When he arrived in Britain he could barely speak a word of English. Thirty years on Jean-Christophe Novelli waxes lyrical to Sarah Freeman about his ongoing love affair with the county, its food and one man in particular.
Jean-Christophe Novelli is here to talk about the Malton Food Lovers Festival. However, it’s clear there is something – or rather someone – else on his mind.
The chef has been a big supporter of the festival, which has helped transform the fortunes of the North Yorkshire market town, now a haven for foodies. Novelli is genuinely impressed by what’s been achieved in the space of a few years and he’s looking forward to returning for this year’s event next weekend. Yet you can’t help but suspect that the reason he likes Yorkshire so much is that here he feels a little closer to the man who is both his hero and mentor.
Marco Pierre White has been called many things over the years, but there may only be Novelli who describes him as his “reason for being”. JC, as he likes to be known, was introduced to cooking’s enfant terrible not long after he arrived on these shores as a naive 22-year-old. Had the pair not met, he might well have headed back to France before the year was out.
“He and I were so close. We were like best friends, brothers even. Marco is a fantastic person and a brilliant chef. He shared recipe ideas with me, he taught me so much about what it takes to be great in the kitchen. He didn’t need to be my friend. He didn’t owe me a thing, but over the years he has given me so much.
“One of my first jobs when I came to England was in a restaurant in the New Forest. Marco would come and see me there and if I was ever short of money, he would put his hand in his pocket. I think may be it was because he grew up on a council estate. He knew how hard it was for someone starting right at the bottom. Maybe he recognised a bit of him in me.”
Much like all roads lead to Rome, most conversations with Novelli have a way of ending up back with the Leeds-born chef who left Allerton High School with no qualifications, only to become the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars.
He’s probably right when he says the man who trained and later became estranged from Gordon Ramsay pretty much single-handedly changed the face of British cooking and he is genuinely perplexed as to why no-one has yet erected a statue to his friend.
“I’m not joking. I honestly believe that what Marco has done deserves public recognition. They should put a statue on the street where he grew up and every kid who walks past it would see that there is hope for them too. When I was young and he was doing so much for me, I couldn’t give him much back. The one thing I did though was to take Marco to Paris for the first time in his life. I showed him the Eiffel Tower and Versailles and he couldn’t believe what he saw. Those were very wonderful times.”
Novelli’s effusive praise may well be his way of repaying the loyalty he’s been shown over the years. Aside from Marco, he later reels off another list of chefs he’d like to mention. It includes Nigel Brown, Mike Harrison and Richard Guest. He acknowledges they’re not names most people will have heard off, but he says all three have a quiet dedication to cooking he admires.
It’s one he also shares.
After working with Keith Floyd, later running his Maltster’s Arms restaurant in Devon, Novelli’s rise through the ranks was impressive. After only a decade in Britain he’d picked up numerous awards, including the first of four Michelin stars and in 1996 he opened his first restaurant in London. More followed and it wasn’t long before he was expanding into France and South Africa.
As many other chefs have learnt to their cost, being able to turn out a perfect tarte tatin is no replacement for business acumen and, by the Millennium, Novelli had lost everything.
“When I first arrived in Britain I never thought I would end up running my own restaurant. I still think of it as an enormous achievement, but it became a monster. I started with nothing and suddenly I was making millions, but it all happened too quickly and I made some stupid mistakes.
“I wasn’t a businessman then and by the time I had to learnt how not to be a chef with the bank manager it was too late.
“I was spending every waking hour in the kitchen and it all just got on top of me. Would it have been different if I had been married? Maybe. Having psychological back-up is important. We all need someone to share things with.”
Bankruptcy was a sobering affair, but 15 years on, the 53-year-old finally seems to have settled down. Twice divorced, he got engaged to his girlfriend Michelle Kennedy in 2007 and the couple, who plan to marry next year, now have two young boys. Novelli now juggles home life with running his Hertfordshire cookery school, a venture he again credits to Marco Pierre White.
“He told me I should open my own academy. I wasn’t sure at first, but Marco was right again. People ask me whether I miss having my own restaurant, but the honest truth is I don’t. The cookery school is perfect for family life. Time is precious to me now. I want to spend time with Michelle and the boys and I couldn’t do that if I had a restaurant, besides I think it would feel like a backwards step.”
Novelli says that he has never been one for looking back and after all these years admits to just one regret.
“I wish that I had learnt to speak English before I left France. Before I came here I was working for the Rothschild family. They all spoke English, but I just kept speaking French. People often ask me why I was so certain I wanted to come to England when I couldn’t even speak the language. The answer is I’m not sure. I grew up in Arras in Northern France and we used to get a lot of holidaymakers stopping off. Maybe it was the GB stickers on the back of their cars, but I always felt a pull across The Channel. I wanted to watch the football, I wanted to see the red buses and the black cabs.
“When I finally got here, I struggled to communicate and life would have been so much easier for me, but I got by. I am good at getting by.”
It was the same when he began to notice his hearing was not what it once was. Instead of making an appointment at the doctors to see what the problem was, Novelli just concentrated a little harder and when he wasn’t sure the question someone had asked he made an educated guess.
“I was in denial, no one likes to think of themselves as getting older.”
At the time some of the press reported the chef had blamed his hearing problems on years working in noisy kitchens. It was a nice line, but not true he says. “I think it’s much more likely that I went deaf because of years of abuse I’ve given my eardrums through my iPod. I go cycling a lot and can spend five or six hours with the earphones in and the volume turned up. I’ve got a hearing aid now, it’s very discreet and it’s really not a big deal.”
Novelli is not the kind of man to let a little hearing trouble intrude on normal life and these days that means a packed schedule of demonstrations and guest appearances.
He’s agreed to be patron of the Malton Food Lovers Festival which will see him headline the event’s cookery theatre next Saturday where as well as rustling up a menu from Yorkshire produce he will also give an exclusive lesson for eight visitors.
“It will be good to be back. Yorkshire is blessed with so much fantastic produce and it deserves events like this to show it off. I’ve been to Malton a few times now and it’s really impressive how the event has taken off. If you wind back 30 years, Britain didn’t have a great reputation when it came to its national dishes, but there has been a food revolution.
“For me, traditional will always be best. While I eat more sandwiches than anyone else on the planet because I’m always on the go, there really is nothing better than a plate of fish and chips or a roast dinner followed by sticky toffee pudding. It’s comfort food and it really does nourish the soul.”
• Malton Food Lovers Festival, May 24 - 25. Download a full programme of events at www.maltonyorkshire.co.uk