This interview in our series with top chefs, in partnership with Champagne Ayala, is with three Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze, who tells us about the challenges she has faced in her 30-year career, the differences between London and Paris, and how Brexit will affect her cross-Channel kitchen.
Hélène Darroze says that she didn’t play with dolls as a little girl. She was born in south-west France, where her family ran a restaurant that her great-grandparents had founded in Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Landes. “I grew up in the kitchen,” she says. “Any time I was not at school, I was concentrating on the world of food – and it was amazing.”
Since March, however, any little girl who does play with dolls might find herself holding an Hélène Darroze Barbie doll. Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, chose Darroze as one of 14 modern-day role models honouring ‘women who have broken boundaries in their fields and have been an inspiration to the next generation of girls’.
Champagne Ayala: Celebrating over 160 years of history, Champagne Ayala was one of the original twenty-six Grandes Marques Champagne Houses, received a Royal Warrant in 1908, and became a part of the Bollinger family in 2005. With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne Ayala is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy, and crafted in a boutique scale by winemaker Caroline Latrive, who was one of the first female Cellar Masters in the region. Ayala’s well-balanced Chardonnay-focused blends and low dosage make it a terrific epicurean pairing. No wonder the wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.
Barbie couldn’t have a better inspiration. Darroze, 51, is that rare thing in the restaurant world: a chef who has reached the top of her profession while also being a mother to two young children. When she won the World’s Best Female Chef award at the 2015 World’s 50 Best Restaurants, she wanted to take her two daughters, then eight and six, to the ceremony – but a delayed Eurostar train meant they missed watching their mother receive the applause of her peers.
Darroze has become rather used to Eurostar. For the past 10 years, she has divided her time between London and Paris, where her daughters go to school. In Paris, she has the Michelin-starred Restaurant Hélène Darroze, while in London, she has the now three Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze at The Connaught (pictured).
Darroze began her chef career in the traditional French way with an apprenticeship in the Michelin-starred kitchen of one of the all-time greats, in this case Alain Ducasse at his three-starred Le Louis XV in Monaco, where Darroze was the only woman in the brigade. (She already had a degree in business under her belt in case cheffing didn’t work out). What did she learn from Ducasse? “There is one star in the kitchen, and that’s the produce. You have to respect its authenticity, and you have to respect the seasons.”
After three years with Ducasse, she returned to the Landes to run her family’s restaurant. In 1999, she opened her own restaurant in Paris, winning her first Michelin star in 2001. Ducasse’s insistence that it is the produce, not the chef, that is centre-stage led her to jettison some of the more formal aspects of kitchen etiquette: from day one, she has asked that her team call her ‘Hélène’ and not ‘chef’.
Darroze rejects any suggestion that the World’s Best Female Chef award is tokenism. “Female chefs are still a minority and, like all minorities, it’s important to be visible,” she says. (Or as a Barbie spokesperson puts it: “you can’t be what you can’t see.”) But things are improving. For the past couple of years, Darroze has for the first time had more women than men applying for jobs in her kitchen, although she says she tries to achieve a gender balance in her brigade.
Hélène’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
Thermomix. I even make mayonnaise with it!
Favourite thing to cook at home?
Anything that you can share – a big bowl of pasta with a simple sauce.
Favourite London restaurant?
I love The Clove Club. I really want to visit Clare Smyth at Core.
Guilty food pleasure?
The torta de queso (cheesecake) at restaurant La Viña in San Sebastián.
Favourite foodie travel destination?
I love them all! But Japan and Italy are my two favourites.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I would have loved to be a writer.
She also believes that men and women cook differently. “I really respect the way that men cook, but they cook with their technique and they cook to prove something. Women cook to please people, which is different.”
But ultimately, she says, gender is not the most important part of cooking. “There are plenty of good chefs today who know how to cook, and there are lots of techniques that allow you to be a very good chef. But at the end of the day it’s about your own connection with the food. You have to bring something from yourself on to the plate, to tell a story in a plate of food.”
The next stage of Darroze’s food story is the refurbishment of her Paris restaurant, and the opening of a new restaurant in the French capital. “I cannot tell you what it will be called, but it will open on 10 August and it will be very casual.” She says that if she were starting out as a chef again today, she wouldn’t put herself through such a traditional and rigorous training. “I would travel much more, for sure; I just came back from Mexico and I would love to work at Pujol in Mexico City.”
Still, Darroze does get to spend 10 days a month in London, a city that she knew nothing about when she first opened at The Connaught and which she has grown to love. “The London scene and the Paris scene are very different. London has always been more friendly, more multi-cultural, more energetic and more fun. Paris is very, very French, although it is starting to open up more now. I’m not being critical. In Paris you will find the best fine dining, the best bistros and the best cafés. But if I wanted a good Japanese meal, I would go somewhere in London.”
Hélène’s perfect match
The dish: Fine de claire oyster tartare with Kristal caviar, and white coco bean from Béarn chilled velouté (pictured below)
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012
"I have matched this exceptional dish to Champagne Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes sourced from grand cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs.
The Chardonnay lends Champagne its elegance and brings freshness, structure and aromas of white flowers. The oyster tartare also has freshness, as well as a taste of the sea, while the caviar’s clean, buttery flavour and hint of nuttiness is in complete alchemy with the character of the Champagne. Lastly, the creaminess of the smooth coco bean velouté contrasts with the Champagne’s palate-cleansing acidity and minerality.
All in all, a perfect combination of harmony and contrast."
And what does this living advertisement for the benefits of European integration think about how Brexit will affect the London restaurant scene? “I cannot imagine that the way Londoners have become open to food from around the world will stop. If it becomes more expensive to bring in produce from abroad, that will give us the opportunity to look more deeply at British ingredients. But as far as staffing goes – if you look around my kitchen, there are people from everywhere in the world, but there are very few British people. So if these people cannot bring their skills to London, that could be tricky.”
And what has been the trickiest thing that Darroze has encountered in her work? She says that, personally, she has never experienced sexism, although she admits that it does exist in restaurant kitchens, and that cheffing remains a male-dominated profession.
But combining work and motherhood has been more of a struggle – but one she says is the same for many women at the top of their careers. “When you get to a certain level – whether you are a chef or a lawyer – you have to put in a lot of hard work. Instead of reading my children a bedtime story, I would have to tell them, ‘bye bye, I’m going to work now’. That wasn’t easy for me or for them. But I was lucky, because they could come and see me in the restaurant whenever they wanted to.”
Not that access to some of the finest food in Europe has inspired her daughters, Charlotte, 11, and Quiterie, nine, to want to follow their mother into the kitchen. “From the beginning, Charlotte has wanted to be a fashion designer. A year ago, Quiterie said she wanted to be the president of France, and now she wants to be an inventor.” As the Barbie motto puts it: you can be anything.
Read our second interview with Monica Galetti here, who tells us about her sense of achievement at owning her first restaurant, Mere, what it’s like working with her husband, and the very different ways in which Masterchef has changed her life.
Portrait and food images by Laurie Fletcher