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Jean-Christophe Novelli on cooking and life

Chef Jean Christophe Novelli. Picture: Neil Hanna

Chef Jean Christophe Novelli. Picture: Neil Hanna

Jean-Christophe Novelli causes a flurry wherever he goes. With his spaniel eyes, dimpled chin and glossy black mane, the nation’s favourite French chef manages to bring Schuh in Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal to a standstill when he drops in to buy flip-flops. “They’re for my swimming.

I did an hour this morning in the hotel pool,” he says. Bet that whipped up a foam among those watching from the hot tub. “People in the shoe shop were looking and asking me what I was doing here,” he says, “and I said, I’m next door in Waterstones selling books. I like chatting to people.” Fast forward half an hour and the hubbub is replicated in the book shop, with his new cookery book Simply Novelli selling like hot brioche.

Novelli’s is a familiar face from his appearances on prime time TV shows including Hell’s Kitchen, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Celebrity X Factor, Loose Women, Through the Keyhole, The Apprentice, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, BBC Breakfast and MTV Cribs.

“It’s all about PR and presenting yourself,” says 52-year-old Novelli, in French-accented English peppered with profanities. “At first, I didn’t like it, but I had to break that barrier. We had no PR in the beginning. But it’s all public relations now. You have to sell yourself,” he says.

“I remember being dragged into the restaurant from the kitchen to show my face many years ago. I used to fear that, because I didn’t know what to say and couldn’t speak the language very well. I used to think going out to speak to people was like taking a slap.

“Then one day there were two ladies, around 60, just having lunch and they wanted to express how they had had a really great meal. One of them spoke French so that was OK. Then, months later, I had to be dragged out again and met a couple – the man was very grumpy but the lady was so charming. He went to the toilet and she said, don’t worry, he loves it. I thought who cares? Who the bloody hell is that? I’m busy, but she was nice, so... Anyway, it turned out he was Jonathan Meades of the Times, he’d come because his aunt was one of the two ladies I’d talked to months before. His review gave us eight out of ten and that started it all off. Imagine how life was then. I said I don’t understand, I can’t even read English, it’s going too quick. Before I knew it I’m next to John Barnes the footballer and an Archbishop in the Times. All thanks to Jonathan Meades.”

A bundle of energy, Novelli is in a great mood, fresh from the Scottish Italian Awards which he has just been judging. Apparently the dinner in Glasgow ended in a frenzy of fans demanding to have their picture taken with him. “A little lively... they had a little Dutch courage by the end,” says his agent Kit.

Novelli laughs. “The cooking here is amazing – La Lanterna, La Fiorentina in Glasgow, you have to go!” he says, boiling over with enthusiasm.

The five AA Rosette and Michelin award-winning chef describes himself as “very hyperactive” and at first I think it’s a figure of speech, but as the interview progresses, his answers go off on tangents, returning to a story long after you’ve forgotten about it. He frequently calls himself “an idiot”, though he’s clearly not and constantly apologises for not being able to speak the language – he can. Maybe this is a legacy of a less than illustrious school career that saw him leave at 14 to work as a baker in his home town of Arras in north-east France, where his dad was a factory worker and his mother sewed clothes. She also cooked up a storm in their small kitchen and inspired the young Jean-Christophe with her culinary skills.

“All the women in my family, mum, aunties, grandmother, daughter, can cook. But my dad can’t even make an egg to save his life. Wait, he can do ravioli, because his family was Italian, but that’s it.”

Novelli has charm by the baker’s dozen and at 19 he was plucked from the patisserie and small restaurant circuit to be private head chef in Paris to the aristocratic Rothschild family. After moving to Britain in 1983 he worked in various establishments including Chewton Glen Hotel and Keith Floyd’s Maltsters Arms in Devon, picking up Michelin stars along the way. Jonathan Meades, the restaurant critic who gave him the fulsome review caught up with him at Geddes, in Southampton, and his fate was sealed. He opened his first restaurant in London in 1996 with £500 and two years later was worth millions, with another three eateries in the capital, a restaurant in Cape Town and another in Normandy, before the financial bubble burst and the restaurants closed.

Since 2005 Novelli has concentrated his energies on the cooking academy he runs at his 14th-century farmhouse with his “beautiful fiancée Michelle” in the village of Tea Green in Hertfordshire. Teaching courses, product launches, outside catering for up to 2,000, corporate events and demonstrations mean the business makes a healthy living without having to sweat over a stove every night, or trot the globe any more.

“When you’ve spent years in a kitchen you want to be at home. I am all about family. We don’t mix with anybody. We’re just with our family. I don’t go out. I turn down trips to Dubai, India, Russia. Six days away when I have kids, I say no. So we’re going to Wales instead,” he says.

“I just live for family to be honest. My mum and dad are like that. They have been married for 57 years; mum is 86, dad 78. I came from a very good family... couldn’t have a better father and mother. I have never been frightened of them or insecure. They never shouted at us, well, family rows yes, but nothing big or frightening. They were never on the verge of having a divorce. I see them a lot. My dad could build a car, change the roof, do haircuts, decorate, work in a factory. And my mum was doing a lot of sewing. She did wedding dresses. We were very rich – the only thing we didn’t have was money.”

These days Novelli is determined to do things more slowly, both in his business and personal life. It’s no coincidence his new book is called Simply Novelli.

“I have been a very complex chap for a long time in my life. Now I’m for simplicity. In cooking too. In my new book it’s very exciting, French classics because I’m French, I wasn’t born in Japan, but nothing complicated. I was too complicated before. I resisted simplifying it because it felt like cheating, giving people something too simple. But it’s going back to the way my mum cooked, her philosophy. What I’m trying to do now is to add in the access to equipment and ingredients.

