Novelli: “I am a family man at heart”

DUBBED ‘the nation’s favourite French chef’, Jean-Christophe Novelli has carved an impressive reputation for himself on the British cuisine scene.

Over his career, which began as a baker in Northern France at the age of 14, Novelli has accumulated no fewer than four Michelin stars.

The 49-year-old moved to England in 1983, and in 1996 opened his first restaurant – Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell, London, followed quickly by Novelli W8, Novelli EC1 and Les Saveurs in Mayfair. He also launched Novelli at the Cellars – Cape Town’s leading five-star Relais & Chateaux Hotel, and Moulin de Jean in France’s Normandy, but went bankrupt in 1999.

Undeterred and keen to pass on his wealth of culinary knowledge, in April 2005 Novelli opened his own cookery school – The Novelli Academy – which is based at his farmhouse home in Tea Green.

Here he tells Louise McEvoy about the highs and lows of his life and what really drives him.

Who is Jean-Christophe the man?

I am a family man. With my fianc�e Michelle, our gorgeous son Jean and my wonderful daughter Christina, I feel like the time has come to pay more attention to my home life, and a little less time in the kitchen.

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A household name, well respected in the industry and with four Michelin stars to your name, what is your main driver now?

I do love my new work-life balance, but cooking is my passion and I now have a new outlet in which to explore it – The Novelli Academy. I adore teaching, it is so rewarding to cook with students and help them learn new skills and develop their cooking. We have a range of great chefs, but I am still very hands on and hold many of my own classes.

As well as the obvious highs in your life, you have also experienced significant lows. What lessons have you taken from these experiences?

I’ve definitely learnt over the years to think less like a chef and more like a businessman, and also not to spread myself too thinly.

I think my experiences over the years, of building up a small empire from nothing, losing it all, to running the successful business and brand I own today, have made me a well-rounded person who is realistic, well-balanced and very grateful for my wonderful family.

What do you consider to be your career high so far?

April 2005 was personally a great career high for me – in that month I opened the doors to The Novelli Academy. Within three months it was voted one of the top 25 cookery schools in the world, and it has since gone from strength to strength, becoming internationally famous through my hit US TV series Chef Academy, and achieving great popularity.

You are good friends with Marco Pierre White. Is there a competitiveness between you when it comes to cooking?

We go way back – longer than I care to remember! We have been cooking together since my early days in the UK, and provided support for each other as two young Frenchmen looking to become a part of the British cuisine scene. There is a healthy competitiveness between us, but it is very good-natured and spurs us both on.

Why do you think the cookery school is so successful?

It could be many things, but overall I think it’s because the academy is a labour of love. I, along with my family, am very involved in it – after all it is also our home! All our chefs and staff are very close to us and put their all into working and teaching here, and we are constantly innovating our courses as well as looking after our loyal customers.

What can people expect from a course at the academy, and has the school evolved as you had imagined?

A course is a chance not only to learn some amazing new cookery skills, but also to sit in my home kitchen to do it. The academy kitchen is where I prepare my family’s meals, and this is reflected in the decor and cosy atmosphere. Each type of course is different, and you can learn anything from Indian to Italian, from seafood and BBQ classes to Christmas tips.

It doesn’t matter how professional or passionate I am, I would never have achieved this level of excitement and pleasure with a restaurant – the exclusivity of the academy means small class sizes and so much interaction and sharing, the level of excellence is far above any experience I have of dealing with restaurants. It’s also my home, and I’m enjoying myself more than I ever did. To know how to please someone, that is the best feeling.

What is next for you?

Next year is the big 5-0, and I am planning some birthday presents to myself! Firstly I am going to do an Iron Man next summer, so I am currently training and getting my fitness levels up.

Secondly, I am planning my autobiography, as I now feel old enough to write one! There are many other exciting things in the pipeline – it’s too early to talk about them yet, but watch this space...

And for coping with cooking for a large number of people?

Prepare what you can in advance, to save yourself some stress on the day. If you need help preparing a large dinner, invite a few of your most helpful friends or family over a few hours early, to get stuck in. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and remember to relax and enjoy yourself.

What brought you to Hertfordshire and what do you think is the best thing about the county?

Michelle brought me here. She is a local girl and we met at Luton airport! There are many things I love about this county – it is near to London, yet feels a world away. The academy is set in idyllic countryside, but I can get into the capital at a moment’s notice if I need to. There is a great food scene here, with lots of hidden gems – small independent shops selling local produce, seasonal festivals, and a small farm just near the academy where we buy all our chickens and ducks. There is so much here, it is really worth exploring.

Where is your favourite place in Hertfordshire, and why?

It would probably be Tea Green, our village. I am really happy here and have enjoyed putting my roots down and making a home.

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