How We Met: Hélène Darroze & Apollonia Poilâne

'I go to her place for dinner, but I've never cooked for her – that would be far too intimidating'


Hélène Darroze, 42, is a chef from south-west France. Trained under Alain Ducasse, she opened her own restaurant in Paris in 1999, winning two Michelin stars within two years. In 2008 she became head chef at The Connaught in London. She splits her time between Paris and London, living with her two daughters

The first time I met Apollonia was just for a few minutes. She was about 15 and her parents brought her to my restaurant in Paris, which I'd just opened. Her father, Lionel, was very famous in France for his bread and we had met at food events. His bakery was around the corner and he would often drop in to eat or to say hello. He was a very nice guy, very passionate about food and supportive to me, so it was terrible when the accident [a helicopter crash which killed him and Apollonia's mother] happened.

Afterwards, Apollonia still came to the restaurant and I invited her for dinner with me to see if there was anything I could do. She was only 18 or 19, but she was very impressive. She took the family business in hand straight away, worked hard and never complained.

At the beginning she was still studying at Harvard and, because her parents would have wanted it, she continued there while also taking over the business. During the day she was a student and at night she used the time difference to work with the team in Paris on the phone and by email.

She was very shy at first. She still hesitates about asking for help because she doesn't want to disturb people, but she has learnt to overcome that and she has gone from being the boss's daughter to being the boss. I know some of her colleagues and collaborators and I can tell that she is very respected by them.

She gets on well with lots of different people. I remember an occasion when all my friends returned to Paris after the summer and we got together for a drink. There were 15 people who all knew each other and I was worried she would feel lost, but everybody was charmed by her.

Apollonia has her father's passion, which is what we have in common, as well as the value we place on hard work. We often get together around the dinner table, at restaurants or home. We have been planning to go to The Fat Duck together, although we haven't managed to find time yet. We talk a lot about food and business. She asks my advice, of course, but I like to hear her ideas and I learn from her too.

Apollonia Poilâne, 25, is chief executive of Poilâne, France's best-known bakery. Founded by her grandfather, Poilâne has shops in Paris and London, and sells in Waitrose. The company also couriers bread to restaurants, private clients and celebrities around the world. She lives in Paris

Hélène's restaurant in Paris is just around the corner from my father's bakery and he took my sister and me to have dinner there when I was a teenager. Although I must have met Hélène at the time, my first impressions of her were naturally through her cuisine, which I loved.

After my parents' death in 2002, I carried on going to Hélène's restaurant regularly simply because of her food. Through hanging out at the restaurant I slowly got to know her and from the beginning I was struck by how generous she is – especially with her time, which is probably what she has the least of.

Real friendship takes time, but I think we immediately sympathised with each other because we are two women in the food world, which is definitely a man's world at the professional level, although it is changing because of people like Hélène.

The main thing we have in common is a love for food and we are always drawn to talking about our experiences of it. I sometimes email her if I see interesting articles about food or restaurants and I suppose we must have similar ideas about what makes authentic, good food since I enjoy the way she cooks so much.

What has always stood out about her cooking is the modernity of her ideas and the way she incorporates her regional roots with tastes from her travels. When I ate at her restaurant at The Connaught, I noticed the way she had done it again with Scottish scallops cooked in a French style.

When we meet up it is always over a meal. She lives around the corner from me in Paris, so if I don't go to her restaurant, I go to her place for an informal dinner. I have never cooked for her, though – that would be far too intimidating for me.

My favourite memory involving Hélène is of the time she invited me to eat in the kitchen at her restaurant. It was unbelievably good; not only did I get to eat these marvellous dishes but I got to see how she and all the chefs were working.

Hélène is very hard-working, but she isn't a hard person. When people talk about women who have succeeded in a man's world, they figure they must act like men, and that's not at all the case with Hélène. She isn't someone who has to shout.

With my parents gone, it has been very good to have Hélène around to give me advice. I know if I need help I can always go to her. We don't just talk about food, though; like all friends we can talk about everything and nothing.

Hélène's traditional French galette, celebrating Epiphany, will go on sale at The Connaught, London W1, from Wednesday, priced £25, with all profits going to Great Ormond Street Hospital. For more about Poilâne, visit poilane.fr

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