'Sometimes after 25 years of a career, you can say, okay, time to slow down, but I've missed it so much - I'm more motivated than ever'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

To say that the past year has been an emotional rollercoaster for Hélène Darroze would be an understatement.

After less than a handful of months open at her London outpost at The Connaught and at her Parisian bistrot, and no more than a handful of weeks at her fine dining restaurant  in the French capital, Marsan, the chef now has as many stars across her restaurants as she has fingers on one hand. 

"It's complicated, but it's okay," she said, shortly after the announcement that France would go into yet another lockdown.

"It was bound to happen; unfortunately we are very late with the vaccination here, so I'm taking a day at a time. Things can change at any moment, so we have to wait and see." 

The chef has only come to London a few times in the past year, the last time being in mid-December, and is planning a visit for the Connaught's reopening in the middle of May. 

"I hope that will be possible," not least because she hasn't yet had the chance to celebrate the restaurant's new award with her team. 

"It's very frustrating," she said, but admits that they are all elated, even given (or perhaps more so in light of) the circumstances.

"It's a dream come true. I looked up to chefs with three stars for years, and now I've joined them."

Not sure she's fully integrated the news yet, given the past year, she said that she hadn't thought about Michelin at all - and then in the space of two weeks, received a second star for Marsan and a third for her eponymous London restaurant. 

"I must admit that it was the most amazing joy in my professional life."

Gwendal Poullennec delivered the news of the three stars to her in person, and she said that she couldn't have suspected what was to come.

"He asked me so many questions about other things that I thought he just wanted to speak about my second star in Paris, to see how I manage my time between Paris and London and that's it." 

"When he opened the box and I saw the three Michelin stars," she said,  in a way that betrays an ongoing sense of disbelief, "it was incredible. It was the kind of feeling you can't describe, it was too strong." 

"I never thought I could feel anything like that, the shock, the emotion. It's something I wish on a lot of people - to feel like that at least one time in their life." 

Success can't be achieved alone

 Across Hélène's restaurant empire, one gets the sense is one of an interdependent, international family.

She cites a dozen key people across her restaurants, some of whom have been by her side for one, or coming up to two decades, like her executive pastry chef, Kirk Whittle; her head chef at The Connaught, Marco Zampese, or the general manager, Mirko Benzo; his Parisian counterpart at Marsan, Paul Godin; and her head chef at Jòia, Fulvio Pischedda, who is helping her work on future projects,

But, she said, even among her newer recruits, "everyone is important - the teamwork is so important." 

Asked to flip the coin and guess what they might say about her and how she has helped them in their careers, she said: "When I received the Michelin stars, so many of them sent me messages saying 'thank you, I'm so proud to be close to you and I'm so proud to work with you, and I've learned so much with you.' They were probably more important than all of the other messages I was sent by anyone." 

On Clare Smyth's three Michelin stars

Sharing the spotlight with Clare Smyth, who also received three stars for her Notting Hill restaurant, Core -  becoming the first female chef in the country to do so with her own name above the door - was an honour for Hélène, who is glad to call Clare a friend as well as a fellow chef. 

"I respect her so much. I was so happy to share that moment with her."

"And for the female community in our industry, it's just amazing to give two examples like that, to show that everything is possible for a woman in this industry. It's an amazing example and I hope it will create passion, ambition and dreams."

As for what this means for female presence in the kitchen, and the fact that news coverage often centres on this fact when women receive accolades, she is undeterred.

"I think it's important to have female inspiration in the kitchen, so if I can be one, I will be."

"You always ask people who makes you dream, who inspires you - I don't think about it everyday, but I'm happy if I can be that for people."

Michelin as a driving force for the industry

As someone who's been on both sides of the guide's favours - having been demoted from two stars to one in 2010, and achieving two and three stars for her restaurants this year, Helene's stance on Michelin has remained one of respect and admiration. 

"Michelin is THE guide. Everybody looks at it, for their travels around the world. When people come to Paris, they want to visit Michelin star restaurants, so the reference is irrefutable." 

"You can disagree with them - because at one stage they have to judge, and judgement is linked to sensibilities and what you feel at a moment in time, so it will always be controversial." 

But, she added, "all chefs reach for stars, and to get them is always something amazing. It's a joy in your career that you can't deny." 

"I'll always remember what Mr Ducasse said to me one day, he said, 'you can do without, but it's much better to have one.'" 

For her, the work achieved by the guide in the past year is highly commendable, and shows that it is dedicated to supporting the hospitality industry. 

"What Gwendal explained to me is that during the few months when restaurants were open, they asked inspectors to be ready to do double or three times the work to be on time to launch the guides all over the world."

"They flew inspectors over from Asia just to get everywhere. I think they did an amazing job." 

Lessons learned in lockdown

Asked whether she had any great epiphanies in lockdown, she smiled, and said, "Yes. I really missed my guests, I missed being in the kitchen. It made me realise that I'm the right place, because I missed it so much.

"Sometimes after 25 years of a career, you can say, 'okay, time to slow down a little bit' but now I know I will be more and more motivated because I've missed it so much." 

"I understood how important it is for our guests to come to the restaurant and enjoy their experiences in the restaurant. It's made me want to be more precise and to give more and more, because our venues are key for sociability." 

"It's really important for us to be there for that." 

In terms of the food, Hélène is looking to make things even more ingredient-led.

"We have a responsibility to show our guests and people in general how important produce and seasonality are. We have a big restaurant and I want to show people that it's important to stick with the essentials." 

"The products, the seasons, the markets, the local producers... We have to support this philosophy, I think more than ever." 

A home garden could be in the pipeline, she added, "to get closer to nature, closer to reality." 

Particularly in Great Britain, the chef wants to dig deep into the terroir and see what the country's best producers have to offer. "I have so many things to discover in the UK, and we have a lot to do in that respect."

 What to do when you've reached the pinnacle 

The next step, the chef said, "is to stabilise what we have," be that the two stars in Paris and the third in London.

"For me it's really important that we do that, and at the moment I've put all of my projects aside." 

An English version of her cookbook, "Chez Moi", containing family meals cooked by the chef in lockdown is in works, as well as some surprises to come. 

The Joia team will continue serving up the "premium" burgers they cooked for delivery under a new brand, as, she said, "it would be a shame not to follow that after."

Finally, on whether she feels optimistic about the future, she said, "Yes, for sure. I think people are ready to enjoy themselves, they want to live their lives. I'm really looking forward to reopening and I think we've all learned a lot from this pandemic. And we will learn some more." 

After all, success isn't something that can be clung too, it is always moving and one must continue to reach for the stars - literally, or figuratively.

"It's not forever, you have to work and put yourself and your work in question everyday. I tell my teams, nothing is ever won." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 9th April 2021

'Sometimes after 25 years of a career, you can say, okay, time to slow down, but I've missed it so much - I'm more motivated than ever'