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As a monsoon-like autumn rain batters the streets of Paris, Hélène Darroze cuddles her younger daughter, Quiterie, on the living room’s button leather sofa.
The French chef has just returned from two days in London where she runs The Connaught hotel’s two-Michelin-starred kitchen. She is enjoying some respite before heading out again in a few hours to check in on her eponymous Paris restaurant, a short walk away between Boulevard Saint Germain and Luxembourg Garden. Friday nights are busy for her staff.
“Why are you pulling on my hair — so that it grows more quickly?” she asks the giggling six-year-old nestled in her arms.
Home for Darroze and her two adopted daughters from Vietnam is now this bright, high-ceiling apartment in the 6th arrondissement. They have divided their time between this rented property and a flat in Mayfair since the 48-year-old chef was picked for The Connaught in 2008. For the past five years, however, London, where “les filles” attended an English school until July, had been the family’s base.
They would have put down roots in the UK had Darroze not fallen victim to “gazumping” — a London real estate phenomenon involving the seller rejecting an accepted offer for a property in favour of a higher one at the last minute.
“I came within an inch of buying this house in Notting Hill when it slipped away under my nose,” she says. “I was so disappointed — I’ve never recovered. Then I told myself that this was not meant to happen, that it was a sign I ought to move back.”
There were other reasons behind her decision. Darroze has more to do professionally in France. Last year she became one of the judges on the French version of Top Chef, a television show that aims to identify future culinary talents. In April, she was named the Veuve Clicquot world’s best female chef, a much publicised award that brought greater international recognition, and with it, more work opportunities. She missed her friends, too.
“Today my life makes more sense here,” she says. “In London, I have The Connaught, period. I had just become a mum when I was offered the job there. I haven’t had time to go out and socialise.”
Darroze is also on a mission to win back the second Michelin star for her Paris restaurant. Five years on, the loss still hurts.
“I hope they will acknowledge it deserves two stars,” she says. “When we lost it, it was hard on the team. A third star for The Connaught would be the cherry on the cake. But I really want to get that star back here.”
So over the summer, the family moved two homes into one, she says, half-apologising. The result is eclectic and joyous. The light-brown sofa, bought in Islington, faces a bright red fluffy rug and a turn-of-the-20th-century marble mantelpiece with a mirror propped on top. Corduroy cuddly toys lie idle on a purple velvet pouf next to leather club armchairs that belonged to Darroze’s grandfather. The golden statue of an elephant, purchased during a charity event in London, seems to be gazing at the old wooden family cupboard that she brought back from south-west France, where she grew up.
From her birthplace Darroze has retained a singing accent that makes her linger on her Ns, as well as a tendency to use regional products in her menus, such as foie gras, oysters from Charente or chorizo sausages from the Spanish Basque region. Yet she has embraced the Parisian habit of removing the doors in reception rooms. This has created a vast open space in her home with three different ambiences in purple and maroon shades.
Ciboulette, the family’s immaculately white, Bethnal Green-born cat, stretches between piles of art books on a white cloud-shaped dining table. In the third room, a low wooden dining table necessitates Japanese-style seating on cushions. This is where a few friends will savour the pesto soup and ceps that Darroze plans to cook the following Sunday. Small and giant framed photographs of her daughters are scattered throughout the apartment.
Darroze ended up in the Left Bank by chance 17 years ago when she moved from Villeneuve-de-Marsan, near Biarritz, with not much more than the desire to make it in the French capital. She also wanted to be closer to her then boyfriend. “What?” exclaims Quiterie, who is back on her mother’s lap. “In the south-west I was vegetating a little,” says Darroze.
The kitchen, located in a remote corner of the apartment, is simple, almost rudimentary: no fancy equipment or pots filled with mysterious ingredients in sight. Noticeable items include green tea boxes and a jar full of colourful sweets. She insists the family kitchen will be redone soon, now that she has moved back. But then, for a chef who has always put the “authenticity” of the products above everything else, this simplicity may not be so surprising.
Becoming a chef was not the initial plan, she says as we wander in the corridor circling back to the entrance, past two bedrooms and a study. Darroze has always loved cooking, especially pastries — lemon tart was her signature dish when she was a child. L’Hôtel des Voyageurs, the two-star family restaurant founded in the late 19th century, had gone through three generations from father to son, putting Darroze’s older brother next in line to take over. However, after business school and three years working as Alain Ducasse’s assistant in his Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, she gave in to her calling. In 1995, she convinced her father to break from tradition. Her older brother is now an oenologist.
“My mum was not thrilled [about my career turn] because she had not seen my dad much,” she says. “She didn’t try to change my mind but she warned me about the strains this career can cause to a family.”
The job has certainly proved to be demanding and Darroze reflects that she would probably have achieved less had she had children in her thirties.
Yet motherhood does not seem to have slowed her down. The Connaught, she reveals, has asked her to work on a third restaurant in the hotel. She would also like to add New York to Paris and London. Buying a family home in the south-west, where her family, childhood friends and many of her suppliers reside, is also on her wish list.
Those goals are within reach now that Darroze has attained international recognition. In Paris, people have even started recognising her in the street — a status she has yet to adjust to.
“Sometimes I walk with my eyes lowered,” she says. “I am not Angelina Jolie, I am a bit intimidated. I don’t think I am legitimate yet. It’s not that I don’t deserve it, but I am just a cook.”
Anne-Sylvaine Chassany is the FT’s Paris bureau chief
Photographs: Raphaël Fournier