Caroline James visits the Novelli Academy and talks to the legendary chef/proprietor,
Jean Christophe Novelli
Jean Christophe, it is such a great pleasure to meet you. Can you tell me, when did you first decide that you wanted to become a chef?
I decided from a very young age that I could make money cooking for people. When I was at school, we had a summer fair and I was last to choose what I could do, so I decided to cook crepes. I ended up having the best stall and sold out within a very short time. I realised then that I could make money out of this. I was probably about 13 at the time.
You’ve been described as ‘The world’s sexiest chef’ by the New York Times, and voted as one of the ‘Top 50 Beautiful Men’ in a Sky viewer’s poll. Is it true that you make women swoon with the flick of your whisk?
Well, maybe in my younger years (laughing). Now, I try to impress people with my flavours and passion for cooking. It’s interesting, my Novelli Academy is 10 years old this year and when I first started, the place used to be filled with women and now we have about 70% men visiting us, which says a lot. Men are realising the power of cooking to impress others!
What brought you to the UK and why did you adopt it as home?
Elie de Rothschild, whom I was working with in Paris, suggested that I should expand my horizons and visit the UK. Once here, I realised the opportunities were immense and that the English were hungry for my style of cooking. I haven’t looked back since that time.
Who do you most admire in the cookery world and why?
I don’t have one particular person that I admire in the cookery world, I admire all chefs and cooks who can pass their passion onto others and if the food they produce is making people happier, what more can you say?
Who was your strongest influence in your culinary life?
As I have always said, my mother, Monique, is my biggest influence in my culinary life. Having watched her from a very young age, I instantly feel at home in any kitchen. The smells, the tasting, and seeing the results that she produced are memories that will live with me forever.
What has been your most valuable life experience?
Believe it or not, the most valuable experience in my life has been losing (having owned them) a few restaurants due to bad advice and surrounding myself with the wrong people. I have now learnt to be in control of my own destiny and trust only the people in my close vicinity. Those being my fiancée Michelle, my close friends, and my team at Novelli Academy, whom I know I can trust with my life. Having control of my own finances and knowing exactly what is going in and out of my account is very important but also helps me to keep focused on my business.
I used to live in Cumbria and notice that you had strong connections to Whitehaven and what was their annual festival. Why is that?
Cumbria is probably one of the most beautiful counties of Britain. It has fresh clean air and the stunning landscape is just perfect. I find the people very welcoming and hospitable, especially having made some very good friends through my friends Gerard and Dianne Richardson who live in Whitehaven. I liked to meet people there during the wonderful festival.
My own readers love romance stories. Are you a romantic at heart and what has been your most romantic gesture to date?I guess I am a romantic at heart. I asked Michelle to marry me in a castle on top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps. Luckily she said yes.
I love the easy-to-follow recipes and tips in your book, Simply Novelli, what was your inspiration behind this book?
Simply Novelli was written very quickly. From writing the first recipe to the end of the photo shoot was only 6 weeks! I wanted to explain to people in simple terms how French cooking can be made for everyday use and not just for special occasions. So many people confuse fine dining with normal meals and I wanted to show people this wasn’t necessary. Obviously there are still special occasions, where fine dining is nice, but I wanted to acknowledge the changing times these days of busy working lives and families who don’t have time to take four hours and more to prepare a meal.
I hope that everyone who has bought the book agrees. I always welcome comments on my Twitter and Facebooksites whether good or bad because you can always learn from the thoughts of other people.
The recipes look so simple to prepare in Simply Novelli – is every day French food really so easy?
What you have to remember is that French food (classics) have evolved over centuries and have changed as the produce has become available to the masses but it essentially derives from peasant food and yes it can be made easier to cook. In this age of the supermarket, produce is available all year round, and from all over the world so the opportunities have increased too.
What’s your favourite recipe in the book?
My favourite has got to be the Coq au Vin avec Chocolat. This combines the flavours of the original dish with my twist of using chocolate and vanilla as spices, just as they were meant to be centuries ago. The flavours are immense and as you will see no salt is used in either this dish or anywhere else in the book. I try to cook healthily, with reduced saturated fats and little or no salts, replacing them with sugars, spices and herbs. Try it – I’m sure you’ll agree that it works!
Do you follow a fitness routine or watch your diet?
I’m very careful of what I eat and yes I would class myself as fit. I train daily and have a gym in my barn and definitely watch what my family and I eat. No salts and low fats, which is reflected in my book. Recently, I was given the chance to ride a bike around the London Olympic Velodrome against Eddie the Eagle for Sport Relief and I trained so hard for this. I take these challenges very seriously, otherwise why compete? Since then, several other projects have emerged involving sports, which I am hoping will materialise as I love this type of challenge.
Your cookery school, the Novelli Academy has been deservedly voted, ‘One of the Top Ten in the World’ by The Independent. Are there any plans to extend your cookery school abroad. If so, where and why?
I’m looking to expand the school further and having spent a lot of time in the Middle East – we are actively looking for partners to help develop this idea. There are such incredible opportunities in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the local Emirates are such keen cooks; many of the men too. I think the restaurant market there seems to be flooded, but having researched a little into that area I think an extension to my Novelli Academy would fit in perfectly.
You are so passionate about the Novelli Academy – why?
The Novelli Academy gives me the chance to be close to the people who I am really trying to impress and it gives me the chance to pass on my passion directly to my visitors. Seeing the reaction to my cooking in their faces, especially in their eyes, is very rewarding. It is based in my house, so every event is like welcoming people into my home and everyone sits in my kitchen – where I cook food for my family every day. Although it is near to Luton, when the sun shines you could be anywhere in the French countryside!
You demonstrate all over the world. What’s been your favourite show or event?
I enjoy demonstrating all over the world and it’s impossible to have a favourite place. It can be in front of a crowd of maybe 100 people in Portsmouth’s Gun Wharf Key (as recently happened) to 25,000 people in the centre of Dubai. As long as people are enjoying what they see, smell, and taste, then I have done my job.
Jean Christophe may I thank you profusely for your time and wish you continued success with the Novelli Academy.
Caroline thanks so much for giving me this opportunity and I hope you all enjoy reading and trying some of the dishes from Simply Novelli and remember: Enjoy entertaining your friends and family with your food…
Simply Novelli is available online and in all good book shops.
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