Book excerpt: “Rebel Chef” by Dominique Crenn

Chef and restaurateur Dominique Crenn, of the San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, is the first woman in America to be awarded three Michelin stars. But the immigrant’s success came in spite of longstanding misogyny in the restaurant world, which viewed the kitchen as a man’s domain.

In the prologue to her memoir, “Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters” (Penguin), Crenn writes about going against the grain of what was expected of a French woman.

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Bill Whitaker’s profile of Dominique Crenn on “CBS Sunday Morning” July 12!



When I was six months old, I was left in the care of an orphanage near Paris and it was from here, a few months later, that my parents adopted me. As a child, I loved to hear the story of how they chose me that day; of how my brother, whom they had adopted months earlier, came over and spontaneously gave me a hug. Much later, in adulthood, I would learn something of the unhappy life of my birth mother, but growing up my adoption story was only happy. My parents always made me feel like I was a gift.

I was raised in a loving family, but quite often I felt like the odd one out. I didn’t fit in with other children my age. There were ways of doing things in France when I was growing up – ways of looking and being, especially if you are a girl – that felt alien to me.

One of these peculiarities that set me apart was my desire to become a chef. It wasn’t only the fact that, for someone raised by professional parents, cooking didn’t seem like a respectable job. Nor was it that neither my parents nor I knew anyone who actually did it for a living. The truth is that, in France during the years I was growing up, becoming a chef simply wasn’t something a woman would do.

Women cooked, of course. We nurtured and organized and ran households up and down the country, but we didn’t put on chef’s whites and run kitchens. We didn’t open fancy restaurants or win Michelin stars, and we didn’t have culinary theories or innovate. We were homemakers, not artists, so that while it was normal for a French girl to want to cook, it was not normal for a French girl to want to be a chef and dream of opening her own restaurant.

For many years, I didn’t even know these were the things I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want what I was supposed to want, a life culminating in marriage and children, around which a job might be discreetly arranged. In the 1970s and ’80s, these were the only proper goals for a French woman, so that for a while I thought the problem was France. I’m not French enough, I thought. My genetic heritage was mixed and uncertain, and France, with its severity and purity – with the inflexibility that lurks beneath its founding principles of liberté, égalité, and fraternité – didn’t suit me. Only America, truly the land of the free, would save me.

I was half right about this. Moving to the West Coast of America in my early twenties certainly opened up my life in ways that would never have happened in France. But it’s not the case that on reaching the United States I suddenly, seamlessly, fit in. I loved San Francisco, but I was still me and the world was still the world.

One of the more depressing of these universals was that, even in America, a restaurant kitchen was still a man’s domain. In the first fifteen years of my career, I was yelled at and groped and made to work through injury. I survived horrible business managers and tyrannous head chefs. At the age of forty- five, when I finally opened my first restaurant, it was in the wake of the global financial crisis and I was told that, even in the best of circumstances, I was entering a tough business at a tough time. On top of that, as a woman opening a fine-dining restaurant with vaguely avant-garde ambitions, I was practically laughed out of the room.

I could have tried to change myself. I could have made more effort to knuckle down and conform. I could have, as was suggested to me way back at the beginning, when I had just graduated from college and was thinking of applying to cooking school, checked my ambition and become the manager of a restaurant rather than the chef or the owner. This is what women do; they settle for second, third, fourth best. They fold their ambition into smaller and smaller pieces until it disappears altogether.

It never felt like a choice to me. I was a didn’t-fit-in kind of girl who became a didn’t-fit-in kind of woman, and as I grew older, I started to understand that everything I’ve achieved – owning my own restaurant, becoming the first woman chef in the United States to be awarded three Michelin stars, even marrying the woman I loved – was not in spite of these differences but because of them.  If I had to describe my motivation in life, the words I would choose would be “curiosity” and “courage.” In French we say “bon courage,” which has the advantage of meaning both “be brave” and “good luck.” And when girls approach me for advice, I tell them to be courageous! Be curious! And, above all, to understand that, while success in any field requires a strong vision, to make that vision fly you need other people. Especially since I don’t know the story of my genes going back five generations, my security and continuity lies in the strength of the connections I’ve made with others, and the knowledge that they are everything I have in this world.

A lot of my cooking is inspired by my earliest memories, which are some of the happiest memories I have. I might serve you potatoes roasted in their own soil with a ham broth, and with it the summers I spent on my grandmother’s farm. You might taste black trumpet mushrooms with toasted pumpernickel and chickpeas while walking alongside my father and me through the woods, or sit down to smoked oysters and freshly steamed langoustine while joining me at my mother’s table for lunch. Perhaps, in these memories, you will find reflections of your own.

Which brings us around to the question of luck. While I had the good fortune to be adopted by wonderful people, who loved me and gave me a good start in life, the real luck, as I see it, is that I never regarded any circumstance to be the end of the story. Living is moving. Nothing is learned by standing still. We are all works in progress. This is how I see things, good or bad – as an invitation, much like the one I extend to you, now, to come with me, through this open door.

From “Rebel Chef” by Dominique Crenn, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Dominique Crenn.  

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