French chef Hélène Darroze runs Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Paris, dividing her time between the two cities, spending alternate weeks at each. She speaks to Kerstin Kühn about balancing the running of two successful restaurants in two countries with single parenthood and what differentiates female chefs from their male counterparts
How did you feel when you found out you’d won your second Michelin star in London this January?
It was like a dream. It was a really great achievement, not just for me but for the team as well, and I was very proud and happy for them. Fifty per cent of the time they work without me so the fact that we achieved this together is a fantastic success. There is now a complicity between them and me; they have understood what I want and can repeat that even when I’m not here.
You’ve been in London for nearly three years now, did you find it easy to settle into the industry here?
It was quite hard in the beginning because I didn’t really have much time to spend with other chefs. But this is normal; when I arrived in Paris it was exactly the same.
They just want to see what you are able to do and here they didn’t know me as a chef or as a person, so they had to get to know me first. I think they found someone who is very hardworking and sincere, both in private and professional life, and now they like to work with me.
When we won the second star we had a party here at the Connaught and so many chefs came along. I was so happy to see all these chefs joining me and being happy for me.
You lost your second Michelin star in Paris last year. What do you put the switch in stars down to?
I don’t know but my main objective now is definitely to regain the second star in Paris. I cannot imagine having two stars here and not there. So now we have to work hard and question everything to try to get it back.
I haven’t asked Michelin why they took it away but I think they were very severe with us. I have heard that they said that they could feel when I’m not in Paris so perhaps the French team doesn’t manage as well without me. The philosophy in London and Paris has remained the same and we haven’t changed anything; the products are the same, the way we work is the same. I think the point is that we have to work harder at consistency.
Do you think there’s a difference between female and male chefs?
At chef level when men and women have the same competence or talent, I have found that the girls want more. They are more driven than the boys and tend to have better results because they want to fight more for success.
At my level as chef-patron, the difference lies in the behaviour and how we manage people. Women communicate more and they are more sensitive to people’s emotions.
How do you run your kitchen?
My philosophy is all about respect. I respect everyone in my team; after all I cannot work without them. It’s also about communication. When a mistake is made we speak about it, recognise and analyse it and try to find a solution. It’s not about shouting or blaming somebody. Training is also imperative and I train my staff to learn about my philosophy and my cuisine.
How would you describe your culinary philosophy?
I cook what I am and I am what I cook. The basis of everything is the product and my concern every day is to find the best possible product I can get. The star on the plate is not the chef, it’s the ingredient. I cook simply, not too many flavours and, of course, everything comes from inside me.
I am deeply influenced by my heritage: I’m the fourth generation in my family to cook and come from a culture where art de vivre cuisine and food is so important. But I am also influenced by my education and my professional life. I spent three years working with Alain Ducasse in Monaco and, of course, I am influenced by the Mediterranean way of cooking.
I can’t cook something I don’t like or don’t believe in. But actually my cooking methods are very traditional. You will never see any molecular cuisine on my plates – I respect that type of cooking but it’s not me.
Do you import a lot of ingredients from France and the Mediterranean?
At the beginning almost all of my suppliers were from France, especially the South West of France. But now it’s a mix because I know more about what I can get here in the UK and I have to respect the produce here. You have some beautiful produce – Scottish scallops, beef, strawberries.
You have two adopted children. Why did you decide to adopt?
It was something in me that I always knew I wanted to do. From when I was a teenager and understood that one day I wanted to be a mother, I decided I wanted to adopt. After I adopted Charlotte (four) I wanted her to have a little sister so I also adopted Quiterie (two). Maybe one day I will have my own biological children but for now I am a single mother.
What’s the secret to balancing such a busy work life with being a single parent?
It’s all about organisation. The children will always be my main priority and everything in my professional life is organised around the premise that I may have to leave service right away.
With the children the day is organised from 9am to 11pm with the idea that perhaps I cannot be back. I try to take a break in the afternoon – and I usually always manage – but in case I cannot do that there is someone there to look after them. I also spend an hour with them in the morning and have two days on the weekend that are just for them. I take breaks several times during the year when we go away. They are very balanced and very happy between London and Paris.
Do you think many women choose not to go into the kitchen because they want to have children?
I hope not. But there are many women chefs who stop their careers because they want a family life. I’ve had so many examples of that in my own kitchen – really talented female chefs who one day decide to quit because they want something else, a family.
How can women have both?
It requires a strong organisation at home and perhaps also a good husband. Mentalities also have to change, because despite there being a lot of progress, the mother still tends to look after the kids – she’s the one who gives the bath in the evening and reads a story. And of course, the world of business has to change and give more help to women, with alternatives for nursery, for example, or extended opening hours, offering alternatives to the daily planning.
What advice can you give to young women wanting to succeed as a chef?
Always be sincere about who you are. Never hesitate to say what you think. You will have to work hard, that’s for sure, but it’s like that everywhere – if you want to succeed you have to work very hard. But after that just be yourself, be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to say when you cannot do something.
Of course, it’s a male dominated world but just have the behaviour and sensitivity of a woman and that will work.
Will you open any more restaurants?
I don’t know what will happen. I don’t want to open restaurants around the world but I could be interested in opening more in other cities. It depends on what opportunities come along. At the moment I’m focused on London and Paris and continuing this good balance between the two, which is pretty big stuff.
HELENE DARROZE’S TOP TIPS FOR FEMALE CHEFS
– Be organised
– Be sincere about who you are
– Don’t be afraid to admit when you can’t do something
– Be sensitive to other people’s emotions
– Respect your staff
– Work hard
HELENE DARROZE CV
– Darroze is the fourth generation of chefs in her family, who have been running their restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the South West of France since the 1950s
– She began her career in 1990 when she worked as right hand woman to Alain Ducasse at his three-Michelin-starred Louis XV in Monte Carlo. She then returned home to run her family’s restaurant before opening her own eponymous establishment in Paris in 1999
– Two years later, Darroze won her first Michelin star, achieving her second in 2003, which she lost in 2010
– She opened her eponymous restaurant at the Connaught in July 2008, following the departure of Gordon Ramsay Holdings and Angela Hartnett, gaining a Michelin star in 2009 and a second this January
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