"My name is Hélène, not Chef," says Hélène Darroze, a former pupil of Alain Ducasse. Since June 2008 Darroze has been serving her two Michelin-starred cuisine at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, the London institution that recently underwent an extensive £60m refurbishment.
It has been a whirlwind year for the chef from Landes in south-west France.
It is a cold and wet November morning when we meet in the revamped lobby of the Connaught. Darroze is slightly late but, despite the London drizzle, enters smiling.
Petite with short, peroxide-blonde hair and bright eyes, she is open and unpretentious. Underneath a heavy coat, she is wearing her chef’s whites – home is "two minutes away" from the hotel.
Established in 1897, The Connaught Hotel remains the grande dame of Mayfair, a bastion of the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the discreetly wealthy. "I didn’t realise the Connaught’s position in London," she says.
We are talking from her modern office, deep in the kitchen underneath the Connaught. Above us a small army of immaculately presented waiting staff attends the restaurants and bars.
Despite the thick walls, the purposeful hum of a kitchen preparing for the day can be heard around us. "I think it was good that I didn’t realise it, so I was completely free. When I came to the Connaught for the first time I fell in love with it. Something that I cannot describe happened, because I was curious. I continue to do what I feel but I am not impressed by the Connaught’s status."
It’s the start of a long day for Darroze that won’t end until 11pm. She spends a week here and a week at her other restaurant, Hélène Darroze on the Left Bank in Paris, a few blocks from Boulevard Saint-Germain.
It’s a demanding routine that allows little time for breaks or family. "I try to travel on a Wednesday but sometimes it is not easy to respect that," she says.
"People in Paris get frustrated that I spend more time in London but that is going to happen at the opening stage. I am proud of them and they are doing better than they would if I was there."
At the Connaught Darroze has followed another top female chef, Gordon Ramsay protégée Angela Hartnett, whose inventive approach to Mediterranean cuisine won her a Michelin here. Darroze creates rustic French food with an eccentric touch.
She has yet to meet her predecessor. "I have not had the time," she says.
"I met Marcus Wareing [who runs a restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel] because we are in the same company. When I need advice he is always here and is very sympathique."
Despite being responsible for a team of 60, Darroze has created a calm but energetic environment at the Connaught, reflecting her personality and approach not only to cooking but to life. She tells me that there is no shouting in the kitchen.
It’s an achievement considering her degree of responsibility, which also includes the more casual Gallery restaurant, The Connaught Grill (which opens in April 2009), two bars, the hotel’s private dining, and room service.
It is similar to the arrangement the hotel had with Angela Hartnett and Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Diligent and focused, Darroze likes to be in control. A big bunch of keys sits on the desk between us.
After accepting the offer to come to the Connaught from Maybourne Hotel Group CEO Stephen Alden and Connaught GM Anthony Lee, Darroze has brought her head chef from Paris, Raphael François, to look after a team of 21 chefs. "I have complete independence but am open to what they say," she explains.
"It’s a dialogue, a question of democracy. We work together. They know London and I have my knowledge from Paris."
She also recruited head sommelier Mathieu Gaignon from Pétrus, and hired restaurant manager Dominique Corolleur, former restaurant director of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s.
Until the end of 2008, Darroze is committed to spending 70% of her time in London, a sacrifice that has paid off. The critics were overwhelmingly enthusiastic in their reception of her.
"This is the sort of French food that got those of us who care too much about food into caring about food in the first place," said AA Gill in The Times. "I don’t like reading things about me. I don’t read the reviews because I don’t want to be influenced by them," she says.
"Of course I am happy that they are good and not bad. The fact that guests come again is the best review I can have."
Big in France
Like Hartnett before her, Darroze is a rarity, one of the few women at the top of a harsh, unforgiving industry known for a machismo best exemplified by Gordon ******* Ramsay. It has made her something of a celebrity chef in France.
She was even immortalised as the character Colette in the hit animation movie Ratatouille. The cheese scenes are all based on her Left Bank restaurant.
She also recently published a book of recipes interspersed with love letters. Personne Ne Me Volera Ce Que J’ai Dansé made her, for a while, the talk of literary Paris.
For a woman so fêted in London, Darroze is down to earth, straight talking and stoical. A large gold crucifix from her grandmother hangs around her neck.
She has little time for celebrity, less for the hierarchical trappings of the kitchen. She prefers to be a called a cook, not a chef.
"I don’t like this kind of military hierarchy," she says. "I used to say that I am not the star, the plate is the star," she says.
"This is the most important thing in the restaurant."
Food and ingredients have played a large part in Darroze's life since she was a child. "Born in a saucepan" was how she once put it, although as a child she wanted to be a surgeon.
The Relais Restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan was first opened by her great-grandparents. Landes is renowned for its rich culinary tradition – her mentor Alain Ducasse also hails from here.
Unsurprisingly her cooking is heavily inspired by the region and draws from prized ingredients including the black truffles found in the dense forests above Perpignan, Chalosse beef and Espelette peppers.
After graduating from business school in 1990, Darroze went for a job not in the kitchen but in the offices of Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Monte Carlo. She never went to cookery school and at the time wanted to be a hotelier.
She discovered there was a six-month wait for an opening in the office so she started peeling vegetables. Her love of food soon brought her to the attention of the legendary chef, who took her into the kitchen of the newly three Michelin-starred restaurant.
"I probably learned from him in three years what would have taken me ten years elsewhere," she says. "Because I didn’t go to cooking school, I never learnt technique, so perhaps I am more instinctive and have more freedom.
"It was intense but interesting. I was lucky because it was a time when Alain was only at the Louis XV in Monaco, so he didn’t travel a lot. I spent a lot of time with him."
