The charming French chef, Jean Christophe Novelli, tells us about his meteoric rise to the top, subsequent fall, and eventual recovery, to find out what lessons he’s learnt from the journey.
Tall, mysterious and attractive – those characteristics describe the acclaimed French celebrity chef and TV personality, Jean Christophe Novelli, down to a T. Jean is a breeze to talk to, and doesn’t mind opening up, whether it’s about his rise and fall in the culinary industry, appearances on TV shows, or his culinary school, Novelli Academy, which has now been running for about ten years.
Jean was born in Arras, and like many French chefs, stepped into the kitchen at a very young age. His story isn’t formulaic, though. Jean was kicked out of school at 14 and was told that he couldn’t live at home if he didn’t have a job, so he asked his father to get him a placement at the local bakery, and thus began young Jean’s journey. While most boys were playing rough in the playground at that point, Jean was in the bakery picking up whatever skills he could. “Patisserie is the foundation of cooking. If you can bake, you can cook, but a good cook can’t always bake,” he says. At 19, Jean took on the position of private head chef to Elie de Rothschild (from the Rothschild family banking dynasty) which he gained after someone from the Rothschild family approached his father to recruit Jean. He then moved to the UK at the age of 20 after taking an interest in the English language, and further pursued his career as Head Chef of The Maltsters, a pub owned by celebrated TV show host, Keith Floyd. “I remember it being such a sentimental time because it was my dream to go to England – I was like Alice in wonderland!” he reminisces. “In France, I would have to justify myself and my dishes in every way, but in England I got to be innovative and the opportunities were immense,” he says.
After working behind the scenes for over 12 years, Jean opened his first restaurant at the Four Seasons in London in 1996, with just £500 (about Dhs3,000) in his pocket. The restaurant received rave reviews and Jean was handed an AA Rosette (an award from the British Automobile Association for fine dining restaurants) within just two years of being open. “Receiving Michelin stars and Rosette awards meant everything to me at that point, and it always came as a shock,” he says. The launch of this restaurant was the start of his empire, and Jean went on to quickly open another restaurant in the UK, before opening Novelli at The Cellars, Relais et Chateaux Hotel in Cape Town, and Moulin de Jean in Normandy, France. Jean also did a stint working as a consultant chef on Sea France ferries.
There’s no doubt that Jean’s restaurants were successful no matter where he set up shop, but they say the biggest fall come after the biggest rise, and his came in the form of bankruptcy in 1999. “My restaurants were successful and it was everything, but over time I lost control,” he says. One of his biggest regrets was not even knowing the amount in his bank account by the time he had seven restaurants. Building an empire can take time and effort, but losing it all can happen instantly, as we find out from Jean. “You have to make sure you use your money right! My costs were up, money was distributed and a lot was happening all at once. For example, I had a whole floor for the PR department which wasn’t necessary,” he says. Jean lost his ground and let success take over, and even he now knows that it all happened too quickly. “Money is not my motivation. It all started from a small café that I opened which grew into a 3-Michelin star restaurant, so it was a lot to take in,” he says.
The restaurants crashed after just three years, as the teams weren’t prepared for when writers and critics came in and the results weren’t consistent and so Jean sold all of his restaurants and decided to go on a sabbatical to recover. His biggest take away from this, and a piece of advice he gives all entrepreneurs is, “Only eat when you can chew, and only chew when you can digest.” By this he means do everything step by step and prepare yourself for it.
He spent his transition time learning golf, playing football and running triathlons every month to get fit and kick his cigarette habit. “I used to spend my time at home relaxing with my 25 dogs, I bought a farm nearby as well, and was just getting back to life slowly,” he says. During this time, he made sure to maintain his culinary connection with cookbooks such as Your Place or Mine? Cooking at Home with Restaurant Style (Quadrille Publishing Ltd) which he co-authored, and Everyday Novelli: More Than 100 Recipes from the Nation's Favourite French Chef (Headline).
