Just five restaurants in London currently hold the coveted three Michelin stars, Hélène Darroze at The Connaught is one of them. Darroze first opened in The Connaught in 2008, after earning two Michelin stars at her eponymous restaurant on Rue d'Assas in Paris. Less than a year after opening she earned her first star in London, two years later she got her second – the third would take a further decade to arrive.
It’s safe to say, then, that one enters Hélène Darroze at The Connaught with a certain level of expectation; with an idea of the calibre of both food and service that they can expect. To survive in London’s ever-changing restaurant scene is one thing, to continue to operate at a level worthy of a third Michelin star over ten years after opening is quite another. A thorough refurbishment of the space means that the restaurant itself is an elegant affair; feminine without feeling girly, delicate in all the right places but self-assured and bold. It is the kind of restaurant that helps you shake off the outside world and ease into the feast to come.
It’s a process Darroze herself was heavily involved in. “When we built the first space 15 years ago, I was younger, less mature, and probably didn’t know The Connaught, London or the UK very well,” she tells me. “So, we built something, but instinctively we didn’t yet have the knowledge of exactly what we wanted to do. This second one I was much more involved in so many things because I knew what I wanted.” Part of what she wanted was the addition of the chef’s table; a glorious, sweeping horseshoe of a table in shell pink with a front row seat to the kitchen. “I drew the kitchen, I drew the pass where we plate the dishes, and now we have a kitchen which is very welcoming,” she tells me of the process. “A lot of people want to see it, a lot of our guests join us in the kitchen to eat or meet the guys or myself when I’m here. They now have a direct link with what is going on behind the scenes.”
It’s this level of care that has likely kept the restaurant at the top of its game for so long. Surviving in London’s notoriously fickle restaurant world is no mean feat; thriving in it for fifteen years is another achievement entirely. “I hope it’s because I make people happy, and I make our guests happy,” Darroze tells me when I ask what elements of the restaurant have allowed such enduring success. “Since the first day we have tried, step by step, to build an experience that is based on that idea of giving happiness. It’s never finished, because every time we have to ask ourselves, ‘okay, what can we do better?’ That’s my philosophy.”
It has, evidently, worked. On the day I visit, Darroze is hosting a special lunch to celebrate the last 15 years, with significant chefs past and present working together to design a menu influenced by their time working with Darroze. The chef herself is, for once, downing tools and sitting as a diner. It may perhaps seem backward to visit such a key restaurant when its matriarch isn’t even in the kitchen, but this meal served as good a celebration of this London institution as any. There truly is no better measure of the talent of a chef or the significance of a restaurant than the younger chefs it helps to develop, and Darroze’s list is a doozy: Albin Gobil, Chef de Cuisine at Gaddi’s at The Peninsula Hong Kong, Alex Dilling, Chef Patron at Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal, Jean Sévègnes, Chef at Le Café des Ministères in Paris and Federico Busi, Head Chef at Claude Bosi at Bibendum, to name just a few.
Each dish was elegant, well thought out and cohesive while still speaking firmly to a sense of place, both of the chef themselves but also of the way in which their time with Darroze impacted on how they cook. Pulling together eight different chefs from around the world is no mean feat, getting them to cook a meal together is even more difficult. But unlike most other meals, these eight chefs all had one thing in common: their mentor.
Fifteen years leaves a lot of time for accolades and we run through a few of them – winning best female chef at the 50 best awards, the various Michelin stars and more, but Darroze’s biggest highlight? “Spending Christmas at the Connaught at the restaurant during the first years when the restaurant was open on Christmas and I would be there to work.” It’s this attitude, surely, that has kept Darroze at the top of her game for almost two decades – the fact that rather than focusing on shiny awards or world’s best lists, it’s simply spending Christmas in London with her family that she cherishes the most.