The legendary French chef talks roots, culinary travels and Michelin stars… Not to mention being the inspiration for a cartoon character.
Hélène Darroze is not the typically scary character you might imagine heading up a two Michelin-starred restaurant. Jovial, garrulous and opinionated, you’d be just as happy letting her boss you about her kitchen in her warm-hearted manner as you would be whiling away an afternoon over coffee with her.
With culinary roots stretching back as far as she can remember, a career as a chef was seemingly always on the menu for Hélène. Those two Michelin stars, three restaurants (one in Paris and The Connaught in London), two daughters and a brand new collaboration with Harrods as their Chef of the Season. She’s earned every ounce of her superstar status.
You claim to have been ‘born in a saucepan’. How do you think your family has shaped your career? I’m from southwest France, which is very well known for gastronomy. Food culture is very strong there so it heavily influenced me. I learned a lot as a child, and roots, country and family were also huge influences. Both my grandmothers were the biggest cooks.
How was your first job in Alain Ducasse’s kitchen? I was very lucky to work with him. He only had his Monaco restaurant at the time. I learnt a huge amount in his kitchen. I started as a salad washer – a simple but important job. I remember it well because there were so many salads to wash at the time!
You opened your first restaurant in Paris, aged 32. What was that like? I was so young. To be honest, I didn’t realise how challenging it would be. If I’d known, I would have avoided it! It was an immediate success, but I didn’t really have a lot of time to think about it. I just had to work and work, and believe.
You were also awarded your first Michelin star… The Michelin guy came in for lunch and, at the end, asked to be introduced to me. I was so scared! But I received my first Michelin star three months later. I was so happy, of course. But there were so many things still to do in the kitchen, I didn’t really take the time to celebrate.
You perform quite a juggling act, balancing being a world-class chef and a single mother to two youngsters. How do you do it? Organisation – you have to put a proper system in place. It’s important to have amazing people around you too and I’m lucky enough to have just that. My girls always stop by in the restaurant after school to say hello. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but if you have a system it works.
Do you think the challenge of combining motherhood and a career puts many women off becoming chefs? Yes, but it’s a mistake. Of course it’s a challenge. Mothers naturally feel they ought to be at home. But I think all of that is just in their heads – they feel incredibly guilty. I never found it a struggle to be both a mother and a chef – I just managed my time well. Maybe it’s because I’m more mature now, but I don’t feel guilty whether I’m at work or home. You have to work on yourself and know exactly what you want to achieve.
What advice would you give your daughters if they wanted to enter the profession? I wouldn’t say no, don’t do that! My mother did, but I wouldn’t. I’d tell them it’s difficult (which they know already), but also that it brings me so much joy. I would speak about passion, happiness and sharing the experience with so many people. It’s an amazing life. My girls know I travel a lot – they travel with me – and they see the opportunities. But honestly, it’s most important to me that they are happy. Whichever job they choose, I will support them as long as it makes them happy and that they really love what they do.
Being named Best Female Chef in the World must have been really satisfying for you? In the world of gastronomy, women are in a minority. So I definitely think it’s a good thing to recognise the achievements of the minority and show some appreciation. It’s very encouraging and gives women a greater chance of recognition. We have to use it as a tool to inspire other women.
Aside from obviously French cuisine, what are your favourite styles of cooking? There are so many! I just came back from Japan – it’s an amazing country. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Italy and learnt a lot there, too. Wherever you go, you will learn. The history, the culture and traditions – you can always take something from a country.
Do your travels influence your own menus? Of course. I discover new flavours, new techniques, new products. I used to say that I cook according to my life, and travel inspires me in the same way.
Finally, something a little more pop culture. Were you really the inspiration for a character in the Pixar classic, Ratatouille? Yes! The team asked to join me in the kitchen for a few days. At the time, I didn’t realise they were looking for character inspiration for the film. I thought it was more of a chance to see what happened in a professional kitchen. I like to speak in the kitchen, to explain – it’s my way of managing people – and the ambience is really all about sharing.