Almost good enough to eat; The Deborah Ross Interview: Jean-Christophe Novelli
Now that chefs have become as rich and famous as film stars, it seems unfair that one should be as drop-dead gorgeous as well. Meet Jean- Christophe Novelli, a Michelin-starred cook as dark and velvety as his celebrated Hot Chocolate Pudding
Yes, Jean-Christophe Novelli! The top Michelin-starred chef and winner of Chef of The Year, who is Marco Pierre White's best friend and said to be worth pounds 6m. He is also owner of six hugely rated restaurants and author of the just-published Your Place or Mine? (Cooking At Home With Restaurant Style), which includes recipes for "Rabbit with Vanilla Seed Risotto" and a lot of other things that might not be as easy as, say, microwaved Ready Brek. And he's coming to my house! Tonight! To cook for me, and my mother, and my brother, and my sister-in-law, and my friend Dee, who blagged her way in ("pleasey-weasey-lemon-squeezy..."), and my six-year-old son ("I'm not going to eat anything with BITS in"), but not my partner, because he has to play an important football match in one of those pitiful leagues for men who are too old for it really and come home going: "Ohhh, ow, ouch. I'll just have to sit in front of the telly with my ankle up for the next 72 weeks."
Anyway, he's going out just as Jean-Christophe is coming in. Jean-Christophe, it turns out, is football mad, too. He had a bet with Marco Pierre White on the World Cup. Marco bet on Brazil. Jean-Christophe bet on France. "So I win ze pounds 5000 from him, ha! ha!" He says to my partner: "I razzer come to play ze football with you!" I say, Jean-Christophe, that is very unkind. Aside from anything else, I have Mr Muscled the oven SIX TIMES for you. I had to get down on my knees, rubber gloves and all. I've gone to NO END of trouble. He says: "We have the sex for dinner, yes?" Yes, I say, but no rubber gloves, and only after my mother's gone, you naughty little Frenchman. "Or the seven?" Oh, I sigh. Sometimes his English is not so good. But it doesn't matter. Jean-Christophe is as much a feast for the eyes as anything.
He's beautiful. "He's sex on legs," announces my sister-in-law who, I note, has had HER HAIR DONE, the old strumpet. Jean-Christophe is dark and chocolatey and velvety and scrumptious. He is like a collection of his own famed puddings. He is Tiramisu Boat with Three Sauces and Calvados Pomme Verte Sorbet and Hot Chocolate Pudding and White Chocolate Ice Cream with maybe a drizzle of Dark Chocolate Sauce. Jean-Christophe says food and sex are, actually, interrelated. "Zey ze only sings zat use all ze five senses, yes?" No, says my brother. "Personally, I try to keep my eyes shut and smell nothing." I do not think my sister-in-law had her HAIR DONE for him.
Jean-Christophe Novelli first burst into the London food scene in 1993, when he was made head chef at The Four Seasons Hotel and won a Michelin star in his first year. In July 1996, he set up on his own at Maison Novelli, Clerkenwell (another Michelin star), and has since opened another five restaurants, three in London, one in France, and one in South Africa. What's the most anyone has ever spent in one of your eateries, Jean-Christophe? "Well, the Salman Rushdie come in ze ozzer night and spend pounds 4000." But that's obscene! "He come with 12 guests." Still. "He `ave good time, I sink." He doesn't accost his celebrity clientele, no? "There iz only one man I will dance on ze table for, and zat is David Jason." David Jason? "I love ze David Jason. He is unique to me. I have every Only Fools and Horses on ze video tape. But I never `ave David Jason in my restaurant." He then adds, sadly: "Only ze Trigger."
Certainly, Jean-Christophe is up there with the best, as he should be with that name. How is it, I ask, that all the top cooks seem to have three names. Jean-Christophe Novelli. Marco Pierre White. Anthony Worral Thompson. Two Fat Ladies. Ainsley Annoying Harriott. "Ah, I like ze Ainsley. I sink he very serious cook." How important is telly to a chef's career? I ask. "Very," he says. "I sink it important to be mediatique." We don't understand what Jean-Christophe's saying 80 per cent of the time, but we don't care. He's terrifically engaging.
Jean-Christophe will not be sitting to eat with us, no? He rarely sits, and rarely eats. "I might 'ave a bowl of pasta at 4am," he says. He chain- smokes and drinks coffee. "Ah, you 'ave the instant. Ow nice..." He seems very hyperactive. He is, he admits, and always has been. At school, as a child, he had to be tied to a chair and given medication to slow him down. He goes to bed most nights at 4am and is up again at 8am. Even for this brief period of sleep, he needs prescription sleeping pills. And still he sleepwalks. "Just the ozzer night, I go bang into ze coffee table. I get ze bruise." He hitches up a trouser leg. "A bit higher," Dee and my sister-in-law and I chorus excitedly.