Ducasse taught his young protegée not just cooking techniques but business skills. His renowned quest for perfection rubbed off on Darroze.
"I learnt that from him for sure," she says, adding with a smile: "I would like to be more perfectionist but it’s not easy."
After three years Ducasse told his protégée to leave Louis XV and put her skills to the test at the Darroze family restaurant, where she took over from her father in 1995. However her father did not want her to enter the kitchen, preferring to hand over the family restaurant to her brother Marc.
"Ducasse said 'Trust me, you need to go and you will succeed,'" she remembers. Her style of cooking was different from her father’s, so she was soon handed the reins of the family restaurant and renamed it after herself.
What she learnt from Ducasse, matched with a natural flair for flavour using native Landesian ingredients, was rewarded with a Michelin star.
Darroze’s subsequent rise has been stellar. She was asked to cook for a summit between Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
According to Darroze, the French President ordered a second helping of stuffed pigeon.
After the family restaurant was forced to shut for financial reasons, Darroze headed to Paris in 1999 and opened Hélène Darroze on the Left Bank with the help of her friends and family. Her first Michelin star came in 2001, followed by a second in 2003.
She was one of only two women to be awarded the accolade. The other, Anne-Sophie Pic, won her third Michelin star in 2007.
Does she feel that she is a champion for women in the profession? "I am not a feminist at all," she says, mildly irritated by the label.
"Men and women are different and we have to respect that. There is a place for women and a place for men. We don’t have the same emotions, the same way of doing things."
François Simon, Le Figaro’s controversial restaurant critic, suggested that Darroze was given her two Michelin stars simply to counter accusations that the Michelin Guide didn’t recognise enough women chefs. Interestingly her restaurant at the Connaught has two separate menus – one for men, which has prices, and one for women, which does not.
Darroze says that this is not to make a statement.
As in Paris, Darroze has continued her tradition of experimenting with rustic French cuisine and reinterpreting establishment dishes with a big portion of personality. Take her recipe for duck confit.
Traditionally it is served with lentils or white beans but Darroze pairs her confit with carrots as a foil for the fat. She uses as many varieties as she can find, usually three or four, with different textures, flavours and colours.
"I used to say that my way of cooking comes from the heart, from the emotions, the sensations," she says. "I bring all my education, all my personality and all the things I am made with as well as my troubles and the people I meet. This is my life on a plate."
At the Connaught Darroze wants her cooking to connect with customers’ emotions and sensibilities. There are simple starters, such as chargrilled vegetables with herbs, as well as more intense dishes including oyster tartare topped with caviar jelly and a haricots verts purée served in a martini glass – the wildness of the sea and the earthiness of the beach in one dish.
Darroze has created amuses bouches such as foie gras served like a crème brûlée, topped with apple sorbet and peanut. Mains include new takes on hearty dishes such as L’Agneau du Kent, a leg of lamb slowly cooked with tandoori spices, served with citrus and carrot mousseline, herb salad and jus infused with coriander.
Despite her love of French ingredients, Darroze says, perhaps diplomatically, that she is growing to love British ingredients and uses them in addition to French when she can. "My cooking is a combination of both," she explains.
"I think for a lot of people it is like a discovery." Darroze has sourced Dover sole and Aberdeen Angus beef from the local butcher, Allen’s of Mayfair, yet admits that she still thinks the beef from the Chalosse region is the best.
The way Darroze cooks has not changed. "I can only cook what I believe in," she explains, tapping her fingers on the desk.
"The things I believe in London are the same things I believe in Paris. Perhaps in London we concentrate more on the team than on the technique. That is the only difference for me."
With Gordon Ramsay opening Gordon Ramsay au Trianon in Versailles earlier in March 2008, and an unprecedented number of top French chefs now in London, including Ducasse, who opened a restaurant at the Dorchester in November 2007, does Darroze ever feel part of an Anglo-Gallic struggle for the heart and soul of haute cuisine?
"There is no competition, it is all about the work," she says. "I love Paris but I find London has more energy. London is eccentric and energetic."
She is passionate about her work but has managed to find time to start a family, and this, not the food, is what brings her the most happiness. Last year she adopted a Vietnamese girl, Charlotte, who is now 19 months old and who travels with her.
"At the moment I am focused on my daughter," she says. "It was not easy this morning. She cried a lot when I left. I hope that I will have more freedom but I know this is not the time for that."
Darroze is fully aware that for some women, balancing working in a kitchen with a young family can be impossible.
"I have a wonderful chef in Paris but she plans to stop because she wants a family," Darroze explains sadly. On the walls behind her are many pictures of her own family.
"She does not want to go the level I am at. Of course it is not easy to make a choice. It’s not because the doors are closed for women. It is just life. Even if the mentality changed, women would always have to bathe the children and read the stories. It’s a choice we have to make."
Darroze has travelled to India, and of course to Vietnam, and has been influenced by the cooking methods as much as by the way of combining spices. On the menu at the Connaught is a dish she created called Retour d’Hanoi – return from Hanoi.
It’s gone 10am and Darroze has to rush to a meeting. Before she goes I have to ask her what her favourite dish is.
By now I am not expecting anything obtuse or complicated, and her answer fits the bill: roast Landes chicken. Her secret is to baste the bird in duck fat.
How many French chefs see the holy grail of cooking as nothing more than preparing the perfect roast chicken? Time has flown, and there have been no pauses in the conversation.
With a flourish, Darroze, like a dynamo, returns to her nascent Connaught adventure, her new family and her cooking.
I am left standing outside the imposing red-brick face of The Connaught in the misty autumn drizzle of London, thinking what a breath of fresh air is Hélène Darroze.
Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, 6 Carlos Place, London, UK, W1K 2AL.