Hélène Darroze: High-class gastronomy; where local food meets tradition and modernity (2/3)

“Beer has a softness to it that wine lacks. It brings freshness to a dish, like for example to the macaronade de foie gras (a French pasta dish) recipe I suggested, which can also be prepared with lobster or shrimps.”

Your motto is : « Cooking is life and life is cooking »…

“We offer people a moment of happiness!”
I always say that we offer people a moment of happiness! Pleasure is very important in life. I let my emotions inspire my cooking, which never stops evolving. I want to offer my guests an unforgettable experience.

Which food-related childhood memory has stuck with you?

Sunday dinners at my grandfather’s, when he would have all his children and grandchildren around the table for a big, family dinner: roast chicken with thick-cut fries. We also used to go to the farm to feed the pigs. It’s a collection of smells and sensations, of memories that can then be incorporated in a dish.

Despite your heritage, you didn’t expect to end up behind the stove…

In the ‘90s, being a chef wasn’t something you aspired to; it wasn’t an option. I was encouraged to study, and was also a good student. Then when I started working for Alain Ducasse, he told me I was born to be a chef. I suppose I always knew, deep down, but it meant I had to change course completely.

What are your signature dishes?

I have a couple of signature dishes, but I don’t like restricting myself. But many diners love my creamy rice with cuttlefish ink, baby cuttlefish fried with chorizo and Parmesan sauce. There are some classics as well, like all of our foie gras-based dishes.

Is the menu at the Connaught very different?

It still reflects my culinary identity, which is very pronounced, and two other head chefs are involved. You will find XXL Scottish scallops, roasted in their shell, served with cappuccino of Parmesan and white Alba truffle. I combine produce from the southwest with English ingredients; hake from Saint-Jean de Luz or Gillardeau de Marennes oysters and Dover sole…but the essence remains the same, and these days the English have a very international taste.

What are your thoughts on food pairing?

This is something I tend to do naturally; it allows for a lot of creativity. I like to put together menus based on surprising combinations, which offer diners a novel taste experience.

Which food-beer pairings would you recommend?

From time to time I like to suggest a beer, which makes for a change and adds an element of surprise. I recently surprised diners in London with this combination. I suggest a Leffe as I would do a champagne, with the starter.

Compared to wine, which advantages does beer have to offer?

Beer has a softness to it that wine lacks. It brings freshness to a dish, like for example to the macaronade de foie gras (a French pasta dish) recipe I suggested (this will appear on Leffe.com next week), which can also be prepared with lobster or shrimps.

Do you have any cooking tips and tricks?

I’m very much about respecting the ingredients, both their origin and their quality. I always go for seasonal produce, and always look for the best of the best wherever I go. You need good suppliers, which comes down to close relationships of trust developed over time. In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, for example, I go to the same fishmonger every morning, who knows exactly which fish to select for me.

Of which local produce are your particularly fond?

I’ve always been a fan of the produce from my own region, in the broadest possible sense, i.e. the southwest - which to me goes from the Charente area all the way down to the Spanish Basque Country, via Périgord and Toulouse while skimming the Languedoc border.

When do you most love cooking?

During the weekend, for my daughters; of course at their age, they’re incredibly spoiled! And also when I cook for friends; pasta is perfect for these occasions, as is a good stew.

Anything exciting in the pipeline?

I’m working on two books; one on ingredients and producers, whereas the other focuses on my grandmothers’ cooking. It’s my way of thanking them for everything they’ve taught me. They’ve passed on their recipes as well as their values, making me the passionate chef I am today.

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