Christine Delmar: How did you discover cooking?
Hélène Darroze: I was born in it! I am the fourth generation of chefs in my family. My great grandfather opened the inn in Villeneuve-de-Marsan (Les Landes) in 1895. Then it was managed by my grandfather, then by my father and finally by me, one century after its opening.
CD: Why did you leave your Relais & Château in Villeneuve-de-Marsan to come to Paris?
HD: These days, it is very difficult to manage that kind of establishment, especially if it is not located in a touristy town. Financially, it was not worthwhile. So, I decided to close it and to move to Paris. It broke my heart and my family's heart, but when you are 30, you have no time to lose…I was looking for a spot around the Champs-Elysées when someone suggested a restaurant on rue d'Assas. Immediately, I fell in love with the space: the two floors, and most of all, the possibility of a huge kitchen. I feel very lucky about it because in Paris, kitchens are mostly located in the cellar! In my restaurant, I wanted to create the ambiance of someone's home, with a very contemporary style and very bright colors.
CD: How would you describe your present cuisine?
HD: For sure, it is a Southwestern cuisine, with roots from Bordeaux to the Basque region all the way through Périgord. I use local products and I sometimes get my inspiration from traditional recipes, which I remodel in my own way. I take the basic idea and I make a modern, delicate dish, a personal creation. I really like to cook stews and to grill. Despite what many had told me, I got the authorization to set up a grill in my kitchen. The restaurant menu is deliberately short, but it changes every day in accordance with the season and with my moods. Only a few dishes are permanent, such as the escaoutoun, the foie gras with spices, poultry or the five sea tartars (with shellfish, scallops, tuna, langoustines, and a combination of oysters and foie gras). My clients adore them and would not want me to take them off the menu.
CD: Did your work experience with Alain Ducasse influence you a lot?
HD: I had the great chance to spend three years with Alain Ducasse when he was only the chef of the Louis XV, that's to say, when he still had free time. We used to talk for hours. He taught me how to cook through words. When I became a luxury hotel manager, he was the first one to tell me my place was behind the stove… I really observed his manner of cooking and working. Like him, relationships with my purveyors are of high importance to me because without a good product you cannot cook good dishes. For instance, I keep an excellent relationship with my poultry supplier in Les Landes. I have known him and his top quality products for many years. This is why I have accepted to put my signature on his manufactured food cans.
CD: What inspires you when you create new dishes?
HD: My inspiration comes from my personal experiences. All of the encounters I make with people influence me and my cuisine. I would even go as far as to say that the way you cook reveals what you are. A new recipe always depends on your mood. But once established, you have to keep its spirit and be careful to respect both its proportions and cooking time.
CD: What is your goal now that you are honored with one Michelin star? A second star?
HD: Being awarded by the Michelin guide is not a goal in itself. The restaurant has been open for only four months. We did a great job and I have to congratulate my team for that. But it is not the end of the road. We cook to please our clients and ourselves, it all works in unison. In order to maintain our enthusiasm and to keep expressing ourselves, we modify the menu every day.
CD: In the Red Guide 2000, you are one of the 15 elected women chefs. Is it more difficult for women than for men?
HD: It is clear that men dominate this profession. But the value of women should not be questioned: as there are less women candidates, there are less women elected… Mentalities should be blamed. Women at home and men at work; this is old fashioned. But I must say, cooking requires great physical force. Sometimes, I ask for help to raise big pots. The long working hours are also a handicap for women chefs with children. I am not yet concerned about this issue but I am sure when the time will come, I'll be able to manage my career and my family life together. It is just a question of strict organization and of trusting people.
CD: What are your plans for the future?
HD: My first goal is to maintain my restaurant's success. With 150 reservations per day, we are way above our expectations. Now, we need to continue this trend, and if possible, improve it. I want to stabilize my team and create a circle of trustworthy people upon whom I can count. Before summer, I will remodel and redesign the decor and the menu of the first floor bistro. Right now, I am not satisfied with it. When everything is set up, I may consider opening a restaurant in the United States…