“I have a big mouth,” says Dominique Crenn, the first woman in America to receive a third Michelin star. “And I’m not afraid to use it.” She used it as a schoolgirl in Paris, standing up to classmates who challenged her. (“Boys would tell me, ‘I’m smarter than you,’ and I’d be like, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ ”) She used it when she left Paris for San Francisco in her twenties, talking her way into a job with one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs, Jeremiah Tower, despite having zero restaurant experience. (“I’m French, I know how to cook,’” she says, only half-joking.) She used it to report sexual harassment at another gig — and, after being told to leave if she didn’t like it, to offer a polite “fuck you” before quitting.
Three decades later, having won acclaim for the French-inspired, avant-garde cuisine she serves at Atelier Crenn, the flagship of her three San Francisco restaurants, she’s using her voice to address to larger issues: gender inequity, the environment. In 2017 Crenn publicly excoriated San Pellegrino, publisher of an annual list of the world’s best young chefs, for having no female jurors on its selection committee. “I thought we all got the memo that women are 50 percent of the population,” she wrote in a screed posted to Instagram. “I guess YOU DIDN’T.” She put her money where her mouth is, running a sold-out Women of Food chef series last year, which she hopes to reprise in 2020. And she’s opening a 5,000-square-foot, waste-free restaurant this year.
In truth, Crenn doesn’t really see herself as a chef, at least according to her Instagram profile. For her 230,000 followers, she is first and foremost a human. Then a woman. Then an activist. Mention of food comes fourth. It is “an art form, a language,” she writes. Her modernist tasting menus feature radical presentations — think billows of dry ice revealing butter-poached uni, or test tubes of sweetened seaweed broth — and accompaniments of actual poetry, written by Crenn.
She began speaking this language, she says, at the age of eight or nine. She recalls pulling a potato from the ground and being struck by the deeper meaning food can have. “I was sifting through the dirt,” she says, “and I remember thinking: This potato is important. It comes up from the soil and feeds us, it connects us. It is the core of society.” Crenn knew then that food would be her vehicle for both self-expression and advocacy. “Yes, chefs feed people,” she says, “but we have so much more responsibility. When [another chef] tells me ‘I just want to cook,’ I say, ‘Wrong answer.’”