Chef Hélène Darroze never wanted to leave Paris, but during her eight years in London, she has been increasingly impressed with the London food scene. Now, with Michelin-starred restaurants in both Paris and Mayfair, The Resident asks if she might have too much on her plate?
Words: Mark Kebble
With the clatter of pots and pans in the background, preparing for the lunch rush at Hélène Darroze’s eponymous restaurant in Paris, it’s the perfect time to talk about how it had to be something special to entice the acclaimed chef to our shores. ‘I never wanted to move from Paris and I always said that I was the woman of one restaurant,’ she reveals. ‘I was asked to go and see the Connaught in Mayfair and when I did I felt something. It was just incredible.’
Considering the Connaught, at the time, was undergoing a major revamp suggests the impact the Mayfair hotspot had on Darroze. ‘We have the same values of tradition and authenticity, but with a twist of modernity,’ she considers. ‘We are passionate with a good sense of service, and sharing what we do with guests. It’s like a little family. The Connaught has been compared with a club, but it’s not a club – for me it’s a family and our guests are part of that family, and that’s how I see my business.’
It’s a point highlighted by the fact the mother of two has just launched a new six-course roast chicken menu at her two Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant. ‘It was the opportunity to share with my guests this memory of my childhood, when we sat down and shared a roast chicken with all of the family on a Sunday evening,’ she explains. ‘I wanted that connection with my guests.’
Memories play a key role, too, in Darroze taking up a guest chef residency from this month at Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastian. ‘During the last few years I longed to return to cook in the land of my childhood, Les Landes or the Basque Country, where generations of my family have had a restaurant for a century,’ she says. ‘San Sebastian has always been part of my identity as my grandmother and her family were from Hendaye, which is very close by. I’ve built much of my culinary DNA in this amazing city.’
Despite the Michelin stars – Darroze also has one for her Paris restaurant – and the many plaudits, including being named the 2015 Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef, she remains remarkably grounded about her achievements. ‘What is important for me every day are my guests because it’s my job to make them happy,’ she insists.
‘That is my goal. When I wake up in the morning I don’t say to myself “I have to win a third star”, I say “OK I have to please my guests”. They have to be happy, and then I think about all the people who work around me. It’s teamwork. Of course,’ she adds with a laugh, ‘if I can have some awards too, then I am even happier!’
It’s about eight years since Darroze first came to London and she can’t praise it highly enough. ‘I was impressed with the restaurant scene in London straight away, but over eight years it has become stronger and stronger. What’s happening in London I can compare to New York and Hong Kong, the food is at a very high level. The quality is incredible, the concepts are amazing, and the gastronomy scene in just Mayfair is very rich.’
As Darroze prepares to head back into the kitchen, the question has to be asked: who has the best culinary scene, London or Paris? ‘I love the gastronomy scene in Paris, but it is very French orientated. London, however, is open to the world. There you can find the best cuisine from all around the world and that’s so interesting. The quality, too, is very high. For French food, Paris is just amazing. I am so lucky as I am able to work in these two cities.’ She pauses and then adds with obvious glee: ‘I can cherry pick the best of these gastronomic scenes!’
Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place W1K 2AL; 020 3147 7200; the-connaught.co.uk