Jean-Christopher Novelli determined to add Michelin star to new Northern Ireland restaurant
'When I got to my hotel in Belfast I went to look for somewhere to eat. The doorman said "Are you crazy? You can't get food out there!"'
Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christopher Novelli is opening his new restaurant in Belfast next month as part of the brand new Marriott AC Hotel. The dashing Frenchman tells Una Brankin why he loves Northern Ireland and how he and his partner Michelle almost lost their son Valentino to a rare form of cancer.
Jean-Christophe Novelli has just turned 57 - and he's delighted with himself. "I'm very fortunate and I deserve it," he proclaims. "I have never stolen from anyone and I have no regrets. I want to pass on a lot to the people I love."
The dashing celebrity chef is on the phone from his Hertfordshire home expounding colourfully in his heavy northern French accent. It's punctuated by a full-throttle cough he picked up in Belfast on a recent trip to announce the upcoming launch of his Novelli at City Quays restaurant, a large, light-flooded space at the new £25m AC Hotel (part of the Marriott chain) in Belfast's prestigious City Quays quarter.
Novelli will be seeking Michelin stars for his new premises, to add to the four he has already accumulated over the course of his 40-year career. And the Belfast venture couldn't come at a better time for the highly acclaimed chef and his family.
Novelli at City Quays, with stunning views over the harbour, is opening in April, almost a year to the day after his infant son, Valentino, underwent surgery for a rare and aggressive form of stage 4S neuroblastoma, an extremely rare form of childhood brain cancer.
At only six months old, the baby had a large tumour removed from his neck and had to fight for his life through six rounds of gruelling chemotherapy.
Now an active toddler, Valentino is cancer-free and babbling in the background with his brothers, Jean (9) and five-year-old Jacques.
"When I think of it now, it is exactly a year since Valentino got the operation and then got the all-clear," says Novelli. "It is a nice coincidence that we are opening in Belfast this April, a nice way to celebrate after a lot of trauma.
"For Valentino, the medication has stopped. He has come through his illness. He has check-ups every so often.
"He is very quick. He eats a lot of chicken and broccoli, made by his mother, but he has a very thin little body. He has big, amazing eyes. He looks like Michelle."
The Frenchman fell in love at first sight with the glamorous Michelle Kennedy, who has Irish roots (Kildare and Limerick), when he was catching a flight at Luton airport and she was there doing promotional work.
Engaged for the last 10 years, they planning to marry this year, with Valentino acting as a pageboy alongside his protective brothers.
"The older boys understand he was very ill and they are very sensitive - Jean, the older one, still is," Novelli explains. "They didn't know in the beginning, and then one time in the car, when I was bringing them to school, they asked 'What is happening with Valentino?' I tell them the truth. They tried to understand. It was entering the worst nightmare in life for their baby brother. It is amazing the way they reacted. Very resilient."
Another heart-pounding emergency arose while Novelli was at Valentino's hospital bedside one night during his treatment, to give Michelle a break.
At home with Jean and Jacques, Michelle woke up in agonising pain and with a grotesquely swollen leg from deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening condition her doctors assume she developed from the long hours not moving from Valentino's side.
Her husband, frantic but afraid to leave Valentino, watched events unfold on the home security camera on his phone as Michelle tried to explain to Jean and Jacques that she had to go to get her "leg fixed".
"It was absolutely awful - I thought I would lose her," Novelli recalls. "I saw it on TV, in the car park. I couldn't reach her. It was a very dark time. I was drained and I lost my spark.
"There has been a lot of trauma. I couldn't work for a year and I thought no one would book me again, but everyone has been wonderful, very supportive."
A good friend of Marco Pierre White, who opened his chequebook when the Novelli restaurant chain went broke in 1999, Novelli did not endear himself to Nigella Lawson and fans when he said the gorgeous cook "looked 60 from the back".
In the aftermath, he was decried by critics as sexist, and as "an a******" by Michelle, who told Hello! that she once threw a knife at the portrait of her husband that he put up in their kitchen.
The straight-talking Luton girl explained that her husband speaks before he thinks and that he was cross about Nigella professing that she preferred Italian food to French cuisine.
Novelli admits he was "a prat", but remains defensive of French food.
"I love it, I have always loved it. I knew I'd be a chef when I was eight," he remembers. "My mother was my biggest teacher. She had polio when she was four - she's nearly 90 now, so that was over 80 years ago when they didn't know much about it. She was lucky to survive.
