It took Hélène Darroze the best part of a month for the news to sink in properly. She heard the announcement but didn’t truly believe it. Five Michelin stars in less than a fortnight. Three at The Connaught in London. Two at Marsan in Paris. The catch was the high profile French chef could only celebrate at home, removed from her two teams on either side of the Channel. It took the gloss off the announcement, but it was the least of her problems at the time.
London and Paris were still in lockdown when the Michelin Guide was announced at the back end of January in France and early February in the United Kingdom. The Connaught wouldn’t reopen until May, and only at a reduced capacity, while Marsan wouldn’t welcome guests back until after the summer months ended.
When Darroze took over the kitchen at The Connaught in 2008 following a £70 million renovation of the iconic Mayfair hotel, the critics sharpened their knives in the early days. But it didn’t take too long for her to win them over and earn some stars in the process. The first came in 2009, before the second arrived two years later. It would take another decade for the most desired star to finally land. But the long wait made the sweet taste of satisfaction even sweeter.
“The two stars at the same time, particularly the third one was my biggest emotion, my biggest achievement in my professional life, for sure. It was amazing, something incredible,” Darroze told Man of Style via Zoom from insider her office at The Connaught in London.
“The third star in London, just after the second one in Paris – that was very important for me because we lost one when we opened The Connaught – for me it was very important to win it again.
“It took me weeks to realise that because it was so incredible, but at the same time it was very frustrating because all the restaurants were closed, so first I couldn’t share this news with the team of London because I couldn’t travel to London. I couldn’t do that so it was very difficult.
“We were on Zoom when it was announced and I couldn’t share that with my team and I was unable to cook for the guests in that three months. It was very frustrating getting the third star and being unable to cook. It was a big joy, a big achievement, something incredible.”
The highly coveted Michelin stars weren’t the only thing on the 54-year-old’s mind while she was confined to her house in Paris with her two daughters in the early stages of 2021.
Following a successful pop-up in 2019 while The Connaught was getting a facelift, Darroze had committed to open a restaurant at Villa La Coste in Provence.
It was a big undertaking made slightly easier by the fact the five-star luxury hotel belongs to Paddy McKillen, who is a co-owner of The Maybourne Hotel Group, which owns The Connaught. If it wasn’t for her close relationship with McKillen she wouldn’t have gone through with it, given everything that has transpired in the world since that original pop-up.
But when you enter the gates of Chateau La Coste in Aix-en-Provence and gradually creep your way up the estate, which is 500 acres of biodynamic vineyards and rolling hills amid a sculpture park that features works by James Turrell, Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra and many others, you instantly appreciate the allure of setting up shop here. And that’s even before you reach Villa La Coste, perched above the property where the restaurant is situated in a glass pavilion that spills onto a pebbled garden, with panoramic views over the property and the countryside.
“La Coste is a dream place for every chef to work in this place, surrounded by what’s around there. It is just incredible,” she said.
“Provence is not a stranger for me because I used to work with Alain Ducasse for three or four years when I was young so I really approached this Mediterranean cuisine and I always had the dream to come back and use much more of what I’ve learnt. For me, it was the opportunity to do that.”
Darroze is committed to being at Villa La Coste for at least the next five years, and given the impact it had during the summer, it will be difficult to not see the relationship stretching out beyond 2025.
With four different restaurants in three different parts of the world, Darroze is spread thin. She spends three days per month in Provence, dividing the rest of her time between London and Paris, where she also has Joia. The question I want to know is how does she do it? We see highly credentialled chefs opening restaurants in far flung places all the time, usually in Las Vegas or the Middle East. But they open them up and leave, rarely replicating the standards that put them on the world stage. But not Darroze. Her fingerprints are everywhere when it comes to her restaurants.
“I work a lot, I won’t lie. I work a lot for sure, but also I have very strong teams everywhere who learn from me and have a very strong vision of my culture and my way of doing. I think a lot of them understand my values in life and my philosophy in food and they embrace them. Because of them I can run this business,” she explained.
“Everything is organised, particularly in the kitchen and also on the floor in the dining room, organised to be operated without me. Because I cannot be at Marsan when I am in La Coste and I cannot be in La Coste when I am in London. I am just there to inspire them, to guide them. I am here to give them the philosophy and the mood of the dish for sure, but at the end I am here to guide them. I’m lucky enough to have a very strong team around me who are passionate people.”
Darroze has cooking and restaurants coursing through her veins. She is a fourth-generation chef, who returned from a stint at Ducasse’s prestigious Monaco-based restaurant Louis XV to lead her family’s restaurant in south-west France, where she helped retain its Michelin star.
“I think there is something in my DNA for sure. I think from an early age I had the taste, compared to others and I think that is important, but also, in fact, I was brought into this world since I was a baby; it’s my roots, it’s my education, it’s my culture,” she said.
“I am a chef who is very concentrated on the quality of the product, on sourcing the product, on respecting the season that the ingredients are available. It has always been like that for me. I learnt that from my family. I remember when I was a young girl all the milk coming, the vegetables, the meat coming to the restaurant of my grandfather. I remember the fishermen coming with the fish. I used to go with my grandfather to his farm to see the chickens, the pork et cetera. I remember it changing with the seasons.
“My way of cooking is very influenced from all that. I used to say on my plate the star is not the chef, the star is the product and it really comes from my family heritage. I’ve learnt from them the type of generosity where you’ve got to give of yourself to your guests and sharing is key in fact. That’s something for sure that I’ve learned. I have all that in my roots since the beginning.”
It has been an incredibly challenging two years for the entire world, but especially for haute-cuisine. Darroze contracted Covid-19 early in the pandemic and suffered ongoing symptoms for a prolonged period, but she discovered a silver lining amid the doom and gloom.
“I had the Covid at the beginning of the pandemic. I had the long Covid, so for me, it last a very long time and I was very sick,” she said. “Perhaps because of that I was not so stressed, because I was very tired and sick. Straight away as soon as we had to close I knew straight away that I needed to be positive because if I was pessimistic it would be a nightmare. I had to choose to take one day by one day.
“I took it like a present. For the family it brought us a new life; I’d never had so much time with my girls, with my family. At the end I was happy to share this time in this way with my family. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would never have had that opportunity.
“At the end, it was a break for me which was very positive because of all this time we spent with my family and my daughters. I needed this break to come back with more energy, more motivation. At the end I took it as finding the good in the bad. After the rain, there is the sun.”
It meant Darroze’s two adopted daughters, Charlotte and Quiterie, got to enjoy the cooking of a world-class chef at home. They cooked and baked, chitchatted and watched films and TV series. Things they had rarely done before because of Darroze’s unrelenting workload.
When things return to normal, for real, whenever that may be, Darroze intends to continue to spend time enjoying activities like she did with her girls in lockdown. And while she didn’t get to share the Michelin guide news with her team at the start of the year, she got to spend it around her girls. A special memory amid a difficult time.