Chef Novelli was 'very excited' that new restaurant would be in Belfast
With his newest restaurant just opened in the city, Jean-Christophe Novelli tells Katy McGuinness why it takes quality produce, a great team and a little touch of French flair to make the Novelli brand
Think of the quintessential French chef, all floppy hair and twinkling eyes and extravagant gesticulation, and chances are that the first person that comes to mind will be the easy-on-the eye celebrity version of the species, Jean-Christophe Novelli.
Jean-Christophe is an AA Rosette and multi-Michelin star award-winning chef, who may have been based in the UK since 1983 but still retains a pronounced French accent that only adds to his charm.
Novelli - now 57 - began his career in food at the age of 14 when he became an apprentice baker in his home town of Arras in Northern France. By 19, he was the private chef to Elie de Rothschild (of the banking dynasty) and his son Nathaniel in Paris.
In the UK he worked in numerous well-known restaurants, including Chewton Glen and Keith Floyd's pub, The Maltsters. His first Michelin star came in 1991; others followed in rapid succession.
The first restaurant with Jean-Christophe's name over the door was Maison Novelli in London's Clerkenwell Green, which opened in 1996. It was the start of an international mini-empire that grew to seven restaurants, with outposts in Normandy and Cape Town. However, the chain collapsed when he was declared bankrupt in 1999. Since 2003, Jean-Christophe has been based at Crouchmoor Farm in Hertfordshire, home to the cookery school that he runs with his partner, Michelle Kennedy. After 10 years together, the pair are set to marry this year following the recovery of their youngest son, 19-month-old Valentino, from cancer.
Earlier this month, Jean-Christophe opened the doors of Novelli at City Quays, at the new £25m AC Hotel Belfast, developed by the city's Harbour Commissioners and operated by Marriott, his first venture in Northern Ireland. Set on Belfast's waterfront, the 112-seat restaurant has a double-height glazed facade and open-air terrace, as well as a kitchen designed and built to Jean-Christophe's specific requirements, with a rotisserie oven to enable him to produce his signature roasts.
It's a glamorous, contemporary space that's seen as a major coup for the city's hospitality offering. "I was approached many years ago and introduced to the directors at the Harbour Commissioners by a fantastic management company that I work alongside," Jean-Christophe explains. "When I found out the project was to be located in Belfast I got extremely excited. I first visited Northern Ireland 25 years ago when I gave a cookery demonstration and speech about my career in Omagh. It was a brilliant experience."
The restaurant serves a Mediterranean-style menu and features French classics such as French onion soup, coq au vin and tarte tatin.
Jean-Christophe has appointed Northern Irish chef Jim Mulholland as his 'grand chef'. The pair first met when Jim cooked for Jean-Christophe in 2016.
"I was booked for a job in Derry and my flight was delayed," recalls Jean-Christophe. "When I arrived, I was told that I had a personal invitation for a late supper from the head chef at Ballyrobin Country Lodge near Aldergrove.
"Even though it was nearly 11.30 at night and I had an early morning radio interview at 6am the following morning, I wanted to show my respect, chef to chef, and this is where I first met Jim.
"I am so glad I did as I was blown away not only by his talent but his fabulous personality. We lost contact for a while but then met up again and became closer. The rest is the next chapter."
Although Jean-Christophe will not be cooking at Novelli at City Quays himself, he says that he will visit as many times as he feels is required.
"I adore the location of the restaurant in Belfast. I will do whatever it takes to make this a great success for me and my team. Also, Luton Airport is so close to my home in Hertfordshire - it makes travelling to Belfast so simple. In fact, I can get to Belfast quicker than I can drive into London!"
The Novelli name is a valuable brand, and one that Jean-Christophe is careful not to over-expose. So how does he decide on the places where he allows it to be used, and what made Belfast stand out? "When I receive an approach, the first rule is that any new venture has to be far away from my existing involvements. Equally important is the team that I will be working with. Having the restaurant overlooking the Belfast City Harbour, at what used to be the home to the Titanic and so close by to many other exiting visitor attractions, is an incredible feeling. What more could I ask for?"
Jim Mulholland's many years of experience working in Northern Ireland means that the menu at Novelli at City Quays will focus on local produce, with some of the region's best known producers amongst the suppliers, including Abernethy Butter, Hannan Meats, Ewing's Seafood, Yellow Door and North Down Group. Even the charcuterie board features homegrown chorizo and salami, produced by Limavady-based Corndale Farm. "It has always been my passion and my mission to source whatever I can locally," says Jim, "and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience to introduce our amazing local produce to such a globally celebrated chef as Jean-Christophe and to see him, in turn, become its champion."
"You need to have wonderful ingredients to produce wonderful food, and I have been thoroughly inspired and excited by the quality and variety of produce available to me here on my Belfast doorstep," says Jean-Christophe. "I hope to get to know our local producers better by visiting their farms and production bases over the coming months."
Jean-Christophe has not yet had an opportunity to eat in many of Northern Ireland's new generation of restaurants, something he hopes to rectify soon.
"I have spent a lot of time on the preparation of my own place, but I know that the calibre of restaurants in Belfast has improved over the years since my first visit.
"As in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, restaurants here have very high standards and it's a highly competitive market."
After so many years in the business, Jean-Christophe says that he is just as excited about his new Belfast restaurant as any of his earlier ventures. "I love getting results and to be able to please is a massive satisfaction. To be honest, I feel like a kid, I generate the same buzz when I cook."
For now there are no plans to open a restaurant in Dublin or elsewhere in Ireland - in 2005, he opened a restaurant at La Stampa on Dublin's Dawson Street, but departed after just 10 months - but Jean-Christophe says that he would love to one day.
"It would be a dream and a great honour," he says.
As for the current state of food in France, something that comes in for an amount of flak these days, Jean-Christophe says that he doesn't feel qualified to comment. "When in France, the only cooking I choose to eat is from my mum's kitchen!"
To book Novelli at City Quays, see marriott.com or tel: 028 9531 3191