"I was the eldest and I helped her out. It was a fantastic way to learn about food. I've always loved cooking with my mother.
"I would go shopping to the local market with her - she guided herself around the fresh produce stalls with her eyes closed - and she could always create something exciting with vegetables or pancakes, stuffed tomatoes, couscous. Incredible.
"She had a very good imagination when it came to food.
"To be able feed all the kids and dad. He didn't cook, no. Not him!"
Novelli grew up in Arras, an industrial town in Pas de Calais where his father worked as an electrician and his mother as a seamstress.
A non-academic, hyperactive child, he was given sedatives and placed in remedial class for fighting at school. He left at 14 to work at local bakery before moving on to a local brasserie, where he was put in charge of omelettes (still one of his favourite dishes to prepare, with various different fillings).
His early career was interrupted at 18 by the then compulsory French national service, after which he moved to Corsica, to cook at a hotel owned by the wealthy Rothschild family.
That ended when Corsican terrorists blew up the place, but Elie de Rothschild took pity on him and invited him to work in his private kitchen.
Impressed by his brilliance with classic French cuisine, Rothschild sent him to Southampton to learn English. He landed a job in a huge restaurant there, Geddes, and was discovered by a food critic from The Times.
Suddenly under the radar of Britain's leading chefs, he was lured by Keith Floyd to the Maltsters Arms in Totnes, Devon, which he combined with training under Marco Pierre White in London.
Known as a highly emotional perfectionist, he went on in 1993 to become head chef at The Four Seasons, winning the first two of his four Michelin stars. At the height of this first flush of success, Novelli came to Northern Ireland for a cookery demonstration.
"It was 27 years ago, in Homa," he says, meaning Omagh. "My first visit with lots of chefs and students - it was unbelievable.
"I was so impressed by the children. They were all so alert and very eager to be taught, all in white T-shirts and white trousers.
"So, my plane, it was late arriving and when I got to the hotel in Belfast, there was no food, so I left my bag in, to go look for somewhere to eat.
"The doorman asked where I was going. I said for a bite, and he said, 'Are you crazy? You can't get food out there. Come back inside and we'll organise a sandwich.
"I could not believe it. And was a bit annoyed I didn't have the chance to see for myself. But Belfast has changed so quickly in the last few years, faster than Manchester, where I have a partnership (in the prestigious Don Giovanni restaurant)."
By 1998, Novelli had another two stars and a seven-restaurant empire, including the elegant, prestigious La Stampa on Dublin's Dawson Street.
But it was a case of too much too fast. Burdened with an enormous VAT bill and angry demands from creditors, he went down with a severe case of shingles.
His bankruptcy in 1999 coincided with his second marriage, to former model Anzelle Visser, from Stellenbosch in South Africa (he has a daughter, musician Christina Novelli (33), from his first marriage to an Englishwoman called Tina). He and Anzelle, who also worked at Maison Novelli, divorced in 2005, the year he burst on to the small screen as one of the two head chefs in the second series of Hell's Kitchen with Gary Rhodes.
His dark good looks (he's a little more portly nowadays) and Gallic flamboyance ensured frequent guest appearances on primetime television, culminating in his own show for Bravo TV (USA), Chef Academy, where he trained nine aspiring chefs over a 10-part series.
More recently, he has been showing the uses and benefits of rapeseed oil on the BBC1 show, Countryfile, and acting as the judge on ITV show Culinary Genius.
Nowadays, he is busy teaching at his two cookery schools - at home in Hertfordshire and in south west Wales - and working on his new Belfast venture.
"I designed the Belfast kitchen myself, with a team of specialists - I insisted that people can see into the kitchen, so they can get the vibe and the excitement," he says.
"And I made sure my rotisserie was reproduced in Belfast. I think that is something people will really appreciate."
"We will be catering for the local palate but for people from all over the world, people coming to the AC hotel. We have a very good staff - all local - and we have just chosen our maitre d', Sean White - he is a good looking lad, in his 40s.
"It is a very special restaurant - unbelievable," he adds emphatically. "I insisted on lots of windows for lots of light and a big high ceiling. I swear, it's magnificent. The water in the harbour is incredible; it makes it magical. I feel so privileged; the whole family is excited about it."