Sadly, he has a fiancee, Azelle, whom he speaks to later on his mobile. "Allo, babeee. I coming home soon..." How does he have time for Azelle, we wonder? "We once 'ave no time to see each ozzer for three month. But she understand me," he says. Food is his life. Only through cooking, he says, "am I alive". Food is how he expresses himself. "Zat is how I talk to people. Zat is how I get their attention, by what is on ze plate." He doesn't care about money. He lives in a one-bedroom, rented flat in Knightsbridge, even though "I can buy me ze house tomorrow". He's resisted all offers to buy him out. "I not interested. It would be ze end." Food is his art. It's a funny kind of art, I say. It's not like it's ever going to end up in a gallery, is it? Doesn't he mind? No, he says, "because you are always progressing. Always doing somesing new..."
What about cooking for the English, though? That great race of epicures for whom the highlight of any meal is a Quality Street, just so you can smooth the paper onto a table, twist it round a finger, then pronounce: "Look. A goblet!" He says he actually likes the English very much. "Ze Engleesh, zey can work togezer in a kitchen. Zee French cannot." And they have the David Jason? "Yes, although I sink he not so good in Darling Buds of May."
And so to the first course, which is a kebab of salmon and scallops and lemon grass, served with a drizzle of basil oil and truffle oil. It might be nicer than Ready Brek, actually, although my son protests. "It's got SAUCE on." I thought your problem was with BITS. "Bits and sauce." Try it, I plead, otherwise it's sailor suits and flashcards and no Gladiators for you from now on. He disappears into the other room instead, returning with his footballing trophies, which he shows to Jean-Christophe one-by- one. "I got this one for passing, this one for dribbling..." Jean-Christophe is genuinely attentive. He seems a very warm bloke. He has a child himself, a daughter, Christina, who is now 13. He and his ex-wife parted just as he was becoming successful. He says: "I no wish to discuss zis. It terrible time. I cry." He sees Christina often. He does not take her to McDonald's which, we all agree, is food for people with no teeth.
Jean-Christophe Novelli was born in Arras, where his mother, Monique, took in sewing while his father, Jean, was some kind of electrician. His mother, he says, "was full of anticipation", while his father "taught me how to kill the fly". You can make of these insights what you will. Anyway, they were quite poor, and ate a lot of mussels. Jean-Christophe was hopeless at school. "I never achieve anysing. I never learn anysing. I cannot concentrate. They tie me to the chair, but still I learn nothing. They send me to a special school to learn a skill, like plastering or woodwork, but I failure at that as well." He was finally thrown out of the special school at 14 and began working in the local bakery.
He worked in various French restaurants and hotels until, at just the age of 22, he was appointed as private head chef to the Rothschild family. He travelled with them extensively until they decided to settle in the USA, at which point he decided to come to England. He had always been in love with England, he says. "As a child, I have picture of Big Ben on my wall. I come here with the school when I am nine, and love it. York is very nice."
To the main course: knuckle of lamb with a honey glaze served with vegetables he's whooshed about in a pan. "You like? You like?" he asks, nervously. We like very much, we reply. I wonder if there are any foods he hates. "I do not like ze onions or ze peas." I ask what it was like working for Keith Floyd, which he did, when he first came to England. "We get on very well. We not have single row until ze day I tell him I leaving. Then he say: `You are a French bastard, although I still loves you to death!'"
To the dessert, which is hot chocolate pudding with white chocolate ice cream decorated with caramel springs. My son would have liked this very much, had he been awake. But, being an exceptionally good mother, I've allowed him to conk out in front of Newsnight so that I can better get on with stuffing myself and drinking. Jean-Christophe says the puddings should have been better than they are, "but I sink half your oven not working". I say that's preposterous. It was working perfectly well when I last used it in 1976. You must have BROKEN it! He says I should try to make some of the recipes in his book. I say I will, but only if I get to come round to his place to show him how to whisk up Angel Delight and do a Cup-A-Soup from scratch. "Iz a deal!" he says.
Jean-Christophe is a rich and busy man, yet doesn't leave until after midnight. He has, I think, a very great and generous spirit. We all fall in love with him. He departs amid a great flurry of "thank-yous" and kisses. Then my partner comes in. "Ow, ow, I've hurt my ankle. I'll just finish off the wine then go rest it..."
I don't so much go to bed as go: "How come you only get DFS in silly- named places, like Didsbury and Sidcup? Conk, snore, zzzzzzzz..." It's a tiring and emotional business, having dinner parties.
`Your Place or Mine?' is published by Quadrille Publishing Ltd at pounds 25 which, I think, works out at about six buckets of KFC and a big bottle of Tizer
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