Landes-born chef Hélène Darroze runs Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Paris. Dividing her time between the two cities, the fourth-generation culinarian helms Marsan by Hélène Darroze in Paris and Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London.
Her London posting has just been bestowed with Michelin’s highest award, winning three stars – something only ever achieved by a handful of restaurants. True to form, the experience at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught is undeniably special. The dining room is intimate by design (Pierre Yovanovitch’s to be precise), composed of blush shades, curved lines, and deep seating to reflect the restaurant’s warm, approachable ethos. “The plate is at the epicentre of the experience” – Darroze’s attention to detail, proclivity for premium produce, and culinary craft are the makings of a matchless meal. The proof of Darroze’s mastery is in the pudding – their signature Baba a l’Armagnac dessert (that, and all courses proceeding it).
Downstairs, in the middle of the steaming kitchen at Carlos Place, you’ll find the chef’s table. A huge, arrow-shaped pink marble table – undeniably the best seat in the house. Here, we (virtually) caught up with Darroze for this edition of The Chef’s Table to discuss cooking influences, the food that makes her happiest, and why it’s important to gather round a table for mealtimes.
How did you first get into cooking?
I’m the fourth generation of my family to cook. I was born and grew up in the kitchen of my family’s restaurant. It’s where I truly learned the joy of giving happiness with food.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
For me, roast chicken is a very special dish. My grandmother would cook for up to 20 people every week, as the whole family would gather together on Sundays. She would roast a chicken from a local farm in Les Landes and always serve it with French fries. It is a great traditional in the South West of France.
Another fond memory is from when my mother had a pharmacy in the village. When people visited her they always brought something from their farm to say thank you. Every Wednesday there was one person who brought very fresh eggs – so every Wednesday night we would have boiled eggs with soldiers.
Who most influenced your cooking?
My family. They’ve certainly influenced me to be in line with their philosophy and spirit towards ingredients.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
Any food that is served in generous portions that everyone can share around the dining table – there is no greater joy than the joy of sharing.
Favourite cooking gadget?
We’ve recently started making our own pizzas at home with the Sage pizza oven, which has been great fun to use.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
It’s impossible for me to choose just one.
Why is eating seasonally so important to you?
Eating seasonally is important on so many levels. The first and most obvious benefit is that you can enjoy ingredients in their full, optimal flavour. Taste can diminish when you prepare produce to last for longer than it should. Another significant benefit is that it is better for us and the environment, and key in supporting local suppliers. And, with seasonal food, you get a delicious variety all year long.
Where are the best places to shop for produce in London?
Borough Market is one of my favourite markets in London to find fresh organic produce and artisan-prepared food.
And in Paris?
La Rue du Nil in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement is known as “la rue la plus gourmande de Paris” [“the most gourmet street in Paris”]. From the creators of Terroirs D’Avenir, suppliers of exceptional produce and gourmet products opened an epicurean grocery, a fish shop, and a butcher shop. There is a charming wine shop, as well as cafés and restaurants.
How does travel influence your cooking?
It hugely influences my cooking. On any of my trips, I make sure to explore the markets, visit the restaurants, and really engage with the locals. So many of my dishes were inspired from my travels including, Coquilles Saint-Jacques with tandoori spices and Le Retour d’Hanoi which stems from my time in Vietnam.
Must-visit food cities include…
St Sebastian for its produce, tapas, and restaurants – I truly believe it’s the capital of gastronomy.
What are your thoughts on ambience and eating?
Ambience and eating are two very important elements that go hand in hand in a culinary setting. The plate is of course at the epicentre of the experience but paired with l’art de la table and the overall service (from the moment you are welcomed through the door) brings great energy.
Where are your favourite places to dine in London and Paris?
What do you always avoid on a menu?
Melon and celery.
What are some must-order items on the menu at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught include…
Due to the lockdown, we’ve been spreading a little positivity and joy with our food by delivering to people’s homes. The ‘Hélène a La Maison’ menu changes weekly and features a combination of new and signature dishes from the restaurant including XXL hand-harvested scallops and our signature Baba a l’Armagnac dessert.
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
It’s a special time of day, where everyone takes the time to communicate and share something they might have done that day. Generally, it’s to create precious moments.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
Spaghetti and tomato sauce (from St Marziano) with parmesan, which I always have in my fridge.
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
Yes, absolutely. Cooking – and after, eating – brings me a lot of happiness.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
The advice I’ve always given to female chefs is: be yourself, be a woman; embrace your femininity; and cook as a woman.