“Oh my gosh, the rain!” gasps Hélène Darroze, pointing towards the window of the Connaught hotel at a gloomy, wet London day outside. “We made bonnets for my daughters’ Easter parade this afternoon but just look at that weather!”
It’s a situation any working mother can relate to – squeezing in the time to decorate some festive hats to delight her children, then having the rain ruin the special occasion and all her creative work. But this is no ordinary working mum. This is Hélène Darroze, mother of two young girls, chef-patron of two separate Michelin-starred restaurants in two capital cities – London and Paris – and now Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef 2015.
We found some time in her hectic schedule to talk to her about French food, future plans and her feelings about female cooks.
Hélène, congratulations on being voted Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef. How do you feel?
I wasn’t expecting it at all and it hasn’t really sunk in. I don’t take it personally, I take it as a team effort, a team achievement because I would never be the chef I am if I didn’t have the team around me.
The award is about promoting and encouraging young female chefs. Why do you think there are so few women at the top level in this industry?
There’s one day in this job when you have to choose between being a wife and a mother and being a chef. The two things are very, very difficult to combine and most of the really talented young women in my kitchen stopped because they wanted to be a mum and a wife and they thought it was not compatible – which is probably not true, but for them it was.
If you’d been a mother sooner, do you think you would still have done so well?
I was already 40 when I became a mum so of course I made some choices. [Hélène adopted Charlotte (8) and Quiterie (6) from Vietnam in her early 40s]. If I’d had babies sooner, I’m not sure I would be a good mum because I worked a lot and I didn’t have a team strong enough to delegate to when I was 30. I had to create a spirit, I had to create a world around me. I had to create a team and I’m sure I would have sacrificed something. If I was in love at that time and if my partner had wanted to have a baby with me, perhaps I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.
Would you ever want your daughters to become chefs?
I want them to be happy so I will support them in whatever they choose. I wouldn’t stop them being chefs but I would explain how difficult it is, because it is difficult, that’s a fact. I love what I do, my passion is my work but sometimes it’s tough, I must admit.
Which other female chefs do you admire?
I love Elena Arzak. We started together at the same time so we shared a lot. I love the relationship she has with her father. She’s my Spanish family – Juan Mari [Arzak] used to say I’m the third girl of the family.
What’s your favourite dish at the moment?
One dish I love is the poached lobster in seaweed butter, cooked with white asparagus from Landes and served with bottarga breadcrumbs. It’s very simple but I love this dish, I love white asparagus from my country.
How has your experience at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London influenced your cooking at Hélène Darroze in Paris, and vice versa?
What I brought from France is my focus on the best products. In London I’ve opened my eyes a bit more than in Paris. There are so many things happening in London at the moment on the gastronomic scene that of course you are very influenced by that. Paris is focused on high-level French cuisine, which is inspiring also, but London is so eclectic. So many things from everywhere in the world are happening in London and that’s inspiring.
Initiatives such as Goût de France are looking to promote French gastronomy around the world. What’s exciting for you in French cuisine?
I really think we [the French] are the mentors of a lot of cuisines, because that’s our culture, that’s in our blood. All the best chefs all over the world have spent so much time learning in France. Right now the world is coming back to authenticity, to something comfortable and perhaps that’s French cuisine.
Would you ever open a third restaurant?
For the moment, I have two dreams. I would love to do something more casual in London, to give my interpretation of bistronomy, and secondly – something I’ve wanted forever – to open a place in New York.
Hélène will pick up her award at the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 ceremony on Monday 1st June in London.