The Stars Align for London’s Leading Ladies

By Hugo McCafferty, Fine Dining Lovers.


In a year that has been the most challenging in generations for the restaurant industry, the Michelin Guide has announced two new three-star restaurants in its guide to Great Britain and Ireland 2021. It was an unprecedented event, and what is more, both of the restaurants were run by female chefs.

The call for greater gender equality in gastronomy has been getting louder and louder in recent years. It is not before time that the incredible work of female chefs has received the recognition it so richly deserves, but even in the midst of uncertain times for the industry, it is an achievement to be celebrated. When the industry regroups – maybe this year, maybe next – the landscape will have shifted for young female chefs in Great Britain and Ireland thanks to these two leading ladies of London’s gastronomy – Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze.

When Hélène Darroze was awarded her third Michelin star in a live-streamed event, the chef was genuinely shocked and elated, momentarily lost for words. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s work.

As is so often the case with chefs of her calibre, Darroze would not allow her gaze to drift upwards to the stars for too long, instead coming back to the moment and the plate in front of her. Yet to the gastronomic community, it was no surprise that she would join the top tier of chefs in the world. Hélène Darroze at The Connaught has long been acknowledged as a bastion of gastronomic elegance and impeccable taste. It felt like only a matter of time before the chef would receive the highest recognition at the pinnacle of gastronomy.

The last year saw unprecedented challenges for the restaurant industry, but Darroze’s culinary journey has been long, and one peopled by some of the world’s outstanding culinary talents, including Alain Ducasse, who trained her at his 3-Michelin-star Le Louis XV at the Hotel Paris in Monaco. Indeed, when Darroze received her third star, it was accompanied with a personal congratulations by her former mentor.

In 1995, Darroze departed Monaco to return home and to take over the kitchen in her family-run restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan where she remained for four years. At the age of 32, she left for Paris to found her own restaurant, Restaurant Hélène Darroze in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Pré on the Left Bank. It opened to international acclaim receiving its first Michelin star in 2001 and a second this year.

In 2008, the Connaught Hotel in London’s Mayfair, was searching for a French chef to run its kitchen and reconnect with the tradition of French cuisine and turned to Hélène Darroze. The hotel was able to entice the chef away from Paris and to London. It proved a propitious appointment by the hotel and acclaim came quickly with a first Michelin star in 2009, six months after opening, and a second in 2011.

“It is with immense emotion and honour that I receive this award. My first thoughts are with my teams, especially Kirk Whittle, my pastry accomplice for the last 17 years, Executive Chef Marco Zampese and Restaurant Manager Mirko Benzo, who have been working with me at The Connaught for over 8 years. My thoughts also go out to Paddy McKillen, co-owner of The Connaught, who has trusted me to take the reins of the gourmet restaurant since 2008. My appreciation particularly goes to the small suppliers who have helped us, especially the wonderful and emerging British producers, without whom good cooking would not be possible and need support at this time. I am also particularly proud to receive this award alongside my friend chef Clare Smyth. Believe in your dreams – everything is possible, and stay true to your femininity.”

Faithful to her philosophy both in Paris and London, Hélène Darroze creates a cuisine that gives pride of place to produce, whether sourced in her native Les Landes and the Basque Country, regions where she grew up, or in the British Isles. This signature cuisine – inspired not just by her roots, but also her travels, the people she has met and of course her strong link with the United Kingdom.

The other big announcement of the night, of course, was the awarding of a third star to Clare Smyth. The Northern Irish chef was another culinary talent destined for greatness. Her star has seen a meteoric rise over the last few years, claiming World’s Best Female Chef 2018 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. When accepting the award Smyth said: “I want to be a great chef, just because I am one, not because I am a woman,” but accepted the accolade in the hope it would inspire her peers. Today, Smyth sees all that she has achieved in her culinary career recognised by the highest standards there are in the industry.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the news and want to thank Michelin for recognising our hard work particularly during such an unprecedented time,” said Smyth. “This year has been unbelievably challenging, and I am so proud of my team for their resilience and their constant dedication to excellence. I am also immensely grateful for all the support we have received from our guests, and our amazing British farmers, food producers and suppliers, many who have been on the journey with us from the beginning. I would also like to thank the restaurant community who have supported me throughout my career.”

When accepting her third star, Smyth spoke about how running a three-Michelin-star restaurant has been her dream since she was 16. She was always ambitious. At just 17, she moved from the farm in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and went to England to study culinary arts at Highbury College. She honed her skills working and staging in restaurants in the UK and Australia, alongside the likes of Heston Blumenthal and the Roux Brothers.

Stints working for Alain Ducasse at his Le Louis XV and Gordon Ramsay at his eponymous London restaurant, where she successfully retained three stars as Head Chef completed her stellar CV before she opened her own restaurant Core by Claire Smyth in 2017. Core earned two Michelin stars on its first review.

Smyth is a leader in her restaurant, in how she takes care of her staff, sharing her knowledge and creating a free space for creativity and learning. Her cuisine is elegant, understated, yet confident and highly accomplished, much like the chef herself.

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