of her. “‘If you’re a woman, you should shut up and just cook.’ I’m like, seriously? You’re telling me that? Guess what. I’m going to keep speaking then.”

Women, she says, in many places are still being paid less than their male counterparts. She believes the problem goes back to education and that all children should be taught the same, regardless of gender. “We can’t have a country run by men only. We’re not going to be able to change things if that happens.”

The restaurant business has undergone a #MeToo reckoning with a number of high-profile chefs being accused of sexual harassment and abuse. Earlier in her career, Crenn was harassed by a colleague. When she reported it, she was told to either put up with it or leave. “It’s almost in a way like I was a burden for them being a woman in the kitchen,” she says. She decided to leave.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 14:  Dominique Crenn attends the Netflix's Rebels and Rule Breakers Luncheon and Panel Celebrating the Women of Netflix at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on May 14, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images) © Getty BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 14: Dominique Crenn attends the Netflix's Rebels and Rule Breakers Luncheon and Panel Celebrating the Women of Netflix at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on May 14, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images) In her own company she has a “zero-tolerance” approach to sexual abuse and harassment, and encourages staff to come straight to her with any issue so it can be investigated. The policy seems to be working. Today her company has more women working for it than men. The staff force at Petit Crenn (her other, slightly cheaper, restaurant) is 80% female. “It’s amazing,” she says excitedly. “It’s the best kitchen.” The gender divide at Atelier Crenn is 50/50.

As a young chef she was often expected to do additional work for nothing to get ahead, but in her company she pays staff for all of their work. She also does not like tips. Guests are not banned from tipping, but she says she pays staff wages they can live on.

Crenn did not formally study cooking, but her passion for food started at a very young age. Her parents, who adopted Crenn at 18 months, instilled her with a strong interest in food. Her mother Louise, who is still based in Brittany, taught her how to cook, she loved to help out on her uncle’s farm and she accompanied her father (who was a politician and a painter) to Michelin-starred restaurants from a young age. “That was like going to a symphony,” she says with a smile.

Being adopted has had a positive impact on her approach to life, she says. “It’s allowed me to be open about the world and that you could be from anywhere.” She recently retested her DNA and found she has roots around the world including in France, Germany, Italy, South Asia, North Africa and Finland. “I’m very nomadic and I think that comes from that,” she says.

After arriving in San Francisco with no formal training, she got a job at then renowned restaurant Stars, launching her career. She later worked at Intercontinental Hotel in Jakarta, where she was Indonesia’s first female executive chef, Manhattan Country Club in Los Angeles and Luce in San Francisco.

Her self-confidence, verbally at least, is unusual. It has the unbreakable assurance of a self-help book. “I’ve never been afraid about anything. I just knew that if I do things and I express myself, people hopefully will notice,” she says. “I’ve never thought that I would not succeed.”

While she loves France, and still votes there, it was in America that she found her voice through cooking. Has the election of Donald Trump changed her relationship with the country? “Oh, I love America. Americans are amazing. It’s just the people that are getting into power are being very selfish and don’t remember what they come from.” Trump, she says, is a “follower”.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12:  Chefs Nancy Silverton, Gabrielle Hamilton and Dominique Crenn attend the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Chefs Nancy Silverton, Gabrielle Hamilton and Dominique Crenn attend the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Coca-Cola - Dinner with Gabrielle Hamilton, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn part of the Bank of America Dinner Series presented by The Wall Street Journal at Bank of America Building on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF) She has no time for anti-immigrant rhetoric and border walls – including in her dining room, asking guests to leave if they are disrespectful to staff, which has happened a couple of times. “People have become very entitled. And because they think they come to a restaurant it’s a place of service so we are ‘at your service’? No. You come here,” she says, slowly, instructively, “we will serve you, but we are equal. It’s like don’t treat us like servants.”

There is still significant work left to do to tackle racial and gender equality, she says. “Diversity is going to bring us to a better world. Right now we are in a place where we’re suppressing diversity. We’re allowing a certain race to be superior than the other. For me, this is not what America is about.”

Despite her three-star Michelin approval, you get the sense that Crenn is continually evolving, self-improving. As well as a memoir, due for release this year, and an ongoing documentary, Crenn (who also owns a farm in Sonoma county) is also opening a patisserie-cum-boulangerie in San Francisco that will be plastic-free and dairy-free.

“Food is politics,” she says. Is that why she considers herself an activist? “Yes, of course,” she answers immediately. “We have to continue the legacy of humanity. I want humans to evolve, I need to be a part of it, I need to give back, you know?”

Gallery: Travelling foodie bucket list: 15 most Michelin-starred cities [StarsInsider]

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