Recently named Veuve Clicquot’s “World’s Best Female Chef,” Hélène Darroze talks to us about lofty titles, the inspiration behind menus at her eponymous restaurant at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The Connaught and the benefits of growing up in a foodie French family.
What does it mean to you to be named “world’s best female chef”?
I am honored to win the award because there are talented female chefs all over the world and I imagine choosing only one is challenging. I think it is important to celebrate women and their achievements. My hope is that the recipients of this award inspire young women, including my daughters, to follow their passion and work hard to hone their skill, regardless of profession. I greatly admire all of the previous winners of this prestigious award and I am thrilled to now be in their company. This award is also a testament to how wonderful my team is. I would never be the chef I am today if I didn’t have the team around me.
Tell us about the challenges of being a woman in a role traditionally associated with men.
I don’t really see there being challenges for women that wouldn’t be the same for men. I think we are equal in that respect. What women often have to face are choices. There is a time when you reach a crossroad in this industry where, as a woman, you have to choose between being a wife and a mother and being a chef. The two things are very, very difficult to balance. Most of the very talented young women in my kitchen left because they wanted to pursue motherhood, which is a beautiful thing and I don’t blame them.
Who, in your opinion, are the young female chefs to watch?
Amandine Chaignot at Rosewood London is certainly one to watch. Also, Sam Williams at Café Murano is very talented.
What impact did growing up in a family of chefs have when it came to developing your own personal style?
It influenced the basis of my cuisine strongly. It taught me to concentrate on using the best ingredients and produce available. The authenticity of the produce is very important. I am lucky enough to have access to some of the finest ingredients: extra, extra large scallops from the Scottish coast, Noir de Bigorre ham from Gascony and hake from Pays Basque. They also taught me to embrace generosity of spirit, which I hope is reflected in everything that I do.
How would you describe your style?
The most important thing to me is focusing on the best ingredients and my emotions. I cook with my heart and soul. I live by the philosophy that the ingredients are the stars and you must treat them respectfully, and this is carefully reflected in both my restaurants at The Connaught in London and in Paris.
What role do dishes, flavors and ingredients from your native region play in your cooking today?
The influence of Les Landes plays a huge part in both how I cook and the culture of my cuisine. I particularly love the ingredients from my region. For instance, I only cook with Espelette pepper, which is the pepper that I have used all my life. [It’s] a fruity, mild and aromatic pepper that I use as an alternative to traditional pepper in every dish at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. It comes from the Basque region in France.
What is your favorite dish currently on the menu at Hélène Darroze?
The one with wild salmon from Adour in France. It is served with fennel, lime and horseradish. I love this dish because of the rarity of the salmon. I think the dish is very feminine.
How does your love of style and fashion play into your food?
Paris was always the capital of fashion, but now London is leading the way, too. So I am lucky to be inspired by two cities. I am visiting the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A museum soon and I know that I will find some inspiration there!
Where do you feel most at home, and why?
In both London and Paris. Paris because I have my friends and my family. My roots are there. London because of the energy, the eccentricity, the incredible power of creativity which allows you to be yourself. I find London so inspiring at the moment, particularly the restaurant scene which seems to be changing every minute.
Which London restaurants do you frequent on nights off from The Connaught?
I love everything from The Clove Club in Shoreditch to Fera at Claridge’s in Mayfair. When I want Italian food, I always go to Café Murano. I love Angela Hartnett’s food [there]. Japanese food is a real favorite of mine and I love Roka. But when I am celebrating something really special, I go to Umu. For the best cocktails and to really have fun, I go, of course, to The Connaught Bar. Saying that, there are little-known restaurants that are simply incredible: I love to visit Shoreditch for Vietnamese; Brick Lane for the best Indian food; and I love eating street food at both Borough Market and Portobello Market.