By Fiona Sims
With two Michelin stars at her London restaurant at The Connaught, and a star at her eponymous Paris restaurant, Hélène Darroze is living up to her World’s Best Female Chef moniker. She is that rare thing – a mother and a female chef operating at the top of her game in an industry dominated by men. So where does she head to for some time out? Her birthplace in the Landes region of southwest of France.
What was it like growing up in Les Landes?
My parents had a restaurant in the village of Villeneuve-de-Marsan, about an hour from the sea, surrounded by aromatic pine forest. When I was 12 years old we moved into a beautiful house – an old watermill on a lake. It was very isolated and set in stunning countryside, and I would spend my weekends here, staying with my grandmother during the week when I went to school. Every summer holiday we would go to the sea, my father would rent a house on the beach. The beaches in the Landes are something else – a truly magical place, and they are still as wild and unspoiled as they always were.
What are your earliest memories of the food here?
The produce in the Landes is very special –I use a lot of it in my restaurants. Many of the producers I know from way back – they used to come by my parents’ restaurant every morning to make their deliveries. There is amazing corn-fed chicken, plump guinea fowl, delicious duck, plus foie gras, of course. There are also intense black truffles, the freshest, briniest oysters, thrilling local wines and fruity, golden Armagnac. And the Landes grows the best asparagus in the world - the sandy soil is perfect for it.
Who or what inspired you to cook?
Just 30km from where I grew up is Michel Guerard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie, a three Michelin-starred restaurant that had – and still has - a huge impact on me. Michel is a mentor and a hero for me, he is an important part of my life and a big influence on everything I’ve done, he’s like family to me. His place is authentic, elegant and beautiful - I go every year.
Do you have a favourite place to hang out here?
Biarritz is an elegant city – a very friendly city, too. People are always happy to see me when I go to the market. I know many of the producers, and they always want me to stop and have a drink with them – I’m like the prodigal child returning home, I have so many roots here.
What’s a perfect day for you in Biarritz?
A picnic on the beach with my two daughters and some friends. I’ll pick up a roasted corn-fed Landes chicken from the Rotisserie des Halles in Biarritz market and we’ll eat it with cogollos (Spanish lettuce hearts), which I’ll dress with some olive and espelette pepper and salt. And I’ll take some Brebis – the famous Pyrenees sheep cheese, which is great with a dark cherry jam made in a little Basque village called Itxassou. We’ll have it on a baguette that I bought from a bakery in Biarritz called Loubère. I also take some homemade lemonade for the kids, and some fresh local wine for the adults. I particularly love Irouleguy from a producer called Domaine Brana, which I get from one of my favourite places to buy wine in Biarritz called Le Cellier des Docks.
HELENE DARROZE’S FIVE FAVOURITE PLACES TO EAT IN AND AROUND LES LANDES
Les Prés d’ Eugénie, Eugénie les Bains
Chef-proprietor Michel Guerard has held three Michelin stars here since 1977. In addition to the hotel and restaurant, there is now a spa, cookery school and a vineyard on the estate, +33 5 58 05 06 07, michelguerard.com
Jean des Sables, Capbreton
Capbreton has the best of both worlds – a bustling town and big empty beaches. This two Michelin-starred Landes restaurant is run by another gastronomic family, the Coussau, +33 5 58 72 29 82, jeandessables.com
La Ferme Ostalapia, Ahetze
Christian Duplaissy was my sous chef in Paris for 10 years – he cooks very simple food with beautiful products, + 33 5 59 54 73 79, ostalapia.fr
Bar Jean, Biarritz
It’s the place to eat tapas in Biarritz, to stop for a coffee or for a quick glass of wine. Like the tapas bars in San Sebastian it offers a long counter of pintxos – things on bread, + 33 5 59 24 80 38
Bistrot Ahizpak, Bidart
Everyone calls it the ‘Sisters Restaurant’, because it is run by three sisters – Delphine, Yenofa and Nanou. It’s simple food, but with real personality, +33 4 59 22 5881, bistrot-ahizpak.com
An extended version of my interview on Helene Darroze appeared in The Times on 16 January 2016.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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