Despite Cancer + The Pandemic, Why 3 Michelin Star Chef Dominique Crenn Is Happier Than Ever

Dominique CrennPhoto Credit: Andreas Branch
BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
PHOTOGRAPHY ANDREAS BRANCH

SHOT ON LOCATION AT ATELIER CRENN, SAN FRANCISCO, CA  

DOMINIQUE CRENN, AMERICA’S ONLY THREE MICHELIN STAR FEMALE CHEF, BEAT BREAST CANCER, ONLY TO FIND HER INDUSTRY DECIMATED BY COVID-19. YET, NOT ONLY IS SHE STILL SMILING, BUT SHE’S ACTUALLY HAPPIER THAN EVER. 

 

Dominique CrennPhoto Credit: Andreas Branch

When Dominique Crenn — the first and only three-Michelin starred female chef in America, and one of only five in the world — was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she could have fallen apart. Instead, she found a purpose. Her raison d’être: to make America, and herself, healthy again.  

“Food is medicine,” she declares via Zoom from her San Francisco home, which is currently under construction. Loud banging and the occasional buzz of a drill seek to smother her smoke and honey French accent. “Health is about understanding what you’re eating. I want to inspire and educate people that food is not only delicious, but can also [heal] you and make you feel better.” 

When she was diagnosed with the aggressive triple negative breast cancer in 2019, she knew, as a chef, what to feed herself to support her health. A long-time pescatarian, she filled her diet with fish rich in fatty Omega-3s and as many vegetables as humanly possible, all from her own Bleu Belle Farm in Sonoma, Calif. Although Crenn is now in remission, as she went through one of the hardest periods of her life — undergoing eight months of chemotherapy — she realized a hard truth: while she knew exactly what to do to support her immune system, most humans do not — especially Americans, who thrive in a fast food culture. And she knew exactly what she was going to do about it. 

Alongside serial entrepreneur Charles Michael Yim and food and beverage veteran Miko Lorenzo, the 55-year-old French-born chef launched VitaBowl, a premium, on-demand, plant-based superfood company that  offers a nutritious and affordable alternative to over-processed junk. As Co-founder and COO, her mission is to make consumers realize  food can heal from within.

“VitaBowl isn’t just about lowering diabetes, or having a healthy diet,” says Crenn. “Eating is an act of activism. It is an act of activism to make sure that what you put in your body is amazing; making the decision to spend money on yourself and invest in your body. At the end of the day, our bodies are our temples and we have to feed ourselves with something that is good,” she explains, noting that Covid-19 made this even more abundantly transparent. “I think the pandemic has exposed the weakness of America; how poor the food system is. It needs to stop. The idea now is to give people a better human system. Everybody needs to have the ability to access good food.”

And she truly means everyone (including her chihuahua, Maxie, who receives homemade gourmet meals from his mom). Not only is she preparing plant-based fare for celebrities like Rita Wilson at her annual Women’s Cancer Research Fund fundraiser, but when she was forced to close her restaurants during the spring quarantine, she immediately pivoted. Without hesitation, she transformed her intimate eatery, Petit Crenn — part of the Crenn Dining Group that also includes her Marina District three Michelin starred eatery, Atelier Crenn, and the adjacent Bar Crenn — into a high-end food kitchen, providing meals to frontline medical workers. And in partnership with Rethink and GLIDE, Petit Crenn has been feeding San Francisco’s homeless population 2,000 meals a week, all plant-based and organic, all with vegetables grown at her own farm. She says, “When I was serving the other day, a [homeless man] said to me, ‘I’ve been eating your food, and it makes me feel good.’ That’s why I do this; it’s not just about making bowls [or making money].”

Dominique CrennPhoto Credit: Andreas Branch

For Crenn, it’s also about learning a new side to the craft she’s been perfecting since childhood, when she spent summers on her family’s farm in Brittany, France. “In developing VitaBowl, I’ve been able to taste and test things I’ve never been able to taste before. I’m cooking more with vegetables than I ever have been, which pushes me to understand them better and use things that perhaps I’ve never used. We’ve been working with nutritionists [who’ve explained that] everything has a purpose on the plate. They know more than I know, and I’m a chef! It’s really inspiring.”

Her biggest discovery? “The vegetable is the new rock star,” she declares, laughing. “I can make broccoli and it will be the best broccoli you’ve ever had in your life. I just think we all need to re-work our palettes, and not just take the things that are in front of you, but really search for the things that are good for you. If we do that, I think we have a chance to have a better world and better health.”

Spearheading this movement is of the utmost importance to her. It always has been, though her cancer diagnosis did push her to make her voice a little louder. “You have to think about, ‘What is your purpose in life? Why are you even on this earth?’ Even if you’re struggling, you know that your work needs to continue. For me, it’s a pleasure to be able to continue to do things for others and to be part of the change, sick or not sick. Obviously I need to take care of myself, but I think when I’m struggling, I’m more inspired to do better things.”

That being said, she’s still inspired — but officially no longer struggling. “I’m cancer-free right now,” she affirms. “I had my last surgery in November of last year, and [had] a surgery in October to rebuild; I took everything out after eight months of treatment. And my hair came back bigger than ever! So far, so good.”

