Don’t set out to be a man in the kitchen. This has consistently been Hélène Darroze’s advice to young women in her profession. Part of a small group of celebrated female chefs who have been breaking boundaries in a male dominated industry, she should know. Last week, Darroze once again made headlines as her eponymous restaurant at The Connaught in London joined Michelin’s vaunted three-star club. The French chef has often emphasised that she is no radical feminist. Over a phone call late in 2019, she explained to The Hindu Weekend , “We have our own sensibilities and the difference is complimentary. So be proud to be a woman in a kitchen full of men”. Her acceptance speech during Michelin’s online awards ceremony last Monday, underlined this. “Believe in your dreams, everything is possible. And stay true to your femininity,” she said then.
Eye on the prize
Successfully running her restaurants — Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in Mayfair and Marsan and Joia in Paris — Darroze, 53, has split her time between the two cities for years now. She is known for her easy manner and being a hands-on mother to her two young daughters, something that didn’t change when she was named the world’s best female chef in 2015. A controversial award by World’s 50 Best Restaurants, with many food writers wondering aloud at the need for a separate category for female chefs. The late Anthony Bourdain publicly criticised it back in 2013. ‘Why — at this point in history — do we need a ‘Best Female Chef’ special designation? As if they are curiosities?’ he’d asked on Twitter. “Best Female Chef is not necessarily a 50 Best Chef,” a male chef explained to me then. But Darroze, refreshingly unpretentious, insisted that the award only spurred her into being more ambitious. She now has three restaurants in two capitals, and the coveted three-star accolade.
Lessons from Ducasse
Darroze was raised in Les Landes, south west France (which could explain why she is partial to truffles, foie gras and suckling lamb from the Basque country). The fourth generation restaurateur — though she refers to her grandparents, parents and uncles simply as ‘cooks’ — learnt early on about the importance of quality produce as hunters and fishermen visited the kitchen every morning with their catch. “My family taught me how to cook but also to welcome people to my table,” she reminisced. “And in the south-west of France, there is much life around food.”
- Late last year, Darroze released ‘ Chez-Moi’ , a cookbook designed, produced and photographed by her at home with her two daughters, during the lockdown. In interviews with the French media, she talked about cooking often and posting much on it on social media. She said it gave her the opportunity to reconnect with seasonal products and local produce, and to share with friends and family. The book has recipes like risotto with porcini, pumpkin soup with honey and her grandmother’s apple pie. Something else that has kept Darroze active during the pandemic, is Top Chef. She has been busy filming the show and has said the visibility could contribute to the success of her takeaway model, also introduced recently.
Darroze graduated from business school, then trained under chef Alain Ducasse at his three Michelin-starred Monaco restaurant, Louis XV. Three years later, she returned home to run her family’s restaurant Chez Darroze, before relocating to Paris at 32 to open her own restaurant. She was lauded for her unusual interpretation of French rustic classics.
“Ducasse’s influence was huge and he taught me to work with rigour and push myself every day,” said Darroze, for it was the super chef who inspired her to get involved in cooking at Le Louis XV. Yet Darroze gently ignored his feedback at his first tasting at her restaurant — he had suggested she be more Parisian. “I was open to his advice, but wanted to be myself. I couldn’t change my style. I cannot cook something that I didn’t believe in,” she later shared with me via a voice note. Be it her winter specials back then at The Connaught — scallops, black and white truffle, foie gras from the south west, and venison Wellington with quince and a strong pepper sauce — or her Valentine’s Day takeaway for next weekend, Darroze seems to know her diners’ food cravings even before they do.
Week to remember
A week before her restaurant at The Connaught got its three stars in 2021’s Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland, Marsan joined the two-star list in the Michelin France guide. So there is much to celebrate at Chez Darroze. She has received blooms from that enfant terrible of the UK culinary world, Gordon Ramsey, as well as her Connaught neighbour, Balenciaga. There have been macarons and other treats coming her way since then, as shared with her 5.5 lakh followers on Instagram. For the Michelin rating, she has duly credited her eight-year-old team, be it Kirk Whittle, her “pastry accomplice for the last 17 years”, executive chef Marco Zampese or restaurant manager Mirko Benzo, and her “small suppliers”. She posted on social media that it is a week she would remember for the rest of her life.
