An exclusive insight into the kitchen and the mind of one of France‘s most important contemporary exports – Hélène Darroze.
The toast of Paris Hélène Darroze took pause from her two Michelin star restaurant across the pond, to take culinary control over space at The Connaught in 2008. From working under Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, to opening her restaurant on the Left Bank and her most recent two star establishment at one of London’s grandest hotels, Hélène Darroze has made her mark with a food philosophy firmly rooted in her French gourmet heritage. It is from her upbringing, the fourth generation of a chef family in the South-Western Landes region that inspired the menu for Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. The restaurant offers authentic regional and seasonal favourites including a Tartare of ‘Fines de Claire’ oysters from Papin-Poget with Osciètra caviar jelly and chilled velouté of white coco beans from Béarn and roasted milk-fed veal sweet-bread with spring onion purée, Saint-Georges mushrooms and a ‘Vin Jaune d’Arbois’ emulsion.
You hail from the Landes region of Southwest France. To what extent does your background influence the dishes you serve?
I cook from the heart; for me it’s all about my emotions. My dishes are inspired by my life, my travels, my experience and where I’m from and my family is a big part of that. Les Landes influences the way I cook and I will always be in love with the region’s ingredients, such as the foie gras which we serve here in London.
London is a city that boasts many fine hotels and restaurants. Why did you choose to put your name to The Connaught? What is so special and unique about what your restaurant at The Connaught now offers?
When I was first approached by the Maybourne Hotel Group I wasn’t interested. I was already the chef of my restaurant in Paris and couldn’t imagine having two restaurants in different countries! Nevertheless, I agreed to visit the hotel and fell in love with the project, with the Connaught, and with London. I felt a special energy here – something that Paris, perhaps, has lost at the moment.
Your restaurant Hélène Darroze At The Connaught has an extensive and impressive wine list. Do you work with the sommeliers to develop it? Do you have a personal favourite?
Wine is a crucial element of what I do and I work very closely with my sommelier. To really emphasise the relationship between my dishes and the wine on offer, we introduced the Sommelier’s table, a private dining area in the heart of our cellar where guests chose the wine first and then I match dishes to the vintages they have chosen. I’m also a fan of Armagnac so the restaurant features a selection of vintage Armagnacs selected by my brother Francis.
You split your time between your London and Paris restaurants. What are the difficulties of living in two separate cities? What affect does this have, if any, on balancing your work and home life?
It’s difficult, but it’s all about organisation. When I’m in London, I get up around 7am and have breakfast with my children. I am in the kitchens at The Connaught by 9.30am when I have a conference call with the Paris team. My children will always be my main priority and everything in my professional life is organised around the premise that if there is a problem I can leave service right away.
How do you go about sourcing your ingredients?
The most important thing for me is finding the best produce. UK produce can be so beautiful and hard to beat. Take Scottish scallops, British beef and local strawberries – they’re all delicious.
You are a fourth generation chef, and your family run a restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan, France. This must have made your career inevitable?
You could say that I was born in the kitchen. My grandmothers influenced me the most, they both taught me about ingredients and the integrity of food.
Do you have time to cook at home? Do you or your children have a favourite dish or restaurant?
Most nights I don’t get home until around midnight, but I do love cooking for the children when I can. Cooking at home was so important when I was growing up, I want them to have the same experience. When I am not working, I love to take my daughters to Borough Market in London, it’s ideal for children and grown-ups and a great hunting ground for unusual vegetables, spices and incredible cheese. I buy meat from the butcher’s; Allens of Mayfair across the road from the Connaught. And I love Japanese food; Umu is one of my favourite restaurants here.
In 2012, you were admitted into the French Legion of Honour as a Chevalier (Knight) by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Was this the biggest highlight of your career to date?
It was truly an honour. I could hardly breathe. Yes – it’s definitely one of the highlights along with being awarded my second Michelin star. It just goes to show what an important role food plays in today’s world.
How do criticism and unforgiving reviews affect you as a chef?
I’d love to say they don’t affect you, but of course they do. They sting, but they make you work harder and strive to be better. However, the important thing is to stay true to yourself; you can’t let criticism make you lose sight of who you are.
You are one of only a handful of women to have garnered multiple Michelin stars. Do you think you have paved the way for other, young female chefs?
I hope so. It is a male-dominated world, it’s important to be sincere about who you are. Never hesitate to say what you think. You will have to work hard, that’s for sure, but that’s the way it is if you want to succeed.