'When something ends it's very difficult, especially when it is publicised all over the world with the wrong facts'
His fleeting marriage to one of Britain's biggest pop stars suddenly made him a tabloid fixture. In his first interview since his break-up with Cheryl, the restaurateur Jean Bernard Fernandez-Versini talks to Susannah Butter about surviving the hardest year of his life
Jean Bernard Fernandez-Versini discovered that his ex-wife, the pop star now known simply as Cheryl, may be pregnant on the news. "Funnily enough that was how I heard," says the 35-year-old, who split up with Cheryl last year and is in the process of finalising their divorce. She started dating Liam Payne, of One Direction, earlier this year and he is believed to be the rumoured child's father. Fernandez-Versini is taking it in his stride. "It's a great thing to have babies," he smiles. "There are so many sad things these days, if everyone was creating life, the world would be a better place."
Such musings are something of a trademark for the Frenchman. Tabloid reports may have portrayed him as a flashy party animal on the make, but in person, 'JB', as friends call him, comes across as thoughtful and kind with a rather boyish naivety.
We meet at Blixen, a restaurant in Spitalfields, and he thanks the waitress for his espresso in French, adding: "I've already had a coffee but I'm so tired. I was up last night with food poisoning." Still, he has a lively look in his round brown eyes and is dressed immaculately in a grey suit by Dior Homme - 'I represent French brands' - and a discreet Rolex watch.
He won't tell me if he had discussed having children with Cheryl. "I am sorry. You are lovely but I'd like my life to be easier so I'm not going to answer those questions. But I can talk about me; and right now my baby is my project."
In spite of what he calls a "hard year", Fernandez-Versini is perky and full of upbeat plans. Of the "French culinary experience" that he is planning in central London, he says that it will be "completely different to what you've seen before".
"My theme is rock and roller meets Yves Saint Laurent meets classic French food. French food has been reinvented so much but the atmosphere, the trend, everything you experience when you are in a restaurant has not evolved that much. I like controversy in restaurants." Music will be crucial to the enterprise. "I want to be able to eat my sole meuniere with nice spinach and listen to Jay Z. I like classic hip-hop," he laughs, pouting. "You can tell you are getting old when you say Jay Z is classic." What does he make of his ex-wife's albums? "Um, it's good music, sure. It's not what I listen to all the time but she's a good singer."
A self-confessed "new kid on the block trying to make a space for myself", he is making new friends in the hospitality world. Fernandez-Versini was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 when he met Cheryl at the Cannes Film Festival. He runs a starry pop-up there, although he prefers the term "ephemeral restaurant". "I liked the chemistry we had. I'm sure if you've watched her on TV you can see she has a great sense of humour." They married 12 weeks later on the private island Mustique with just four guests, including Cheryl's mother, Joan, who is now said to get on famously with Payne. "Things happen and sometimes you have to follow your heart," says Fernandez-Versini of the whirlwind.
"If you observe society, everybody is thinking - they should feel more. Sometimes you just have to say…" He swears and immediately regrets it, covering his mouth and imploring, "You won't put that in, will you?" During their honeymoon period, they were inseparable, working out together and playing backgammon by the pool on numerous sunny holidays. He got on well with Cheryl's younger brother Garry, and joined her at The X Factor, eating Chinese takeaway with Louis Walsh and constantly praising "my wife" on Instagram.
But it didn't last. Cheryl's lawyers claimed that Fernandez-Versini's "unreasonable behaviour" was to blame and had caused her stress and weight loss. Sources were cited saying that he was possessive and threatened by her friendship with Nick Grimshaw on The X Factor, even though he is gay, while she was reluctant to leave him because his father Bernard - who died in March last year - was ill with septicaemia. There has been more wrangling over his name. The singer, who is worth an estimated £20m, reportedly doesn't want him to use the name Versini for his new London restaurant.
