Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn reflects on being diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of her career: 'You are more powerful with every challenge you face'

Dominique Crenn was diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of her career, just months after her San Francisco restaurant received three Michelin stars. (Photos: @dominiquecrenn Instagram/Hard Rock Café)
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Dominique Crenn, chef of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Calif., is the first and only female chef in the U.S. to earn three Michelin stars — a culinary honor only eight women have received in the nearly 100 years the revered guide has been in existence.

But Crenn is one of eight in another way, too. In 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which affects one in eight women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Crenn was flying high at the end of 2018 when her restaurant received its third star. "I was really setting up a platform for my community," she tells Yahoo Life. "I wanted to be a voice that said if you work hard you can achieve anything you want, regardless of whether you're a man or woman."

Crenn felt on top of the world — unstoppable.

But on a business trip in early 2019, she began to feel very tired. "I got out of the shower and it literally felt like something was coming out of my left breast. Whatever it was felt very hard under the skin," she recalls. "I flew back to San Francisco right away, saw my doctor and he told me I had triple-negative breast cancer, stage two or three. I couldn't believe it."

When the doctor explained her protocol of a total mastectomy and 16 rounds of chemotherapy, Crenn, a mom of two, didn't shy away. "Anyone who knows me knows I don't back away from anything," she says. "In my mind it was an immediate switch to not feel sorry for myself, to tackle this new challenge and find this new platform to raise awareness by sharing my journey and being open about it."

Even while undergoing chemotherapy, Crenn still went to her restaurant almost every day to oversee operations and do some cooking. "I was very honest with my team, and they were so supportive," she says. "After my first day of chemo, which was about five hours, I came to the restaurant and we went down to the basement and we shaved my head while my pastry chef held my hand. Then, they all shaved their heads, too. The love and dedication of the people around me is how I got through this."

Crenn says she learned this mindset from her father, an artist and politician from Brittany, France. "He taught me that when you face hardship, you have to keep your head up and keep going. He also went through cancer — and died from it — but also survived the Second World War and so much more," she says. "We all go through struggles. Believing that you'll come out of the other side of the struggle is what brings us happiness and strength in life."

Chemotherapy can change the palate, making once-delicious foods taste metallic or rancid, which is obviously a problem for a chef. But Crenn says her sense of taste was heightened during her treatment, and her attitude about food as medicine strengthened. "I couldn't believe the food the hospital was serving to patients," she says. "I found a woman who was making meals and delivering them. I needed to eat well to keep my strength so I could continue treatment."

Now that she's been cancer free for a little more than two years, Crenn is using her platform as a celebrity — she recently appeared on Netflix's reboot of Iron Chef, and is planning restaurants in Las Vegas and Paris — to raise awareness during Hard Rock International's 23rd Annual "Pinktober" Campaign, which raised $700,000 last year for the American Cancer Society and local charities.

"Knowing Hard Rock's commitment to raising awareness and funding breast cancer research, when they approached me about a partnership I was on board immediately," says Crenn, who developed limited-edition Baja-Style Shrimp Tacos, available at Hard Rock Cafes around the world through Oct. 31.

Crenn says that even though her food at Atelier Crenn is elegant, she was happy to create an approachable, fun, delicious dish for Hard Rock. "I love simplicity and I love delicious food," she says, "the fact that I have three Michelin stars doesn't change the fact that tacos make me happy." In fact, her Las Vegas restaurant will have a tacos and tequila twist, and the restaurant in Paris will feature a menu based on California-style cuisine.

Up until now, Crenn has been known mostly by the culinary elite and foodies who can afford the car payment-sized amount it takes to dine at her San Francisco tasting room. But through this partnership, and sharing her breast cancer journey, she stands to make herself a fixture not only in the kitchen but as an advocate and inspiration to millions touched by breast cancer.

By surrounding yourself with love, says Crenn, you can overcome anything. "You're not crippled by your challenges. You are more powerful with every challenge you face."

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