“I love cooking. I don’t have to have the school. I do it anyway. Keith Floyd taught me that cooking is fun. It’s nothing serious.”

Novelli remembers the late TV chef with fondness, declaring that there is still no one to match him on or off the screen.

“He’s still very good if you see his show on TV. He was fun. He was a nice-looking bloke, charming, a gentleman. There was never anything vicious with him. He was a fantastic gentleman and friend. I used to live with him. He offered me a big share in his restaurant,” he says.

“One of the only times I got really drunk was with Keith. The day I got the job with him. I wasn’t going to drink because I was driving, then I woke up next day at 6am upstairs at his place. I could hear whistling outside and it was him and Bertie his dog. I had been there for 24 hours. I don’t know how he coped. I think it was not just the alcohol. He was part of that life. It was the smoking too much too. It wasn’t for me to do that. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink for years.”

Novelli, whose first child Christina is now 24 and pursuing a music career in Los Angeles, is keen to stay fit and be more of a hands-on father second time round with Jean, four and Jacques, 16 months, his children with Michelle Kennedy. The couple plan to marry in 2015 in the unexpected setting of Luton Airport. Not as unromantic as it might sound, for this is where Novelli and Michelle first met in 2007, he on his way to Dublin and she working in promotions at the airport.

“Life is always on the corner. Meeting Jonathan Meades, meeting Michelle... things hang on a minute ... I was walking along and had just bought a beer and she said, you won’t get far with that, telling me they would stop me. So that’s where I met her, and there’s an area where you can get married. It’s all booked. We are going to take the mick,” he says. “We are married already. Marriage is just a piece of paper – that’s not going to make any difference.”

Novelli can be forgiven for not regarding a trip up the aisle as the height of romance. His first marriage was to Tina, whom he met working at Chewton Glen Hotel in Hampshire. His second to South African Anzelle Visser, a model who also worked at Maison Novelli, ended in 2005.

“When I first came to England I was for a long time very unhappy. Always lonely...”

Aw. Wait a minute, he can cook and he’s easy on the eye...

“That’s what people think, but it’s not so easy. Chefs, what do they have? They are cooking all the time. For nearly two years I was on my own. I was looking in the mirror thinking did I miss something? I was working 16 hours a day, didn’t get a day off, and by the time you’d finished the pubs were shut. I met my first wife at Chewton Glen. She was a cleaner, from 6am till 9am, and I was doing breakfasts. She was lovely, sweet. We were young. And that was it. But it goes back to you just get with somebody because you need to be with somebody, and it’s depressing. I didn’t know that person. I still don’t know that person after so many years. That’s why with Michelle, it took a lot of time,” he says.

“Before Michelle I was on my own for months – I don’t want people to think I’m a snake. She had just come back from six years in Australia and had never seen Hell’s Kitchen. I was chatting, because I do, but she was not chatting to me, not flirty at all. She didn’t even look at me in my eyes. I told her I’m opening a cookery school and what she was doing would suit – she’d done some catering in Australia. I told her to contact someone at the school so she came to work with us. I thought ‘this woman is beautiful’ but it took about six months to kiss her. Because you don’t mess up with the staff – you don’t want to lose them. It’s very dangerous.”

This time round, Novelli has more time to enjoy fatherhood and beams when he tells me Jean already has two swimming medals.

“With Christina I was always working and was away, and my relationship at the time was awful. But now, being 52, when you have got kids like Jean and Jacques, and Michelle of course, every day I think I don’t wish to play dominoes with them when they will be 20. I want to be fit, to play football, to kick their backsides like my dad did with me. The only thing that will allow me to do that is to eat good food. If there’s a good meal at home there’s less chance of a divorce.”

It’s time for the photographs so he bounds off in his neon green trainers in the wrong direction, deep into the shop, where he is waylaid by more chatty Novelli fans. Rounded up, we head outside where he goofs it up for the camera, pretending to pee against the wall and twisting his menswear catalogue good looks into a girn. His agent shakes his head as Novelli sniggers, happy to play le fool.

With the winter light on his face making his dark eyes stand out, I ask his agent if he’s sure he’s not wearing eyeliner. “No, it’s all natural,” he says.

Novelli hears and sprints over to tell us he’s definitely not wearing eyeliner and has never had any work done. Oh, apart from on his little finger. He proffers it for examination. “I’m very pleased with it. I think he did a very good job. Don’t you?”

“Er, it looks fine to me,” I say.

“Ha, ha. I’m only joking. I leave all the botox to Gordon [Ramsay]. His agent shakes his head. “Don’t write that down,” he says.

“No, no, Gordon won’t mind,” says Novelli, and flashes a winning smile that convinces you that, no, Gordon probably won’t.

Next for Novelli is more TV – “I can’t tell you what” – and perhaps an expansion of his academy northwards.

“I want to have a partnership for my academy with somewhere in Scotland. I go all over, to Shetland, to the Highlands. People like the ingredients and that’s why a chef goes. Maybe Stirling, or somewhere with seaside and hills, further north. Somewhere people can come and shoot and fish...”

And in the meantime, there’s an appearance in Little Britain, the ITV weekend foodie show Sunday Scoop, and brace yourselves, a spot on Loose Women. He better wear those neon green trainers or he might not get out in one piece.

• Academy at Novelli Associates Ltd, Crouchmoor Farm, Tea Green, Hertfordshire, LU2 8PS UK (www.jeanchristophenovelli.com).

Simply Novelli: Quick and Easy French Classics, £20, Relish Publications, is out now, www.relishpublications.co.uk

 

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