Fernandez-Versini, who has significant personal wealth having inherited his parents' global land-development business, always wanted to be married, something he credits to his parents. "My parents' example was to create something together. They stayed together for 34 years until my mum passed away. I've always been boring when it comes to relationships. I find one girl that I love and I just stay with her." He spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, where his "stylish father and mum travelled a lot for work running their company, and he went to an international school in Morocco. "From a young age, I was very adventurous." The family also has a house in St Barts and he studied finance and business administration in New York and Paris. He thought he would go into finance, "because my parents have a conservative business background", and did internships at banks "but didn't really like them". Then, with a friend, he came up with Cosy Box, the Cannes pop-up, which is a favourite with Paris Hilton and the rest of the international party set. It's funded by sponsors and next year will be its 10th anniversary.
His parents are at the centre of everything he does. His mother, Francoise, died from liver cancer at 55 when he was 24 and his father's death hit him hard. "When you are an only child, you have a lot of love and attention from your parents. As much as people expect you to be able to handle it at 34 years old, you are never too old or too young to deal with the death of your parents. I am still trying to recover from it, but listen, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, eh?" Last year after his father passed away, he took some time off and stayed with family friends in Miami. "Sometimes you just need to be with people you've known for a while. But I'm not somebody who will crawl under a rock so I just wake up every day and take one day after another."
His lowest point came when he was at the gym in Miami in January and had a call from a representative to say he'd be on the front of a tabloid the next day. "I wondered what they could find to say about me. I wondered how you react when someone says a false fact about you and you are by yourself with no one else around you.
"When something ends, it is always difficult. Emotionally it's complicated and hard, especially when it is publicised all over the world with the wrong facts. I had everything up in the air - the grief of my father's death, difficulty in my personal life, building a new business. It was overwhelming and complicated to deal with; I'm not different to anyone else." He "drew on strength I didn't have before". "When you go through a hard time and survive, you can look at it as an experience. I don't wish it on anybody but you have to be positive, what else are you going to do? Of course you grow up.
"The only thing I've done is go to the gym more, running and exercise is helping more. I don't think drinking helps." Now, "when paparazzi ask if I'm Jean Bernard I say no. I remember looking at some paper and feeling sorry for this person then realising it was about me but it was not really about me".
These days, he lives in a large Mayfair flat by himself, "to be honest it was not a choice but I don't have a lot of time to think of it". As for romance, he says he "doesn't get" Tinder. "If it happens, it happens. My life has never been about looking for something. It comes to me. I'm old-fashioned. If I'm meant to meet the person, I will. If I not, I will go home." Still, he would like to remarry: "You cannot approach it differently when you fall in love. If you can give me tips for me to structure my heart in order not to fall in love the same way, please explain to me but I don't think it's possible."
For him, marriage is synonymous with children. "I'm the last one of my family. I've got to a stage where I think it is time to create a family. I lost all my family, so I need to create a new one."
For now, he'd like a dog and mentions a friend's golden Labrador: "I wish everyone would give me a welcome like her." When he was at university in New York in his early 20s, he took the subway all the time but he doesn't like the Tube. "I tried it and I got lost big time. So I walk, looking for new trends. At least this year hasn't been as cold. London gives you so much - every day you can discover a new bar or lounge."
When he has time, he watches HBO and CNN. Game of Thrones is a particular favourite. He also likes the Netflix cooking documentary, Chef's Table: France. He prefers classics to molecular cuisine. "I like my grandmother's simple recipes. She made the best mashed potato." He isn't neurotic about his diet, telling me about a "gluten-free, no-carbs-after-8pm" Hollywood actor friend who was shocked when he "opened a baguette, filled it with cheese and ate it at 1am".
Impending Brexit has 'put a strain' on attracting foreign investors for new restaurants. Both the EU referendum and Trump's election "feel like revolutions, people changing the direction things are going.
I think France is going to follow". His parents were involved in right-wing politics, both running for mayor in the Eighties and he is well-informed. Centre-right candidate Francois Fillon 'would be the right choice' to lead his home country. "We have a big problem in France with safety. The first duty of the politician is to make people safe; they are the host of the house. But a lot of people have been affected by insecurity and are thinking about the extreme right."
Fernandez-Versini feels reflective about 2016. "Everything you do in life is meant to make you the person you are today. I have no regrets, thank you. People go through way worse every day. This year has taught me that your life can change in a day; in a good way, in a bad way. London is a new adventure for me. I'm starting a new chapter here."