CNN’s Culinary Journeys recently interviewed Helene Darroze – not only a remarkable multi Michelin-starred chef and ‘the world’s best female chef’….but also the inspiration behind Colette in Ratatouille.
What more could life deliver?! Here’s my piece for them:
With two eponymous Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Paris, multiple awards including a Legion of Honor, as well as two adopted children to raise, you’d forgive Helene Darroze for thinking she had more than enough on her plate.
The 48-year-old star chef also found time to provide the inspiration for “Colette” in everyone’s favorite culinary cartoon, “Ratatouille.”
“My father, my uncles were chefs — my grandfather, my grandmother, my great grandfather and great grandmother — so I am born in a kitchen, I grew up in a pan,” she tells CNN.
The pan in question was Les Landes in southwest France, an area where eating, welcoming people and sharing around the table comes as second nature.
“It’s our education, it’s our blood, it’s our culture,” she says.
“I grew up in this world of authenticity with food.”
Her parents ran a one Michelin-starred restaurant in the small town of Villeneuve-de-Marsan.
It was also the starting point of Darroze’s commitment to using only the best produce, something that’s stayed with her throughout her stellar career.
“My memories as a child are very simple: everything was focused on the produce,” she says.
“That was the way my family cooked, to choose the best.
“I remember all these farmers coming every morning with the poultry, the eggs, the vegetables or with mushrooms when it was the season.
“So I was confronted with this reality of the seasons, of the produce which give you the rules. That’s how I cook.”
Despite a seemingly predestined culinary path, Darroze graduated from the prestigious L’Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Bordeaux Business School.
“In France in the ’80s when you were a good student you didn’t go in the kitchen for an apprenticeship — in fact only the bad boys learned how to be a chef!” she says.
As she wanted to enter the world of hotel management, she wrote to the legendary chef Alain Ducasse at the prestigious Louis XV restaurant in Monaco’s Hotel de Paris.
He offered her a place in the office but, after some time, encouraged her to also work in the kitchen.
“Ducasse was the only chef on the weekends, he didn’t have any other restaurants so he was always around in the kitchen.”
After this extraordinary culinary exposure, her father gave her the keys to the kitchen of the family-run restaurant in 1995, an offer she couldn’t refuse and one that Ducasse supported, on one condition.
“If you go back, you stay in the kitchen,” he told her.
She wasn’t exactly convinced.
“I said ‘are you crazy? That’s not possible, I’ve never been to culinary school, I don’t have the skills, the base’ and he said ‘trust me, you can do it, I’ve seen you and you can do it.'”
That trust was well placed.
By 1999 she’d moved to Paris and opened her own restaurant.
She went on to win a Michelin star just two years later, bringing legions of fans, including former French president Jacques Chirac.
“I always try to tell a story to the guest on the plate, I want the plate to speak about me,” she says.
“The other rule is generosity: Food is about sharing something which is inside you, giving a little bit of you.”
In 2008, Darroze decided to double her workload and live between two cities when she took over as chef at The Connaught Hotel in London.
Once again Michelin acclaim quickly followed, with two stars awarded just three years later.
Her inventive and innovative cuisine is based on her unique and creative process.
“The first step is me alone in front of a white piece of paper,” says Darroze.
“I need to be in my pajamas or something like that, very comfortable.
“I choose the produce with which I want us to work and I put ideas — sometimes I draw something, and then I share that with my sous chefs.
“All the new dishes come from me — I need to have this contact with the creation with the food.”
The experience that arguably most boosted Darroze’s profile also involved drawing — but this time by someone else.
She was approached by Pixar to be the inspiration for Colette, the heroine of the 2007 film “Ratatouille.”
“My assistant had a little boy, so particularly knew the movie ‘Cars,’ and said to me, ‘I have been approached by Pixar — it’s amazing, they want you to inspire the lady character.'”
Despite her hectic schedule, including being mother to a newly adopted daughter, Charlotte, she agreed.
“They followed me everywhere, they asked me questions, they wrote notes, they filmed me and two years later this amazing movie came out,” she recalls.
“I am so happy and proud to be part of that.
“Last year we went to Disneyland Paris because they launched the attraction about Ratatouille and I was the guest star with my daughters.
“It was a great moment, a great experience.”
Art imitated life as, in the movie, Colette was the only female cook in Chef Skinner’s kitchen at Gusteau’s.
The question whether Darroze encountered similar challenges has come up time and again.
“For me it has never been hard to be the only woman in the kitchen,” she says.
“When I arrived at Alain Ducasse I was the only woman and to be honest I never had a problem.
“On the contrary, I was very welcome because of an essential reason — I’ve never tried to be a guy.
“I was a woman with my own sensibility, which was really different from the guys.”
When picking up her World’s Best Female Chef award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants event in June, Darroze noted that women now outnumber men in her Paris kitchen, for the first time.
But, as she tells CNN, that wasn’t deliberate.
“It’s not something I really wanted, I didn’t say to my chef, ‘OK you have to recruit only women’,” she says.
“It’s a fact that there are more and more women in the culinary world and it’s good.”