He marvels over the high quality of the fresh produce of his all-local suppliers, including Hannan Meats and Abernethy Butter.
"Irish beef is fantastic. Irish fish is a treasure. Northern Ireland suppliers are so advanced. All our suppliers are local. There are none from France. To keep it local means everyone's a winner.
"I don't want to open a restaurant in London, but I would love to have one in Dublin. There is a very good one there, L'Ecrivain - I have been many times. Derry Clarke, the owner, is a fabulous chef. But I cannot be talking about other restaurants!
"It has always been my wish to be in Ireland, honestly, no matter what. It is very handy to fly there from Luton airport and my fiancee has Irish blood."
He laughs at the mention of Michelle's cooking but softens his derision by conceding that she makes "the best sandwiches in the world", and good, simple healthy meals for Valentino.
In his frequent demonstrations around Europe, Russia, the Middle East and South Africa, he endeavours to teach people to cook more healthily, using little saturated fats, low sugars and no salt - despite his reputation for his delicious signature roasts.
When he has some free time, he likes to take the family to their holiday home in Austria, where they spent last Christmas. But he has no intentions of making it his retirement home, just yet.
"I became 57 in February and I looked at my children and my wife and I thought how lucky I am," he concludes.
"I'm too busy to think about negatives. I've too much going on.
"When you know you are going to be working all your life, in the job that you love, age doesn't matter."
Try this classic recipe for tarte tatin from the new menu at Novelli at City Quays
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes
1 star anise
vanilla pod (split lengthways)
6 cardamom pods
5 apples (peeled and sliced in half just before using them)
Ready-made puff pastry
Preheat the oven to 180C (fan), 200C (non-fan) or gas mark 6.
Using a large ovenproof frying pan (approx 28cm) gently melt the butter on a medium heat with the star anise vanilla pod and cardamom pods and then add the sugar. Gently colour everything until it is pale yellow in colour.
Peel and slice the apples in half, pat dry all over with kitchen paper, (make sure they haven't been kept in water or lemon juice) then place them neatly face down into the pan and set aside.
Using your ready-made pastry, roll it out into a circle approx. 28cm in diameter and 1/2 cm thick. Then carefully place the pastry over the entire pan, pressing the pastry all around the apples to form a tight seal. The apples at the edge of the pan, can be lifted slightly and the pastry tucked underneath. Put the pan on a low heat and after a couple of minutes, lift the pan, place your hand over the pastry and holding it tight, pour off the excess liquid, this is saturated fat that has formed and isn't required. Repeat this process twice before placing the pan into the oven for approx. 25-30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and rest for about 5 minutes to allow for all the caramel to settle and become firm.
Using a plate larger than the pan, lightly oiled with rapeseed oil rubbed on the plate with fingers, positioned over the pan and then turned out being careful not to spill the caramel that may still be hot. Serve with good quality real vanilla ice cream.
Chef's tip When covering and sealing the apples with the pastry, and the pastry starts moving around in the pan, it is time to put it into the oven.
Jean-Christophe Novelli: loves and hates
I like garlic a lot, I dislike onions.
I love tomato based sauces but I hate ketchup.
I try to avoid commercial chain fast food but now and again I enjoy fish and chips. That’s why they are on the Novelli at City Quays menu.
I don’t really drink!
I love soda bread — for me, it is the best in the world and rustic bread as well. I started out as a baker so there is no bread I don’t like although I do try to cut bread made from white flour out of my diet where possible.
My favourite dessert is sticky toffee pudding and my least favourite dessert would be cakes or biscuits with cinnamon.
Music in restaurants
It’s great to have music in a restaurant — it sets the atmosphere for the dining experience and relaxes diners. Ambient relaxed music works best and if you can feature local bands in there, even better.
Cuisine/style of cooking
I have to say that Mediterranean food is my favourite!
Oh, that’s a tough one! It depends on the location and the type of building — The Novelli at City Quays restaurant in AC Hotel Belfast will be a restaurant full of natural light, as we have floor to ceiling glass walls to show off the amazing views!
Characteristics of any head chef
The characteristics I look for are to be innovative, knowledgeable, accessible and loyal. Good leadership is essential but also somebody who is modest. Very importantly, they need to be passionate. My Grand Chef, Jim Mulholland, embodies all of these characteristics; he is a very talented chef, an extraordinary gentleman and fantastic leader for the Novelli at City Quays team!