Parlez-vous Novelli?

Jean-Christophe Novelli was tied to his chair at school, shared a flat with Keith Floyd, kept 25 dogs at one point, and
cooks fancy French food without fat, as he’ll demonstrate in Durham later this month. He’s also charming, and that’s just on the phone, discovers Rosie McGlade 

“It’s Jean-Christophe,” purrs a voice on a crackly phone line, and we’re off on a racing track of culinary enthusiasm beginning with the forthcoming pleasures of Durham Food Festival.

Which is exactly what you want from interviewees you don’t know, can’t see, and who, mindful of their celebrity, can sometimes become tired of delivering the same line to journalists up and down the country.

Not so JC. It’s like he’s been in isolation for months. The trouble is, the line is so bad, I can hardly understand a word he says.

He’s flying to Dublin for a cookery demonstration later that day, that bit I get. And his home broadband connection is playing up.

When someone says, only you’re not absolutely sure, that they were physically strapped to a chair every day at school, and that, until fairly recently, they had 25 dogs, and they enjoy doing food demonstrations in garages, it’s time to transfer to a good old-fashioned landline. Which is an improvement, thank goodness, “…allo, it’s Jean-Christophe, zat is bettughh,” and off he goes again.

But the line’s still not great, so I think this is what he tells me, or at least I hope it is. Read on, because he has a genuinely interesting story. Plus, judging from the press cuttings I speed-read beforehand, he’s extremely handsome (I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t have recognised him if he’d leapt out of my French onion soup) and has refreshing ideas on delicious, do-able cooking that won’t make you fat or kill you.

So to the chair at school. Novelli was the sort of pupil teachers the world over dread. Badly behaved? Well, it’s just that school wasn’t for him; he couldn’t keep still and was dreadfully disruptive.

To cut a longish story short, some of which I couldn’t confidently re-produce anyhow (his, out of interest, is a very pleasant French accent, but oh, so strong on the telephone) the teachers resorted to physically strapping him down. “If people behaved at my academy today the way I did then, it would be impossible to teach,” he says. “I had a problem with confrontation, and there was a succession of issues. From what my mother says, it was a serious problem. In the end I was kept apart. The only time I spent with friends was in football.”

For a boy who dropped out of school at 14, things – it hardly needs saying given his Michelin stars, TV demand, and the prestigious Novelli Academy based at his Hertfordshire farmhouse – turned out very well in the end.

“I was very fortunate. One day my father said, ‘you should get a job tomorrow, or you are out from the house if you won’t behave at school’. I immediately said ok. He thought I was joking.”

Throughout his childhood, Novelli’s job was to collect the family bread from the local baker’s each morning – two aromatic fresh baguettes as only the French can produce. “I loved to go there. They were charming people, and the smell of the bakery for me was wonderful. I was always trying to get inside the basement where the baking was done. I could see the bread coming out, and it always amazed me.

“My father took me there the day after we had that talk about getting a job, and they agreed I could work as a cleaner. I felt alive. It took me 14 years to realise that feeling and I knew that cooking would be my life. Everything was superb from that moment.”

Born in 1961, Novelli’s native Arras in northern France is probably best known to the British as the backdrop to some of the most intense battles of the First World War. And growing up in the 1960s and 70s, it had striking similarities to the North East of England. There was little gastronomic tradition, for one. No stottie cakes or pease pudding there. More seriously, there was no tradition of wonderful cheese, no wine, no pate produced from force-fed geese; none of France’s famed gourmet fayre.

Also, it was a highly industrial, coal-mining area, some 85% of the men employed in factories or the mines. Football was the escape, and the sport all the boys grew up with. For Novelli, it was not only his local team Lens, but the then-great Leeds United which aroused his sporting passions.

Incidentally, his teams of choice today are Middlesbrough and Newcastle. He doesn’t really know where his passion for Britain came from, but it was there from boyhood, and from the moment he arrived here, he knew he would never leave.

He got his first job as a chef at 17 (curiously it was considered a woman’s job in France at the time and people laughed at him). He got a 50cc bike and moved into a little caravan near his work. “It was lovely, fantastic,” he says.

After army service at 18, a lucky break which took him to work for the multi-millionaire Rothschild family in Paris propelled him to a higher level, and brought him the confidence finally to cross
the Channel.

He was nearly sacked after his first week in a restaurant in the New Forest, he says, but he clung on. The combination of discipline and creativity in the kitchen suited him, and he progressed, finding himself 10 years later working shoulder-to-shoulder with the great Keith Floyd. “He was absolutely unique – as a person and a chef,” Novelli says.

“I even shared a flat with him. I was like his son. I was also the only one who never got sacked. People don’t realise it, but Keith was someone with a lot of discipline and high expectations. He was an old army boy, and you could see that clearly. He was awake early every day, and everything had to be in its position, in the restaurant and in the house, even the doormat. He was so incredibly precise with things, and a lot of people couldn’t take it. But he was also warm, fun, and absolutely hilarious. And he was very passionate. A massive, amazing foodie. He knew about every kind of food on this planet, and I don’t think there is anyone else you can say that about to this day.”

Novelli also worked with Floyd’s friend Rick Stein, who added to the young frenchman’s by then considerable culinary skills, which have now further developed into the promotion of gorgeous food that’s good for you.

“I think this is the way cooking has to go now,” he says. “You don’t need to use butter or cream for good taste. Do you know that olive oil can be mildly toxic heated at certain temperatures? And the worst thing is salt. I show people how you can have flavour and satisfaction in homemade food without increasing your chances of a heart attack, and they like that. You just need simple changes; spices, black pepper – they can make an enormous difference.”

Life is good. Novelli lives with his partner Michelle (they met as strangers at Luton Airport), their four-year-old son Jean Frankie, and their new baby boy. The dogs? He had 25 dobermans and
Alsatians at one time. Twelve remain; dogs who could be considered some of the most discerning canines on the planet, being fed on leftovers from Novelli’s academy.

He genuinely enjoys travelling the country, delivering around 30 days of food demos each year, from festivals to shop openings and even garage forecourts. And why not? Novelli is charming,
likeable, and a chef who has something fresh and relevant to share about food. An honorary Brit of very fine taste.Fresh from Alnwick Food Festival, Jean-Christophe Novelli is back in the region for Durham Food Festival, October 27-28. Book via the website Go to p5 to win tickets

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