Hélène Darroze says that if you agree to win Michelin stars, you have to be okay with losing them

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Hélène Darroze has relaunched her eponymous restaurant at The Connaught, two months after reopening her flagship in Paris. 

We met up with Hélène to talk about the changes made to the historic Mayfair hotel's restaurant - namely, her brand new chef's table.
She told us a bit more about how she likes to run her kitchens, for which she holds two Michelin stars at The Connaught, another at Marsan in Paris, and her latest restaurant, Joia.
We spoke about why she doesn't like her team to call her chef and how she manages to maintain a work-life balance travelling from London to Paris and back several times a month and manning the pass across her three restaurants.
Lastly, we spoke about her relationship with Michelin, and how it felt to lose a star for one restaurant on the same year she gained one for another.
Hélène's bright demeanour doesn't betray a shed of exhaustion, despite a hectic schedule: the chef travels between the British and French capital by eurostar as often as she needs to, sometimes several times a week, opening and renovating her restaurants left right and centre. 
"We opened this restaurant eleven years ago and nothing has changed since this opening," she said.
"So it was time for us to put ourselves in question on all fronts." 
A brand new interior decor - commissioned to French famous designer Pierre Yovanovich - gives the formerly gentlemen's club-like room a much more relaxed feel, with soft tones Hélène describes as "subtly, but unashamedly feminine." Another major change came with the addition of a chef's table, where the main kitchen used to be, and the installation of a new kitchen for the main room. 
In terms of the menu, expect more British produce, as sustainability takes centre stage.
"Some of the products will continue to come from my south west, because it's my culture and I want to keep my personality and my style, but it will be a very good mix," she explained. 
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The view from the chef's table

Respect without titles 

The chef trained in one of France's top business schools before winding up working in the kitchen Alain Ducasse's Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, returning to run her family restaurant in the South-West of France and finally opening her own restaurant in Paris. She has received national and international praise for her work,  was named a 'Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur' - an Knight of the Honour Legion - and was recognised by Veuve-Cliquot as the World's Best Female Chef in 2015. 
Yet, Hélène refuses to go by the 'chef' moniker, and has her team call her by her first name. 
"I don't call them commis, I call them by their name so they can call me by my name, it's not because they call me chef that they will respect me more," she explained. 
"You don't install hierarchy or authority with a chef's title. You work with them, you communicate with them, you teach them things, you delegate. It's about transmission also - and I prefer them saying 'Hélène' than chef." 

The eternal question: why aren't there more women in high-ranking positions in the kitchen?

Often asked questions about being a female chef, Hélène doesn't shy away from the subject. She wishes she could employ more women, but she's working with a smaller pool of people at the level of cooking, because, she said: "There are a lot of women with a lot of competence and a lot of talent. The only problem is that when you get older, when you are a woman, you have a family, you have children or you want to have children and it's difficult to manage all of that."
Having admitted in previous interviews that had she met someone in her thirties who wanted to start a family, she may not be where she is today, Hélène waited patiently until she could dedicate herself to having a family of her own, adopting two girls in her early forties.
Spending time with her daughters is now a priority, as is involving them in her work.
"Of course I'm not there every night to tell the bedtime story,  but we have an organisation and I spend a lot of time with my girls and this time is very special."
"This weekend they joined me here, they were part of the opening and they could see the passion that we all have to make this project happen. That's very interesting for them, to see this kind of thing and to be educated in this way."

On losing a star

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On the surface at least, the chef's ability to take a slight step back comes with the confidence of having built strong teams she can delegate to when she's otherwise committed, be it with family or at her other restaurants. 
But success is often fraught with blips in the road, as the chef learnt the hard way when her Paris restaurant, then called Restaurant Hélène Darroze, lost its star on the same year The Connaught received its second.
She said she was most devastated for her team in the French capital feel, who felt "very guilty," as she had left them to oversee a lot of the daily operations at the restaurant while she focused on The Connaught. 
But despite a sense of confusion, the chef didn't let the loss stir too many feelings of injustice. 
"When I lost the star, of course I was very sad and I said,' okay, my God, is it fair or not' - of course you have this kind of reaction but as long as you agree to win stars, you should also be okay when you lose them, you know, that's the game."
"You don't complain when you receive them so when I lost one, my reaction was to put myself and the team in question and to find a new motivation."
While she conceded that some chefs - like Marc Veyrat and Sébastien Bras - may have good reasons to return their stars, for her there is good reason for why the Guide remains a respected institution. 
"Michelin is an institution; they needed it at one stage and so they should respect it." 
"Of course there are a lot of critics but we all know that it's the reference, as a chef you can't say the contrary. You're looking at that, sometimes  chefs are make the choice  to take a step back, and why not, but for most chefs, Michelin is the reference."

Et vive la France

The chef's brand of Landais-Basque cuisine will continue to enchant; while influenced by other cuisines, her gastronomic heritage traces back to her great-grandfather. She believes that while French cuisine isn't the best in the world, its food culture still informs and inspires food lovers around the world. 
"It's in our blood, it's in our DNA as French people, so of course we inspire a lot of chefs, but to say that we are the best - nobody is the best."
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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 25th September 2019

Hélène Darroze says that if you agree to win Michelin stars, you have to be okay with losing them