Elizabeth Falkner
The celebrity chef, Elizabeth Falkner, has a new cause fighting chronic illness with good health.

The celebrity chef, Elizabeth Falkner, has a new cause fighting chronic illness with good health.

Elizabeth Falkner is a lesbian polymath: She’s an expert in fine arts and martial arts; she has run businesses, written books, and appeared on countless cooking TV shows; and most recently, she’s mastered scuba diving and running.

But you probably know her best as a chef—she reached culinary rockstar status when she owned two wildly successful, award-winning San Francisco restaurants at the height of the American food boom.

Falkner effectively lost both restaurants as a result of the Great Recession; she also lost a relationship, and after calling San Francisco home for 25 years she moved to New York in 2012 to start afresh. “I just wanted to be a chef, I didn’t want to be a restaurant owner,” she tells me.

So she opened two restaurants for other restaurateurs but mostly focused on writing a memoir. “It’s actually been nice for me to step out from behind the line, and from managing so many people, and do other things that I’m really good at.”

Her up-front manner has made her good at something else: being a spokesperson for the common but often overlooked disease from which she herself suffers: moderate to severe atopic dermatitis (AD). While achieving 20 years of success, Falkner has suffered from this skin condition, which takes the form of painful and itchy rashes and lesions.

The condition runs in Falkner’s family, so she doesn’t think her drive or her strong work ethic are to blame for the disease—although she will say that the environment of the kitchen and the stresses of the job doesn’t help.

“It’s something I’ve had to wrestle with, particularly in the restaurant world, where I’ve had really horrible, painful rashes on my lower legs and especially on my hands, and I don’t think that it’s because of my drive.

I think, thank goodness, I’ve had the drive to do things to manage AD, and at the same time not let it stop me. That’s how I can actually help people who also have atopic dermatitis.”

Falkner was diagnosed when she was 30 after she developed painful rashes on her lower legs. “I thought they were shin guard rashes because I used to play a lot of soccer,” she says. It’s hard to imagine the sensation of AD unless you suffer from it, says Falkner, but she describes it as “having a bunch of little volcanoes beneath your skin. They kind of ooze and scab and you scratch them and it gets worse when you scratch.”

At the time of her diagnosis, her doctor gave her topical ointments, none of which worked. Busy running her first restaurant, Falkner tried all different kinds of over-the-counter lotions. Though she has yet to locate the triggers that cause the condition to flare up or subside, she has noticed that physical activity such as running and yoga, combined with acupuncture, calm her mind and her body, including her skin.

One of the reasons she’s joined the Understand AD campaign is to work with doctors to unveil the latest science pertaining to the disease, bring awareness to it, and give support to sufferers—all 1.6 million of them.

“I’m happy to share my story because I think there are a lot of people who are suffering with it, who are afraid to go outside, afraid to go on dates, afraid to do job interviews, because they don’t want to be discriminated against. It’s definitely affected my life, it’s been very painful, and I’ve also had to explain it to different partners in my life, and to the public.

When I have it on my hands it’s the most difficult, because I use my hands all the time in the kitchen and I have to figure out how to hide it. Luckily, I’ve never had it on my face, or I probably wouldn’t have taken on television,” she laughs good-naturedly.

She’s been a regular on numerous competitive reality shows over the past decade and recalls being judged on camera,  standing there surreptitiously scratching her itchy leg with her shoe, hoping no one would notice.

“I’m sure sometimes I’ve looked like a very twitchy, freaked-out person,” she laughs. “I’ve not let it stop me, but I don’t want other people to have to suffer, and I know that people are suffering. I’m happy to get the conversation going.”

Coming out as a sufferer of AD has not been difficult, says Falkner, nor was coming out as gay. What has given Falkner more trouble is her image—she’d like to change the impression that she’s solely a dessert chef. In actuality, she can cook anything, from desserts to savoury dishes, from pastries to pizza (she was the first American to win the “Freestyle” category of the World Pizza Championship in Naples, Italy, in 2012).

But she acknowledges that she will probably go down in culinary history as the chef who demolished conventional desserts and made them exciting—and put paid to the notion that women could only be pastry chefs and not executive chefs, let alone branch out and run their own restaurants. It’s commonplace now, but when Falkner did it, it was almost unheard of.

“I’ve always said, ‘What else can I do?’ I’m a game changer.”

Falkner turned 50 in February, and she is currently pursuing the archetype of the athlete. “Being a chef is tough. You need to be physically fit. Instead of admiring the generation of rockstar chefs, I wish that people would want to be more like an athlete, maintaining and taking care of your body and whatever ails you,” she says.

“Somewhere I got the message that we could deal with a lot more and perform better if we were more mindful of what we were eating—and were getting some exercise.” To celebrate her birthday, Falkner gained her scuba diving certification and is training for the New York City Marathon, which she will run in November. She encourages folks to change their mindset about food as consumption.

“Food is so many different languages,” says Falkner. “It’s diversity. We don’t need to try to dumb everything down. There are so many ways we can be looking at food in a completely different light—what it’s doing for us, what it’s doing for the planet.

I’ve been through two decades of people constantly talking about pork and all the things that we can do with it. And I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with everybody?’ I love my friend Amanda Cohen [of Dirt Candy fame], who shows us all the cool things we can do with vegetables.”

After her involvement with the Understand AD campaign, Falkner hopes to pursue her food advocacy work, “educating people about how much food we’re wasting in this country,” and polish her memoir for publication. She’s also returning to her fine arts background, working on a food installation immersion theatre piece, which she hopes to open in New York.

But maybe one day, if we’re lucky, Falkner will open another restaurant. In her 20s, when she was in school, she worked in the first Williams-Sonoma store in San Francisco. “Julia Child and her sister, and Marian Cunningham, and all these legendary food people would come into the store,” recalls Falkner.

“We had a professional kitchen in there and my boss would say, ‘Elizabeth, go back there and cook stuff, you’re good at it.’ ”