Hélène Darroze
Photo by Nicolas Buisson

Hélène Darroze: “Good taste is in my DNA”

Short Profile

Name: Hélène Darroze
DOB: 23 February 1963
Place of birth: Mont-de-Marsan, Landes, France
Occupation: Chef

Ms. Darroze, as a chef with six Michelin stars across three restaurants, do you ever feel like you’ve tasted it all?

Oh, no! I can learn something new every day: every country has its own culture, its own techniques, and ingredients, so there’s always something new to discover. Surprise is part of the magic of food. As long as you’re surprised in a good way, it's part of the success of the dish.

So how often are you surprised by the flavours or tastes of a dish?

The most recent time that happened for me is when I ate at KOL in London. The food has a Mexican inspiration combined with UK products and ingredients, and I have to say, they are so creative. Even if I were to travel in Mexico, I don’t know if I would find the same flavors. I remember a combination of octopus and bone marrow — oh my God, that was such an impressive combination, and really, really successful.

“I think you need to have something in you. For me, I really think that good taste is in my DNA.”

Can that good taste and instinct for flavours be learned, or is it something you’re born with as a chef?

Of course it’s something you can improve on with training — particularly if you love eating and if you have a passion for cooking. But I think you also need to have something in you. For me, I really think that good taste is in my DNA. It’s not really something I had to learn at all because I grew up with a family who owned a restaurant, I grew up in the kitchen with my father and my uncles and my grandparents who were chefs; there were always suppliers and farmers coming to our kitchen with mushrooms, fish, meat, or eggs, so I was confronted with this right away. It was a ritual. In Landes, where I’m from in the south west of France, sharing food around the table is a culture so I’ve always had that in my blood.

Did you have a vision for your food, even at a young age? Or did it take moving away from your family’s restaurant for you to come into your own as a chef?

If I think about some of my signature dishes, ones that are still on the menu today, those are dishes I created when I was still working with my father. That would be, I guess in 1998, something like that, I was 26 or 28 years old. For sure, that was the start of it for me, it was the time where I was able to bring something to my family’s tradition but also to have my own vision, to bring personality from my side and build up from there. Sometimes it was a bit challenging to bring my vision into what my father was doing, sometimes we didn’t have the same point of view, but my father was open enough to let me try things out.

And now, are you still experimenting in the kitchen, or is it more about perfecting the dishes you’re best known for?

Well, classic dishes, when they are well done, can be interesting — but I always like to have a twist in everything I do.

I can imagine that your Michelin stars maybe put a bit of pressure on you to constantly innovate.

To be honest, it's not a pressure for me at all. It's just my daily life, you know, it’s the passion I have for food, and the excitement of trying things. Innovation and experiments just for the sake of it, that isn’t for me. It’s not essential. But it’s also possible to innovate in ways that are more personal to you. At my restaurants, we’re now working on fermentation. I’ve never used this in my cuisine before — of course, it’s not a revolutionary technique, but it’s new for me.

Chef Pía Léon says that travelling to other parts of her native Peru and learning techniques from different indigenous tribes has really helped fuel her sense of creativity and experimentation in the kitchen.

Travel is essential for this. It’s really, really important for opening up the mind and for me, it’s been essential for my vision and my creative spirit. But I think what’s helped me more in terms of confidence and finding my voice as a chef is working with Alain Ducasse in the 1990s. At the beginning, I was working in the office of his restaurant, and he’s the one who pushed me to go into the kitchen. I remember saying to him, “But I didn't do any training, I didn’t go to culinary school!” But he said, “Trust me, there is a place in this world that should be taken by a woman, and you can take it.” That pushed me, and really gave me confidence in myself.

What else has been a driving force for you in growing your confidence and pushing your own limits?

I can say that I’ve arrived at this level because I'm surrounded by an amazing team, they are part such an important part of what I build every day. In terms of creativity, I have now probably 10 people around me who could be chefs on their own. We all really inspire each other, that’s for sure. But in terms of my confidence, that really started to build when I started to see that my guests were happy, and that they came back to the restaurant. But still, even now, I can’t ever say that I am one hundred percent confident because for me, it's necessary to put myself in question every day. That's the thing I repeat the most to my team: we have to put ourselves in question, that’s the only way we can achieve what we want, the only way we can improve and do better.

Is food something still deeply pleasurable for you, even though it’s part of a job that you’ve been working at every day for decades now?

Of course, it's my job to create and to test and to find the good balance of flavours in a dish, I work with that. It’s a responsibility because at the end of the day, I have to produce a dish that gives happiness to my guests. But it's still a pleasure! I always cook what I love, because I just can’t do something that I don't love. If you take that enjoyment out of my life, I’ll stop and do something else.