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    Chef Dominique Crenn: Rebel with a Cause

    By Liam P. Mayclem–

    Chef Dominique Crenn in 2019 was on top of the world: four Michelin stars, (3-star Atelier Crenn, 1-star Bar Crenn), a profile on the hit show Chef’s Table on Netflix, appearances, and celebrity chef dinners worldwide. But then came gut punching news, three words no one ever wants to hear—”You have cancer.”

    “It was tough news to hear and I knew I was in the battle for my life, but it quickly became an opportunity to help others,” she told me.

    Her devastating news and cancer journey were shared in a very public way. A most private moment, shaving her head before chemo, she chose to share on Instagram. “This moment was a game changer for me,” she said. “I had to look myself in the face as someone with cancer, but I saw some beauty in it and an opportunity to make a difference.”

    Her latest book is aptly titled Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters (Penguin Press, 2020). It’s a memoir that takes us on the journey of one of the most decorated chefs in the world from her beginnings in an orphanage and upbringing by adopted parents in Brittany, France. “There is nothing off the table here,” Crenn said.

    It All Started with a Tomato

    We also learn of her early connection to food.

    “It all started with a tomato,” she explained. “I remember my Mama walking me through the garden at a very early age. The taste of that tomato changed everything for me. That moment stayed with me.”

    A then unknown cook from France made San Francisco home in 1988, starting her career working for Chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars restaurant. She came with limited professional training, making sandwiches (read the book), but Chef Tower gave her a chance. “She had passion and work ethic,” Tower informed me during a recent conversation.

    “Jeremiah taught me a lot,” Crenn said. “He was tough but gave me a chance that I will never forget.”

    Indonesia called on Chef Crenn early in her career, and she broke her first gender barrier there by becoming the first female executive chef in that country. A two-year stint in the city of angels followed her foreign cooking assignment, but San Francisco beckoned her back in 2008 with head chef duties at Luce. A year later, Chef Crenn earned her first Michelin star and it was maintained at Luce in 2010. 

    “I am a chef, not a female chef, a chef!” Chef Crenn said to me in one of our first interviews during this time when she was at Luce. From that first interview with her, I knew that I was dealing with a determined, fierce, intelligent woman who marches to the beat of her own drum. 

    Michelin-Starred Restaurants

    Fillmore Street in the Marina is where in 2011 she launched her first restaurant, Atelier Crenn, a poetic, artful, thoughtful dining experience and an homage to her father who had recently passed in 2009. He was a politician and painter, and his artwork hangs in the restaurant.

    Michelin kept the stars coming, awarding her two in 2014. The third star came in 2018, making Crenn the first female chef in America to attain the coveted three. And Bar Crenn next door was awarded one star.

    “We did it!” Crenn told me on the day of the announcement. “We did it for my team and for any young girl or boy dreaming of becoming a chef. Anyone. Now, let’s party!” Yes, Chef Crenn likes to have some unbridled fun, too.

    Humanitarian Efforts

    In recent times I have encountered a Chef focused on humanitarian efforts and being a champion for others as much as maintaining her successful businesses. In 2017, when wildfires devastated the wine country in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties, Chef Crenn was among the first to gather fellow chefs and feed people on the front lines. We partnered on a fundraiser, Chefs-Giving, raising more than $750 000 for relief efforts. Much of the money went to restaurant workers through the nonprofit Restaurants Care.

    “We are a community of hospitality, and even when disaster strikes, we take care of others and that’s the bottom line,” she said that evening to a packed Ferry Building full of foodies and big giving hearts.

    As cancer tried to take Chef down in 2019, she was speaking up about climate change and launched the “wake up” campaign that inspired thousands around the world to post a “wake up” message on Instagram. Participants included star chefs and pals José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Andrew Zimmern, and the list goes on.

    At the start of the coronavirus pandemic as the world came to a halt and Bay Area restaurants instantly shuttered, Chef Crenn was cooking up plans: “We have to think fast,” she said. “We need to take care of my team, family, and community.”

    Atelier Crenn and Bar Crenn are closed to diners during the pandemic shut down, but exquisite vegetarian Crenn boxes with ingredients sourced from her Bleu Belle farm in Sonoma were made available for pick up.

    Petit Crenn has recently been transformed into a community kitchen, inspired by great need of the vulnerable and food insecure in San Francisco. In partnership with ReThink Group of New York, she and her team daily serve 300 thoughtful themed meals to those in need at Glide Memorial Church.

    “I am French but my blood DNA comes from North Africa,” Crenn told the food pick-up guys, “so today’s meal is a Moroccan stew with chickpeas, potatoes, carrots, and spices with a curry sauce. It’s delicious and good for your belly.”

    The hope is that many restaurants across the country will follow her lead.

    Finding Love

    In the midst of her cancer battle, she met the love of her life a actor, producer, and activist Maria Bello. “I am happy,” she told me. “How serendipitous to find love now.”

    An Instagram post made the news public. I texted Chef Crenn about it that day. She responded, “OUI,” (YES) with a heart ️next to it. She now divides her time with Maria in Los Angeles and co-parenting her twin six-year-old girls in the Bay Area with her former partner Kat.

    Her new book is dedicated to Maria, whom she describes as the love of her life:

    To Maria, l’amour de ma vie,
    Un sourire, a laugh
    Un regard, your eyes
    Une pensèe, your heart
    Un baiser, your lips
    Un revè, you and I

    With the grit and determination of an undefeated boxer, Chef Crenn took cancer’s many punches and won. She remains on top, a champion.

    Learn More

    Atelier Crenn:
    Petit Crenn:
    Rebel Chef:

    Emmy Award-winning radio and television personality Liam Mayclem is regularly featured on KPIX as well as KCBS, where he is the popular Foodie Chap. Born in London, Mayclem is now at home in the Bay Area, where he lives with his husband, photographer Rick Camargo. For more information:

    Published on August 13, 2020