Learning femaleness, chefness, and success from one of the world’s best chefs. Period.
By Chloe Olewitz
When Dominique Crenn received the award for world’s best female chef, she immediately worked to strike a balance between accepting the honor and pushing back against the concept. How many female chefs can you name? What does an award like that mean if it elevates one individual from a pool of fewer than ten? Fewer than five? Tokens of femaleness that make it easier for the men at the head of the industry to get away with their mysoginist antics—“but look, we have a category just for girls!”
I fell in love with Crenn’s public persona before she started to publicly question the notion of a world’s best female chef. Crenn is a chef, she is one of the world’s best chefs, and her talent and her skill have nothing to do with her femaleness. Is Bourdain’s celebrity a function of his maleness? Nor does Crenn’s success have anything to do with her femaleness, since her entire ethos is built around success as something other than a one-time accomplishment. An award to win. It’s not getting through the door because you have a pretty face or lady parts. In her own words, “success is an evolution.”
On Chef’s Table, talking heads explain that local restaurant critics didn’t understand her food when Atelier Crenn first opened. “They felt it was too beautiful in a way. Maybe even that she was too beautiful to be taken seriously.” Of course, no one walks into a man’s restaurant and takes his food less seriously because he has a face for radio, or because he is pompous or unkind. The comment itself is problematic. And yet, this comment about Crenn’s beauty shines a light on the way femaleness is used as a qualifier for goodness.
“I’m not serving a menu. I’m serving a story. I’m serving my soul.”
I fell in love with the way Crenn honors memory. I fell in love with the way Crenn’s food is a conversation, an invitation for perfect strangers to know her, experience emotion alongside her, call up personal, independent histories together in a moment that is gone sooner than it has been shared. I fell in love with the way she has learned from the strong, creative men in her life without relinquishing her own personal feminism, her dedication to successful women and women in kitchens and women-run kitchens.
Following her win as the world’s best female chef, a sloppy journalist asked Crenn whether she felt she had missed out on the role of being a mother for the sake of her own professional success. She didn’t let him get away with it. Crenn has twin daughters, but that’s not something the public knows. It’s certainly something the journalist should have known, but the fact that he didn’t is telling. In many a male-focused episode of Chef’s Table, neglect of family for the sake of a restaurant’s success is not only accepted, it is venerated. A man sacrificing personal happiness to reach the pinnacle of his craft.
This sacrifice is decidedly not the narrative applied to any combination of greatness and femaleness. Does Dominique Crenn make a concerted effort to keep her private life private? I’m sure. An understanding develops of Crenn as someone who experiences life so intensely and feels so much, so deeply, that the rich emotional experience she shares with the public, with diners in her workshop, with interviewers and fans, must be painstakingly curated.
“Once you realize a dream, it’s not a dream anymore. There are other dreams that come to you.”
Nancy Silverton (one of the five female chefs featured in three seasons of Chef’s Table) points to two dueling aspects of Crenn’s personality: a whimsical, sensual, uninhibited creator spirit and a serious, capable, talented professionalism. Crenn commands respect and attention, she inspires loyalty, but she also honors the people on her team. She lifts them up, she encourages them, she loves them, she sets them free to express themselves the way her mentors once unleashed her young imagination and talent.
I fell in love with Crenn’s masterful balance of these two seemingly opposed realities. It’s a familiar dichotomy. Robbed of the opportunity to be simply the best thanks to sex, and more, to gender, Crenn owns her power while allowing for her softer spots. Crenn demands success—the evolutionary, always-forward sense of creative success that means her best is yet to come—while still dancing and kissing and biting off the head of a shrimp pulled fresh out of the San Francisco bay. Is that the secret to success or the key to modern femaleness? For me, for many of us, Crenn’s work reads as a recipe for success as a modern female living in a world where being the best is never the end of the accolade when you’re also a woman.
Photos: Chia Messina