His next big move was to get back into the field with a bang, but this time he took a different approach by opening a culinary school close to his farm near Luton. “I still have that urgency to get back into a restaurant kitchen sometimes, but I don’t miss it as much. I don’t like seeing my diners through a window,” he says.
He tells us if he had it any other way, he would love to get back the time he missed out with his oldest daughter, Christina, who is now 27. Learning from this experience, Jean now spends plenty of time with his children Jean, 5 ½, and Jack, 20 months’ old, and even cooks for them on a daily basis. “They eat well and aren’t picky, and the oldest one likes making pancakes and pizza with me as well,” he reveals.
From school dropout to doctorate
Jean has never truly considered himself an academic person, yet he managed to bag the Honorary Doctor of Arts from Bedfordshire University for 30 years of dedication in the field. “I’m passionate and creative, but I never call myself a Doctor – it’s something I joke about with friends, as I’ve worked with kids who actually graduated from school,” he says. This sort of humility and dedication towards the field, not just for awards and accreditations, is probably why Jean has made it back to the top again with the opening of his culinary school. The irony of it all, that amuses Jean and those who knows his story, is that he was once kicked out of school, but now owns one! Novelli Academy opened in 2005 in a 14th century farmhouse between Hertfordshire and Bedfroshire. Jean and his fiancé Michelle head the culinary school surrounded by acres of greenery, and Jean himself can be booked for courses on French classics with a twist, and patisserie. The school also offers cuisines like British and Italian, and chef’s training programmes for cooking enthusiasts from all over the world.
The kitchen is equipped with Electrolux appliances – Jean is an ambassador for the brand – as the academy is based near the Electrolux head offices in Luton. “I like to be associated with quality products and this brand has many of those when it comes to domestic innovation,” he says.
This time round, Jean is getting it right with his academy, by being consistent and not letting the success of the school outshine him. Often dubbed the UK’s best French chef, and credits his parents for instilling the importance of maintaining consistent standards through life.
Cooking is Jean’s first love, but he also enjoys telling his story and sharing his favourite recipes in cookbooks and TV shows. The chef appeared on Hell’s Kitchen in 2005, The X Factor: Battle of the Stars in 2006, Chef Academy – his own show on Bravo TV (USA) where he trained nine amateur chefs to become professionals – and Britain’s Best Chef, most recently, where he was a judge.
In fact, it is through TV shows that he has got to know many of his peers that he is quick to acknowledge as having learnt from, like Raymond Blanc, Keith Floyd and Marco Pierre White. “Marco and I met at a cooking competition, and he has been a mentor ever since. We gelled instantly and the support he gave me was enormous,” he says. Jean also considers Gary Rhodes a great mentor, and cherishes the time he spent with him while filming together on Hell’s Kitchen. “He was challenging on set, but fun to work with as well. I was always a big fan of his and read all his books, and if I were younger I would definitely want to train with him,” he says.
Their paths may well cross again soon, as the well-travelled chef also appears to have an affinity for the UAE, having visited thrice already. “The people, especially the Emiratis, are so welcoming and such foodies! I had never realised so many local gentlemen were into cooking and so passionate about it, which is really great to see,” he says. As for whether he has plans of opening a restaurant or school here, Jean reveals he is open to all offers and thinks a cookery school would work well in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. “I do consult around the world for many restaurant owners and groups but I think an extension of Novelli Academy would work extremely well. We are already talking to several potential investors,” he says.
Traditionalists may protest, but Jean likes taking a novel approach to French cooking. “I felt there are books that show French cooking as being complicated and time consuming and at times when people are busy, they should be able to cook their favourite dishes quickly and healthily,” he says. Jean focuses on healthy cooking in his cooking classes and demonstrations, preferring to use herbs, spices and natural sugars like honey to yield better results than recipes which call for salt, butter and oil as flavour enhancers.