Home is where heart is for French top chef Darroze
She is arguably best known as one of the judges and mentors on M6’s epic culinary competition Top Chef, but there is far more to the trail-blazing chef Hélène Darroze than reality TV.
Now she is returning to her roots, transforming her Michelin two-starred restaurant Hélène Darroze in Paris into the elegant Marsan – named after her home town Mont-de-Marsan in Landes, south west France.
“I opened it 20 years ago and refurbished a little bit but not enough,” she said. “So I started to think about it seven years ago and to really work on it three years ago. It was time to put a lot of things into question, as I have evolved a lot in the past 20 years.
“When you are young, you want to be free of your origins, your family, everything. But as you get older, you reach an age where you’re more faithful to what you’ve learned, especially from your forebears, and I want some recognition of that.
“I want to pay homage and say ‘I’m from here, I’ve learned from that, and those are my roots’.
“I have also done other things but everything comes from here.”
She said Marsan is “more than ever a way of expressing my deepest emotions: those taken from my childhood, my education in a family dedicated to the art of receiving and bringing joy in my generous and beloved province”.
Ms Darroze, 52, believes her new restaurant is unique in Paris. “I put a lot of myself and my history into it,” she said. “Marsan is about simplicity, with a lot of authenticity and raw materials – and that’s not Parisian.
“Guests have loved it. They say ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not in Paris’.
“It’s very simple and pure but with beautiful materials. It’s also very warm, even with the stone, and it’s also very personal and bespoke.”
The restaurant features a six-seat private chef’s table, which Ms Darroze says was an idea borrowed from the UK’s fine dining circles.
“I put it in the middle of the kitchen. That’s what I wanted to do and, of course, I’m very visible, but it’s nice, because I have this connection to the guests, which is just incredible.”
Prices start at €75 a head. Marsan has gone down a storm with diners but, as Ms Darroze explains, being more visible has become a great deal easier since she joined forces with Philippe Etchebest, Michel Sarran, and, more recently, Jean-François Piège on Top Chef.
The series follows the fortunes of young professional chefs as they face weekly challenges, encouraged and mentored by the four senior chefs.
She says: “When you’re on a primetime programme like that, your life changes at every level.
“You have to evaluate the consequences because you are seen in a particular way. It’s a big responsibility.”
Ms Darroze, a single mother of two girls adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam, was named the world’s best female chef in 2015 by the acclaimed World’s 50 Best Restaurants team and is far more than the token woman on the show’s line-up.
She said more women have entered the industry since she began blazing a trail 25 years ago, but things need to change to encourage more women into France’s top kitchens. “They have to work on more flexibility in the hours and also the mentality.”
But she is quick to point out it is not just men. “Some women aren’t ready not to be at home in the evening to give a bath or tell a bedtime story. Things are moving in the right direction, though, step by step.”
Ms Darroze has been the inspiration for a new generation of female chefs, thanks – in part – to the animated 2007 movie Ratatouille.
The character of female chef Colette Tatou was based on her. Ms Darroze said: “It has been a long time, but I’m proud to have been the inspiration for the model that helps get women recognised in the kitchen.
I also did a Barbie doll a few years ago – it’s nice to know it might inspire someone.”
As for the future, she has her hands full with Marsan and refurbishing her London restaurant, The Connaught, which reopens in two months. “That’s my reality and plan,” she said.
But she still has ambitions, though they are not necessarily just for herself: “I really hope I have good and strong chefs around me and their names will be alongside mine.”
If Hélène Darroze has anything to do with it, the world of French gastronomy looks set to have plenty more chefs rising to the top.