Jean-Christophe Novelli: I Bought A One Way Ticket

Jean-Christophe Novelli: I Bought A One Way Ticket

Interview and photos by Drew Mason

 


French celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli is a 5 out of 5 AA Rosette and Michelin award-winning chef. He also holds the informal title of ‘the nation’s favourite French chef’. We caught up with him this weekend to talk about his love of food and find out more about his roots in the South West.

Jean-Christophe had not heard of Grow so we began the interview by giving him a little bit of background on our positive media movement and the areas that we cover.

Do you know the area well?

“Very well. I used to live and work with Keith Floyd in 1989.”

Wow, you must have seen a lot of change in the South West.

“Yes, I used to work in Cornwall in 1987. I love the fact that it is such a relaxing part of the world. The people, the food, the produce; Devon posed one of the most exciting moments of my life. I got recognised at the time and I used to have a lot of followers who came to see me. It reminds me a bit of Brittany and Normandy. I know it sounds silly, but it’s very similar when you go to the fishing ports. Am I the first chef that you’ve had in your magazine?”

We had Tom Kerridge yesterday. We recognise that Exeter and Devon’s food scene is very important to our industry. We wanted to represent the food and drink industry because of this. Would you mind explaining to our readers about your background and how you started here in Devon?

“Well, I was a chef at an early age because my mother is a great cook and to be honest I got so excited about cooking that I was not interested in going to school anymore. One thing I missed by not being in school was the chance to speak English. To be able to speak in English then was an advantage, and still is now of course. Later, I worked for the Rothschild family and we were all speaking in English every day because most of the staff were from the UK. I remember it was fantastic, even the children spoke to me in English.”

So you learned English through cooking?

“No I didn’t, I actually set my mind and said I wanted to go to England. What happened was there was a change of government and the communist party took over instead of the conservatives. Therefore, anyone seriously wealthy had to make sure they didn’t get privatised. [My employers] wanted to move most of the assets into America for the time being. They asked me to follow them and I said I can’t, I can’t speak English. They said don’t worry about that, we’ll send you somewhere in England and they did. I was due to stay for one year and go back with them and I never did.”

Jean-Christophe Novelli Grow

So what is your first memory of the UK?

“The cliffs. Going on the ferry I had a one-way ticket and I remember the white cliffs in Dover. It was absolutely magical. It’s everything that I expected. I have got to say, I would do it all again. I’d be a chef again and I’d come to this country again that’s for sure. Perhaps younger than I was. One day I met Rick Stein. I say he was a customer, but he wasn’t. He was actually a part-time inspector for Cornwall. He was always very positive and remarkably friendly. We kept friends; he gave me his contact number and one day I came to see him and I realised he was not just someone who loves his food but he is a serious chef and a phenomenal man. He introduced me to Keith Floyd in Devon. I remember Keith got me drunk that day. I was meant to have an interview but we got on straight away.”

So France is very much the cultural home of food around the world. We’d be interested to know, coming from France and then moving to the South West, what it is that you love about food in the South West. How does it differ to France and what is it that the South West can offer the food scene?

“I think the South West of England or the whole of the UK is as good as anywhere in the world. At the time when I was there, there was a lack of support for the farmers. They have definitely come a long way and become a more consistent organisation. Back then, to be a chef you were the reject of society. It was the last thing that someone would love to be part of with all of those unsocial hours. Because they had to stick with such a rigid menu, there was no way on Earth you would get a Michelin star unless you were in London. That was the perception. Now, you can open a café and become a fabulous cook and this is what this country has done. They have turned things around so quickly and so well that I don’t think there is anything else like this country.”

Thank you, thank you very much.

“Well of course, I am not saying this to please you. I wanted to stay in this country. I only bought a one-way ferry ticket. My plan was not to go back. I have been here for thirty-six years now. I am part of the millions of people who contributed to the change and I am very proud to say that. It is just phenomenal.”

Jean-Christophe Novelli Drew Mason Grow

 

Is there anything you like to do outside of work?

“I am very busy; I am a father to a two-year-old, a six-year-old, a ten-year-old and a thirty-three year old.”

Do you have any plans for the future? Obviously you have four Michelin stars which is amazing!

“Thank you for saying that. First, it is important to understand that I got four consecutive stars and when I got my first Michelin star I never thought that I would have been awarded something like this. I was just happy to be in this country to be honest. In a way, it was a bit too much. When you don’t expect it and things happen to you, things change around you. I keep saying, just because you haven’t got a Michelin star doesn’t mean you’re not a star chef. What is important is, especially now, is that you can easily get recognition without having to go through this eminent, excellent recognition. This country has moved on. You can open an old launderette, turn it into a restaurant and become the place to be. It’s the people who come to you who love what you are doing and want to share [their business] with you because they haven’t got the PR or whatever. That’s what I love the most.  The people who are there in the middle of nowhere that nobody knows. In Taunton, in my eyes, there is one of the most amazing chefs this country has produced. His name is Richard Guest. In fact, he used to be the chef at The Castle Hotel in Taunton. He has opened his own restaurant with his wife Vicky, but I have forgotten the name of the restaurant! [We assured Jean-Christophe that we would find out and include this in our article. Richard is head chef at Augustus Restaurant.] He is phenomenal. And you know what? Nobody knows him. And he’s worked so hard for me, you have no idea.”

What is it you like about him and his business?

“First, the fact he can cook!” he pauses, laughing. “He’s not just a great cook, he’s very intelligent. I met him in 1994, a long time ago! When I first spotted him, he was a kid. He was working up North somewhere. The first time I met him, I was working alongside him at the stove. His combinations, the definition on the plate, his quick executions and also my English was not very good and he understood me very well. He’s kind, he’s reliable, he’s never complained and he was, I’ve got to say, as good as I was. Nobody knew that, because I was the name on the door. He actually won a Michelin star in Taunton. I was so pleased for him. They have a family-run business that is in the centre of Taunton. And what I have to say is that I owe him; as simple as that. It’s crazy what’s happened to me;  I’m 57 and I’m still very busy. Now I am in Devon, I need to pay respect to that man who worked a big part of his life to make sure that I do well. As long as I live, I will always mention him and thank him.”

We thanked Jean-Christophe for taking the time to talk with us and he wished us luck in our business and we hope to be in touch with him again soon. Watch this space!

Jean-Christophe Novelli and Drew Mason for Grow

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