French connection: Why it's emotion rather than technique that drives Hélène Darroze's cooking
Thursday 29 October 2009
It's 18 months since Hélène Darroze came over from Paris to set up her own restaurant at the venerable Connaught Hotel in the heart of London's Mayfair. A fine bloody time, everybody said, to introduce extra-super-fine dining to the bruised tycoons and trust-fund kids of the metropolis, whose investments had just plummeted by 40 per cent. Ms Darroze clearly wasn't bothered. There was something positively cheeky in the way she served up her oyster tartare with Aquitaine caviar jelly with a tiny, edible gold leaf on the top.
Reviews of "Hel's Kitchen" (as The Independent magazine amusingly dubbed it) were guardedly respectful rather than ecstatic, but the restaurant flourished. The word on the street compared it favourably to the Italian style of its previous incumbent, Angela Hartnett. It was clear that a firm French hand was on the culinary tiller. The Connaught's stolidly formal dining room became comprehensively Gallicised, from the array of Armagnac bottles, customised by Hélène's father, that greets you in the doorway, to the several name-checks that Hélène's home region of Les Landes gets in the menu. Before its anniversary had rolled round, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught had its first Michelin star.
The lady herself was already a star in her native land, for being the first French woman chef to win two Michelin stars, at her Paris restaurant in the rue d'Assas, which she started 10 years ago. Also, she's a protégée of the God-like super-chef Alain Ducasse. And being fair-haired, blue-eyed, articulate and extravagantly pretty, she tends to turn up a lot on French television. It's amazing she has time to disport herself in the media, since she runs both her restaurants simultaneously. She travels every week (four hours door to door) from Paris to Berkeley Square, to make sure her rich, earthy dishes don't fall below her stratospheric standards. And in case she hasn't enough on her plate, she has adopted two Vietnamese babies, Charlotte, two, and Quiterie, six months, who travel everywhere with her.
Who is this glutton for hard work, this Hercules of haute cuisine? She's mignonne in the flesh, 5ft 1in in her chef's whites, and she carries an indefinable air of certainty, if not quite authority. In conversation she reiterates a constant theme, about how she cooks with passion and feeling, rather than becoming hung-up on cheffy technique.
How do the menus in her two restaurants differ? And do her explorations in England food influence her French restaurant? "The way of thinking and cooking is the same in both restaurants," she says. "When they asked me to join the Connaught, they said, 'We want you just like you are now; we want the Connaught to offer a different experience from anything else in town.' So I arrived with all my ways of doing things, exactly the same as in Paris."
A year later, had she discovered new British ingredients? Like game? Silly question. "I'm from Les Landes in south-west France, so game was part of my life when I was a child. I remember the hunters coming on Sunday evenings to shoot the pheasants and wild pigeon. There's some game, like grouse, that I hated, but I discovered it again here, in London, and it's very interesting. Then there's the shellfish and big scallops you have in Scotland – we don't have them in France. And wild salmon from Ireland. If you look on my menu, 50 per cent of ingredients are from my origins, and the other half from here."
The chicken and duck, I say, seem to be flown in from your home town ... "Oh yes," she says mildly. "But the beef and the lamb come from Mr Allen, the butchers in Berkeley Square."
What is her most popular dish among diners? She furrows her delicate brow.
"I don't think about what's popular or not. This is not my way. I have signature dishes that are very popular with guests, like the lobster ravioli with tandoori spices, the carrot mousseline, the black rice. I know the oyster tartare is a best-seller. But they're not on the menu because they're popular, but because I like them, I believe in them, I know they are well-balanced." Her blue eyes suddenly flash. "I will never cook something I won't like, or something in which I don't believe. You will never see me cooking the – how you say? – molecular technology way. I just want the best products, and simple tastes in which you recognise everything on the plate. I cook with my heart, with my honesty, and this is probably why it works, because I am very honest and sincere in what I do."
