The New York Times came to San Francisco, as it likes to do, to profile one of this fair city’s best chefs, Dominique Crenn. She’s the chef/owner of Atelier Crenn, her eponymous altar of fine dining in Cow Hollow (not Pacific Heights, as the Times wrote), which has earned two Michelin stars for several consecutive years since it opened in 2011. Crenn was also named “Chef of the Year” by Eater in 2015, and (controversially) “Best Female Chef” by the World’s 50 Best organization last year, among other accolades.
The piece, written by NY Times Food staff reporter Julia Moskin, is a well-deserved tribute to an extremely talented chef. There’s no denying her passion, talent, and incredible drive— the chef continues to hone her two restaurants, Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn, and plans to open a wine bar, Bar Crenn, sometime this spring.
But yet, the profile touched on some points that left us scratching our heads. Thoughts below:
The SF Chron Critic Tells Us What He Really Thinks
While San Francisco might demonstrate its progressiveness as the the home of more two-starred female chefs than any other city, it still has SF Chron critic Michael to offset the achievement. Bauer shared the following quote with writer Julia Moskin:
“She cooks the way the men are cooking,” Michael Bauer, the longtime restaurant critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, said in an interview. “Like what you’d see at Benu or Quince or Le Bernardin,” all restaurants with three Michelin stars, headed by men.
The critic goes on to attribute her hard work and talent to the chef’s success, but also let’s not forget to bring in her beauty and charisma:
Mr. Bauer, who gave Atelier Crenn three and a half stars in a 2014 review, took that a few steps further. “She has been successful because she does have talent, and she has worked hard,” he said. “But let’s be honest, also because she has enormous charisma, she’s beautiful, and has that French accent.”
It’s not entirely clear what Bauer meant by this, as Le Bernardin, Benu, and Quince all have wildly disparate cooking styles. And it’s not quite clear whether Moskin is pushing back against Bauer in the right way (or at all). Ultimately, it’s a backhanded compliment as Bauer cites talent alongside beauty, as if people can’t help but like Crenn’s food because of the way she looks.
So, Is Modernist Cooking Just For Dudes?
Moskin also writes that few women are at the helm of modernist or avant-garde restaurants, which is true, but few would describe Le Bernardin or Quince as modernist, especially not in the same vein as Alinea, or even Crenn. There are also fewer women recognized for that, or anything, in the industry across the board. Meanwhile, Crenn herself posits that her extreme creativity and modernist leanings may have played a role in her slightly delayed vault to fame.
But her food is unapologetically artsy, personal and sometimes risky, and she believes this is one reason she received less credit and more criticism at the beginning of her solo career.
“Many people still think a creative, original artist must be a man,” she said. This was long true in art, fashion, literature and many other fields, she pointed out. “My biggest role models are not chefs,” she said, “but women like Coco Chanel, Simone de Beauvoir, Nina Simone.”
Crenn’s Thoughts on the Matter
Crenn herself agrees with the argument against the “Best Female Chef” label, which was the subject of a media and industry outcry this year and last. Critics suggested that it was “tokenish,” while Mic editor (and former Eater editor) Khusbhu Shah wrote that the award “says you may be the best female chef in the world, but there are still 50 male chefs that are better than you.”
Yet, Crenn’s personality shines through in the article, as the chef breaks down her driving motivation:
“Being a chef is about feeding people, which is part of the story of all humanity,” she said. “Male, female, gay, straight, Jewish, Muslim, white, black: The longer I do this, the more I am sure that none of it should matter in the kitchen — or anywhere.”
“Maybe I’ll start my own list,” she added. “It would not look like anything the world has seen before.”
Her business sense is keenly aligned with her sense of fairness; the chef, who recently bought out her investors at Atelier Crenn, is also one of the few restaurants to include service in the bill.
Does Fame Have a Recipe?
The profile doesn’t necessarily answer its own question; it is, however, an insightful look into how women chefs are perceived amongst their peers. Besides Bauer’s narrow view of Crenn (despite his admiration of her, and her restaurant, which he awarded three and a half stars in 2014), Crenn is not lacking in fans both of her considerable talent, and her charisma.