Born into a family of chefs in south-west France, Hélène Darroze grew up surrounded by fresh, seasonal produce. Mentored by Alain Ducasse in his famous Le Louis XV restaurant, she launched her eponymous restaurant in Paris before getting the call from The Connaught. Eleven years and two-Michelin stars later, it was time to hit refresh.
What was the motivation behind the renovation at The Connaught?
We opened the restaurant 11 years ago and we haven’t done any work since this date, so it was time to refresh the room and also the kitchen; it was time to refurbish everything. It was necessary, to be honest. We also took the opportunity to introduce a chef’s table – we’ve never had one before, and we had a lot of demand for it, so we wanted to create a space for it. I worked very closely with [interior designer] Pierre Yovanovitch and the instruction was to do something less formal than before, something lighter, very feminine and elegant. I hope when people see it they will feel peaceful, that’s what I want; to have serenity and peace.
And in terms of the menu, what has changed?
The philosophy of my food remains the same and that is to work around the product. So we will continue to be focused on the product, on the quality, on the season and the market, but the twist is that we will try more and more to source our products from the UK. We have to be responsible and work with what the location is giving us. It’s not possible for all the produce, but between these two countries [France and Britain] I think we can find happiness.
What about any signature dishes?
There is one dish that we cannot take out of the menu, which is based around tandoori spices. We cook it with lobster or scallops, and the fish is poached or roasted with the spices, then you have a garnish of carrot and citrus which balances the strength of the tandoori and a special jus to make it gourmand and some coriander and spring onions. That is very signature and difficult to remove from the menu. There is also the signature baba dessert, which we make using my family’s Armagnac; this one is always on the menu.
Where did this produce-led philosophy come from?
I’m the fourth generation of the family to cook – I’m born in the kitchen. What I saw when I was a child was this orientation, it was all about the product. I remember the producer coming into the kitchen with the mushrooms, with the fish – so I was confronted with this reality of good produce straight away. It’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA. But of course you have to respect the taste too. That is something I give to my chefs all the time; product and taste. You also have to put your creativity on that and this creativity is driven by your emotion, by your life. You have to tell a story in a dish.
You grew up around food but you went into the operational side of things initially…
Yes, I went to business school and then I started to work with Alain Ducasse at the Le Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and a lot of time talking to him about the philosophy of food and he helped me a lot. He recognised my passion and encouraged me to work on it. After Ducasse I started to cook with my dad in the family restaurant and then I opened a restaurant in Paris. Owning my own place was never my dream, but I think I do have an entrepreneurial spirit.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?
The key, I think, and the philosophy I want to give to my team is that we have to put ourselves in question all the time. For me, every day is a new day. You start from nothing and you have to put yourself in question. That is very important. Humility for me is important on every side; with the guest, with the team, with the producer. So it’s to be humble and put yourself in question.
When you first started out, did you find the industry to be very male-dominated? Do you think attitudes towards female chefs are changing?
Personally, I’ve never had a problem being a female chef, which is not the case for all my colleagues. We do have more and more women in the kitchen, but not enough, for sure. I’m not really optimistic about the fact that we will get more because you have to work a lot, and during the evening. It’s a choice you have to make between work and family and it’s not easy to make this choice. Even I find it hard to leave my daughters to work. It’s not that you feel guilty, it’s that you feel like you’re missing out.
How do you get the balance?
I try to be organised and when I have time off I try to spend it with them and give them a lot. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.
Have you noticed London’s dining scene change over the past 10 years too?
Oh, for sure, the London scene is amazing regarding food. I was surprised when I arrived 11 years ago because it was already a good place for restaurants, but you can see over the past 10 years that it’s become stronger and stronger. The new generation of chefs from the UK is just amazing. The level is very, very high and London is a reference now. For me the London scene is amazing because you can find so many different cuisines, so many different influences; there is this energy, this buzz. It’s incredible.
What are your favourite places to eat in London?
I love The Clove Club by Isaac McHale. I really like his food, his approach; even the service is very cool.
What ingredients can you not live without?
I would say vegetables in general. I love asparagus, for sure, but the season is very short. I love tomatoes, but only from July until the end of September. I also love potatoes. With potatoes you can create so many things, so many textures and so on. I also love eggs, you have so many possibilities. I like everything. There are only two things that I hate: celeriac and melon.