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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Appetite for life

Interview with Jean-Christophe Novelli in today's Irish Examiner.

Jean-Christophe Novelli has a habit of running into Irish people in toilets around London. Pat Kenny, for instance, who asked him to be a guest on the Late Late Show as they shared space around the hand dryer. Then, of course, there was footballer Robbie Keane.

“It was in the restroom of a bar in London, and I recognised Robbie,” the soccer-mad celeb chef says in what is still an extremely thick Gallic accent. “I couldn’t shake his hand obviously, but I said to him, ‘Robbie, I’m so excited to meet you’. And Robbie replied, ‘I can tell you are because you just peed on your shoes’.”

This is just one of many anecdotes and tangential asides in which the 49-year-old indulges as Weekend chats with him in the L’atelier des Chefs in London’s West End. It’s St Patrick’s morning, and Jean-Christophe is reveling in his Irish-related memories, ranging from being invited by Bono to see U2 play in Croke Park last summer to his brief period in 2006 as chef de patron at Louis Murray’s La Stampa restaurant in Dublin’s Dawson Street.

That was a particularly strange time for the chef, who was criticised harshly in certain circles for the limited role he played in La Stampa’s kitchen. “There was some confusion over that,” he explains. “I told Louis I couldn’t be there every day, and he understood that. But the press didn’t take it that way. They thought I’d be in the kitchen every day. Things got out of control. But I loved the challenge.”

Jean-Christophe’s newest challenge comes from a collaboration with Flora’s ‘Heart Age’ campaign, where he has conjured up recipes (and will take part in a summer reality-cooking show on TV3) centred around the idea of substituting Flora for regular fatty butter in everyday cooking.

These days, this type of project suits him perfectly, as it involves teaching others and passing on his wisdom in a manner not too dissimilar to how he first developed his own understanding of and passion for food. “My mother gave me that passion, that sense of vocation for cooking,” he says. “I learned at her knee. I was always eating, always watching and tasting what she put in the pan.”

Indeed, Jean Christophe started off in the business at a very young age. Born and raised in Arras, northern France (Charles DeGaulle was a one-time neighbour), Jean-Christophe decided at age 14 that he wanted to be a baker and started work in a local kitchen. “I loved it so much,” he recalls. “I was bad at school. No teacher wanted me in their classes because I was so disruptive. They told me I had learning difficulties. When I started working, I did everything I could to make sure I wouldn’t have to go back to that.”

At age 20, he became private head chef to Parisian banker Elie de Rothschild, before moving to the UK in 1983 to serve as head chef in the late Keith Floyd’s pub, The Maltsters. From there, he moved to Le Provence (earning his first of four Michelin stars), followed by London’s Four Seasons, and branched out with his own restaurant, Maison Novelli.

As one point in the 90s, he was running seven restaurants between London, France and South Africa, However, having run up huge debts, Jean-Christophe lost his empire and declared bankruptcy at the turn of the millennium. With the help of pal Marco Pierre White, he delved back into the restaurant business again, and in 2005 became a TV sensation on Hell’s Kitchen.
Today, Jean-Christophe operates two British gastropubs (with plans to open more) and runs a cooking school from his farmhouse near Luton airport, where he lives with his fiancée Michelle Kennedy (33) and their 18-month-old son Jean (Jean-Christophe has a 21-year-old daughter from his previous marriage).

“About six years ago I decided I wanted out of the restaurant world,” Jean-Christophe admits. “I had done my time in the kitchen. I knew that I wanted to teach instead.

“I spent some time in LA last year filming my series Chef Academy, and I’m due to go back again in the next few weeks, and I love that. My little boy was born there – he’s an American. But I wouldn’t want to live there though. I love where I am. I’m situated near the airport so I can travel easily. I have a nice countryside kitchen. I can’t work against the clock now. It’s not me anymore.”

By his own admission, fatherhood this second time round has mellowed him profoundly. He certainly seems a far cry from the man once voted the world’s sexiest chef, and who entertained a string of celebrity girlfriends, Patsy Kensit amongst them.

“Michelle and my son have given me another life,” he admits. “I’ve been very fortunate, and I would do things exactly the same way, but I think I’m better now that I was before. I was out of control, perhaps too hard on myself. God knows how I did what I did. Time has mellowed me. I’m more creative, more versatile and thoughtful.

“Michelle is my best friend, and my partner in every way. We have everything in common, there are no secrets, and there’s nothing she doesn’t know about me. As for my son, I don’t want to miss out on anything with him. This is the most important thing in my life now – certainly more important than any Michelin star.”


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