La Darroze has an impressive gastronomic pedigree. Her great-grandfather was a pâtissier, her great-grandmother a cook. Her parents ran a restaurant in Les Landes. Was it any good? "It had two Michelin stars in the 1970s," she says, bridling. "It was the restaurant of the south-west. Very classic, very traditional. They did a lot of poultry, a lot of foie gras, wild salmon from the river Adour.
"At my grandfather's restaurant in the 1960s, you had no choice – you had to eat what he wanted to cook." Her voice grew dreamy. "You'd have seven or eight dishes, the foie gras, asparagus in season, salmon, venison, ortolans ... My grandfather had his own poultry at his farm, and milk lamb in the field ... After dinner they'd print out a list of what they'd eaten on silk and present it to the diners. And at the Darroze in Paris, we don't have à la carte any more. The guests have to trust me and say, 'Okay, I'll follow you ...'"
She is immensely loyal to her birthplace region and its cuisine. Almost all her cheese comes from a local fromagier, Maître Bernard Anthony, who shows up on the signature menu at the Connaught. Ask why she uses so much duck fat in her cooking, and she says, "Because it is my religion! In the south around Nice you cook with olive oil, in the north you cook with butter, in the south-west, you use duck fat."
She started cooking at five and soon could make a tarte au citron that wowed the neighbours. But she never went to cookery classes; instead, she went to business school. At 25 she got a job at Alain Ducasse's Monaco restaurant, but worked in the office, with only occasional forays to the kitchen. "I learnt a lot from Ducasse," she says, "but more about the spirit of cooking than the technique." When she left him, it was to return to her father's restaurant "and to start to build something, step by step". And to build a team. "Sometimes I worry that my sous-chefs have more technique than I have," she says nervously. "I'm sure of it."
She threw a party, a couple of weeks ago, to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the first Hélène Darroze restaurant in Paris. It was, it seems, a period of high industry but mixed signals: "The restaurant was a success straight away and you can't imagine how hard we worked. When you're young and you've put all your money into the restaurant, you cannot say, 'Stop, don't take any more reservations.' I was just so happy the restaurant was full. But we worked so hard, I'd finish at 3am. I'd be doing the washing up myself at 2am because I'd tell the team, 'Go home, get some rest.' Then I'd get up at 5 or 6am in the morning, to do the fish ...
"Anyway, Alain Ducasse came to see me two weeks after we opened. He had the wild pigeon and after dinner he said, 'That was fantastic, that was perfect.' But next day he phoned me and said, 'During the night I thought about what I'd eaten and ...' He said to me, 'Be careful, change a little bit, because you are in Paris now, you are not in the south of France. Your cooking is very strong and you need to make a little compromise because the taste is so strong.'"
She shakes her head in remembered shock. "But I didn't change anything, because this is what I like and I cannot do what I don't believe in. Then on 14 November, just one month later, I was at the fish station. The restaurant manager came and said, 'Someone is here to see you in the fine-dining restaurant.' I said, 'I can't. Look at me.' He insisted. He said, 'This man seems very important; come with me.' I arrive in the dining room really dirty, covered in fish blood, and recognised the manager of the Michelin Guide. I said, 'Merde.' He said to me, 'Don't change anything.' I said, 'Two weeks ago, someone I respect a lot said everything tastes too strong.' Again the man said, 'Don't Change Anything ...'"
Talk about dropping a hint. Weren't Michelin Guide staff supposed to keep incognito in restaurants? "Yes," conceded Hélène, "but that was his reaction and I was very happy with it."
Ms Darroze is truly a marvel of energy – along with running two restaurants in different countries, bringing up two babies as a single mother (she admits to having "no luck yet" with English gentlemen), she's written a book of 120 recipes published in massive, coffee-table format, with the recipes linked by a fictional tale of a young woman's love affair with an older man – but also of emotion. She's a craftswoman of subtle taste, mingling calamari with carnaroli black rice, carrot and citrus, foie gras with fig chutney. But she insists, time and again, that cooking is all about feeling. And who's to say she is wrong? "I inherited from Ducasse and my family that, from the first day of a restaurant, you have to find the best of the product, then cook it with your emotions and with respect for the taste. Just choose the best of the product and after that it's just a question of balance and association."
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