“Good” is putting it mildly. Cancer and Covid aside, Crenn is great. Scratch that — she’s glorious. She’s in love.

Crenn got engaged to actress Maria Bello in Paris last December (at another three Michelin starred eatery, that of her close friend Yannick Alléno), after a whirlwind courtship. In talking about her partner  — with whom she’s been quarantining with, both together and separately, at their homes in San Francisco and in the Hollywood Hills — she can’t keep the smile off of her face… especially when disclosing the story of how they first met. “I didn’t really know who Maria was, but I’m French, so I don’t know really follow American actresses,” she admits, recalling, “She DM’d me on Instagram in 2018 to ask for a reservation to the restaurant. I’m like, ‘Who is Maria Bello?’ I had never seen one of her films. I was very gracious and I said, ‘Yes, I can make you a reservation and all that’ but I was on my way to Mexico at the time so I wasn’t going to be there. She said, ‘No, we want you to be there.’ She came to the restaurant and we became friends right away, great friends for a year. I was in a relationship. But then, a year later — before I was diagnosed with cancer — something happened. Like, ‘There is something here.’ [I got] out of the relationship. And then I learned I had cancer.”

Bello, the star of films such as Coyote Ugly and A History of Violence, who currently appears on CBS’ NCIS, was in New York with her son when Crenn broke the news about her diagnosis, and immediately flew to San Francisco. “She said, ‘I think I have to talk to you’ and I was like ‘I think I’ve got to talk to you, too.’ She said, ‘I talked to my son. I’m in love with you. I want to be with you. There is no way out.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on pal.’ I said, ‘Listen, Maria, I have cancer, and I don’t think this is a good idea.’ She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘OK, let’s do cancer.’”

Crenn was still hesitant. Her adopted father had passed away from the disease, and she didn’t feel she could place such a burden on Bello. “I felt a lot for her, but I thought it would be so selfish of me,” she explains. “I know the ins and outs of cancer, and it’s a very difficult journey for someone you love… and we were not even dating! She was like, ‘I’m really fun around sick people’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ And I’m telling you, she kept her word. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories. I couldn’t even write this for movie; it’s so much better.”

Dominique CrennPhoto Credit: Andreas Branch

She proposed after her final surgery went off without a hitch, and the two were ecstatic to begin their life together.  But then… Covid. “We went through cancer for eight months at home and it was difficult,” Crenn recalls. “[After getting engaged] we were like, ‘2020 is going to be amazing!’ We were so excited. We were going to be traveling, and we had a wedding planned for September 5th, but then the pandemic happened.”

But even the novel coronavirus can’t get in the way of true love. The couple shrugged it off and made it work, despite often quarantining in separate cities. “We were like, ‘OK, let’s do the pandemic together.’ It’s been two years of being loved in, literally. But that’s also how you get to know someone. [And what I’ve learned is that we are both] people that think about being thoughtful and courageous and choose also to give back to others. We eat, we dance, we cry. We don’t really fight. Yeah, maybe we have a couple of those,” she chuckles.

On a more serious note, Crenn says, “She’s been with me all this way. I don’t think I would be here today if she was not by my side.”

Though she is convinced of this, Crenn has a toughness, an emotional strength, that is obvious even to those who have just met her. It must come with the territory given that she’s one of an elite crew of female chefs breaking boundaries in a male-dominated industry. Fortune favors the bold, and this is she to a “T.” Her career has jumped from strength to strength: from 1997, when she made culinary history as the first female executive chef in Indonesia, to earning her first Michelin star at San Francisco’s Luce in 2009, to earning a two-star rating for Atelier Crenn in 2011, becoming the first ever female chef to receive two stars, to her biggest honor, the three-star rating in 2018. That year was a big one in general: her Bar Crenn — a locale inspired by her childhood in France — also earned a Michelin star, and she received the James Beard Foundation Award of Best Chef: West, to boot.

She’s not stopping there. Although the coronavirus might have currently crushed business — Atelier Crenn is open for outdoor dining only (“It doesn’t bring in money, we’re just trying to keep the team afloat,” she admits), while Bar Crenn and Petit Crenn are temporarily shut until 2021 — she has big plans for the future. “I’m trying to think outside of the box by doing things like VitaBowl, and I’m working on a documentary. I’m [also] thinking about taking Atelier Crenn on the road, doing an Atelier Crenn residency,” she says, divulging that she’s spoken to her chef pal Michael Mina about doing something on a Las Vegas rooftop space. She also recently launched her first cuvee, a Semillon, with singer P!nk’s Two Wolves Wine, and published her memoir, Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters, in June.

And then there’s her personal future. There’s nothing more important than creating a family with Bello and her son, Jackson, as well as her own six-year-old twins with ex-partner Katherine Keon. “We’re trying to buy a house in Aix-en-Provence, France, for our wedding, which will be June 12th — so that we can have a wedding in that house. Is that crazy?” she wonders with a smile. “[When it comes to the future], we’re taking it one day at a time and we try not to be in the moment where we’re scared about tomorrow. Right now, we’re like, ‘OK, this is what’s happening and we don’t have any control over it, but what we do have control of is to make sure that we are smiling every second and we are happy, and maybe making other people happy [as a result].’”

Dominique CrennPhoto Credit: Andreas Branch

Loader