“I had one hour this afternoon and I went shopping – I love shopping,” chuckles Hélène Darroze as she settles into a soft chair in the corner of London’s Connaught Bar. Only three days earlier, she returned from an extended culinary trip to Mexico, where she combined business and pleasure and took her two girls, Charlotte (11) and Quiterie (9), on a Mayan exploration. But for most of the year, Darroze divides her time between her eponymous restaurant in London’s Connaught Hotel in Mayfair with three Michelin stars; her two-starred restaurant Marsan in Paris and laid-back restaurant Jòia par Hélène Darroze, also in France’s capital. Trying to figure out how she does it is pretty much fruitless – she just does. But the clue is certainly in her heritage and the choices that seemed to her inevitable at the t ime.
Hélène Darroze grew up in the southwest of France, the very rural Les Landes, with poultry farms and corn fields as far as the eye could see. And though she comes from a long line of chefs, she wasn’t allowed in the restaurant kitchen as a child. She explains: “My earliest memories are not from the kitchen of the restaurant, but of my mum and my grandmother cooking around this big AGA oven at home. I was very small but I remember being in my mother’s arms as she was cooking béchamel sauce and I was putting my finger in to taste. She was very surprised because my mum is not a chef, she’s a pharmacist. So I was not copying her, I did it instinctively.” Later on, Darroze recalls the hustle and bustle every morning when the fishermen and farmers paid a visit to her father’s and grandfather’s restaurant to sell milk, eggs, poultry, salmon and ceps.
“I didn’t have the wish to be a chef because it was the 80s and at least in France, when you are a good student, you have to study and go to university. Furthermore, I was a woman and in the spirit of my father, my brother should have been the chef. And me… I don’t know what. I probably should have worked in the pharmacy like my mum. But it didn’t happen like that,” she laughs. “And thank goodness.”
Darroze went to business school and, after graduating, joined Alain Ducasse’s prestigious Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, mainly working in the back office. But her passion for cooking shone through and at every opportunity she jumped at the chance of working in the kitchen, learning from the great master. Being in a three-Michelin-starred kitchen was a dream come true and gradually it all made sense: “At one stage you are mature enough to say, I have a passion and I won’t let it go. I loved cooking. So that’s what I did. I was 24, which was a bit late. But in the end, perhaps that was good. I definitely missed some techniques in the beginning, but because of that I used to cook with a lot of intuition – a lot of emotion – in order to balance out the lack of technique.”
She decided to leave and not go back to the office, but join her father at the family restaurant. After a year together, her father handed her the keys and gave her free reign. However, soon the restaurant needed refurbishment and an opportunity arose for Darroze to go to Paris. Not only driven by her urge to create, but also admittedly because she was in love with someone in Paris, she left the restaurant of her father and grandfather and jumped at the opportunity of opening her own restaurant.
Darroze’s food philosophy is based on several pillars. Her first rule is to choose the best products – admittedly nothing new for chefs of her calibre, but for Darroze, it’s personal. She was born in the French countryside, and producers and their products play a major role in her approach. Her second rule is similarly rooted in her French background: connecting with a story, her family and everything she learned. “My cooking is speaking about my life, my emotion in life, something that comes from within me. There is a lot of emotion and a lot of myself in every dish.” And the third rule is to never forget giving happiness to her guests. “I’m not cooking to demonstrate something. I don’t want people to try and understand something when they eat. I just want them to have pleasure and happiness – to have tasty food, that’s what I want.”
One such dish combining all these elements has become one of Darroze’s signature dishes: Retour d’Hanoi. It translates as “coming back from Hanoi” and stems from the time she went to Vietnam 11 years ago to adopt her first daughter. Throughout this time, Darroze ate Vietnamese pho every day, which inspired her version of a consommé flavoured with fragrant spices and herbs – a pho made not with chicken, but shellfish, and containing lobster or scallops. Vibrant and colourful, the dish is telling the story of her emotions inspired by the happiness she experienced in Vietnam. Not only is it a feast for the eyes with all its floral abundance, but also for the palate, hitting different notes with every spoonful and keeping the taste buds excited with a multitude of textures.
Developing her ideas, Darroze finds inspirations according to the season and the produce at the markets. Generally she works on new dishes alone at home on a piece of paper, writing down ideas and making drawings. Back in her kitchen in either Paris or London, she and her team will get to work and transform the ideas until they reach the desired tasting balance.
After opening her restaurant in Paris over 20 years ago, Darroze knew it was time to reassess her vision for the place. “Back then I was 30, and to be honest, at the time I didn’t have a real vision. I knew that I wanted to do fine dining and go with my philosophy using the products from the southwest of France and that’s it. But over the last few years, I grew up and became more mature. I think during the last 20 years I wanted to step out from my origins and from my family a little bit. And now it’s time to come back to that and say: this is what I have inherited, that’s my heritage from my family, my country, my life. The next 10 years will really be what I have taken from everywhere and particularly from my roots.”
To that end, Darroze made a big investment in refurbishing her Paris restaurant from scratch. She completely transformed her then eponymous restaurant into a new incarnation titled Marsan, in honour of the region she grew up in. The new fine dining restaurant in Rue d’Assas reopened in January 2019 with only 30 seats, and so far it has more than lived up to its promise of being an exclusive and singular experience for guests. Prior to Marsan’s opening, Hélène said of the space: “I would like guests to feel at home and I would like them to be more connected with the kitchen than it is at the moment. I also want there to be more emphasis on the storytelling.” If a complete overhaul wasn’t a large enough step, Darroze also opened a new casual dining restaurant Jòia in Rue des Jeuneurs in the second district. In that same year , she celebrated the 10th anniversary of her restaurant opening at The Connaught in Mayfair.
Is there even time for anything else in her life? It turns out, plenty. “I love travelling and I started to take more time for it, discovering new countries and cultures and of course new ways of cooking. I also love writing and reading. And I love spending time with my girls, that’s very important to me.” Not to forget the charitable organisation she co-founded, La Bonne Etoile, which aims to help Vietnamese children and orphans, and of course taking part in cooking events around the world.
Hélène Darroze is leading a life and a career as complex and varied as one can only imagine and her achievements have been recognised by Michelin, Veuve Clicquot (as World’s Best Female Chef 2015) and by France, becoming a chevalier (knight) in the French Legion of Honour in 2012. And yet, what she loves most about her job is just very simply “giving happiness to my guests. It’s a pleasure for me to make them happy”. And with that she returns back to the kitchen, the place where her memories and emotions are transformed into unforgettable dining experiences.
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 04/18 edition.
Profile and interior photos © Jérôme Galland
Food photos courtesy Hélène Darroze at The Connaught