What began with Ratatouille
Having inspired Colette, the only female cook in Chef Skinner’s kitchen in Disney Pixar’s 2007 Ratatouille , Darroze told Independent then that she was not as tough as that character. But almost everyone who interacts with her comes away impressed. “When people meet me they always talk about my kindness. It is true because it is my way of being,” was her artless response when I mentioned this. Gaggan Anand, the celebrity chef known for his two Michelin stars and making it to the fourth spot on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, says Darroze was “very simple and nice” to him when he briefly met her in Paris that year.
- Darroze’s adopted daughters are both from Vietnam. In earlier interviews she has talked about a great-aunt who lived there during the French colonial rule. “I am involved in a charity that helps children inVietnam get educated. As our children were born there, we wanted to give a little back to the country as thanks,” she shared via a voice note.
“She is gentle and kind and the food shows it. I have eaten at The Connaught a couple of times. She is not one of those Gordon Ramsey female versions, and believe me, I know many chefs like that as well!” shares another celebrity chef, Ritu Dalmia, who knows that many men still have a problem taking orders from women in the kitchen. With her restaurants in Delhi and Milan being affected by the pandemic, Dalmia launched DIY kits and a pantry that sells salad dressings and freshly made pasta last year. “We’ve all had to think out of the box, including many Michelin star chefs around the world. It’s going to be a long time before things change,” she adds, referring to how several Michelin-starred restaurants have pivoted to takeout (including Darroze’s) to survive.
Do these ratings matter?
Does it help restaurateurs with their premium pricing, at a time when downsized celebrations and dark kitchens pose a serious threat? “Recognition is always nice but I think it has come in a bit too late for it to really matter. Pricing will change anyway across the world, whether three star or one star, as dining in has completely changed. Our casual dining with high quality ingredients have better chances of surviving than a Michelin star, because of the cost of manpower that goes behind the latter,” says Dalmia.
At The Connaught, Marco Zampese is assisted by a team of 15. The interiors, refurbished by Pierre Yovanovitch, have curved banquettes and chairs in leather or velvet, and a custom butterfly print panel by British artist Damien Hirst. Darroze, however, knows she must stay true to her roots. “Chefs like Massimo Bottura [of the three Michelin star Osteria Francescana] are proud of where they come from. They have succeeded by taking the essence of their native land and making it personal. My restaurants too are a reflection of this,” she carefully observed, and added, “To be honest, when we work, the Michelin star is not on my mind. It is only about giving pleasure’’.
Always room for foie gras
Most diners at her restaurants are aware that this chef loves her foie gras and has a fondness for hand-thrown ceramic plates. “I am not the kind of chef who says a particular painting or music influenced me to cook. But ceramics, now that is something else that helps me show my emotions with plating. I like unique pieces,” she continued a few days later, back in 2019. At the time she was working with the Israeli ceramicist Noam Rosenberg to produce a striking red plate specifically for a pale dish of scallops, white truffle and parmesan emulation.
But with her Connaught restaurant currently closed due to lockdown in Britain, those ceramic creations are being replaced by origami lotus-style boxes. Hélène à La Maison’ service will be delivering a five-course gastronomic menu for two that will include include foie gras with pickled rose petal, hand-harvested XXL scallop, pigeon pie and her famous canelé cake. The Valentine’s Day spread will come with a half bottle of Billecart-Salmon’s iconic brut rosé at under ₹30,000, though regulars also recommend Hélène’s signature Baba au Rhum, where vintage Armagnac from her family cellar is used instead.
With this third star in the Red Guide, Hélène Darroze and Clare Smyth (this year’s other three-star Michelin winner for her restaurant, Core) join the French Anne-Sophie Pic (in Valence), Annie Féolde (in Florence) and Dominique Crenn (in San Francisco), also holders of three Michelin stars. “She [Hélène Darroze] makes every woman proud, whether they are star chefs, home cooks, simple restaurateurs or a woman who is trying to make it,” Dalmia reminds us, adding, “I don’t think most people realise how difficult it is to get where she is today.”