I had to sell myself but not be a prostitute

The time: 1996 The place: Mayfair The man: Jean-Christophe Novelli - chef and restaurateur
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I was the chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mayfair - a good secure job - but I felt I had the potential to do more. I woke up one morning and knew my wheels were spinning in mud. Instead of going to work, I went to visit my friend Marco Pierre White in his restaurant. We sat down for coffee and he saw there was a problem straight away. "Jean, you should start your own place," he advised.

My problem was that I didn't have any money. But Marco knew somewhere for sale. "It's the perfect place for you," he said. We went for a dinner of goat's cheese and steak to a part of London I had never been to before - Clerkenwell. When I saw the environment, after Park Lane, I thought he was joking! It was called the cafe St Pierre and not at all upmarket; I felt like jumping from a plane. After a long chat, Marco convinced me to come back in daylight at lunch time. The next day I returned and the area was busy with city types, although the cafe was quiet.

I asked Marco why he had been so convinced about the place. He told me that 10 years ago he had been the head chef there. We managed to knock a third off the price of the sale. Unfortunately, NatWest offered me only 70 per cent of what I needed so I had to think about a partner. Thank goodness I decided against the idea because for just pounds 40,000 somebody would now own half of my business. (My company is worth pounds 3.2m after just 18 months.) I had to sell myself but not be a prostitute.

I was still at the Four Seasons; they knew nothing about the venture or they would have sacked me. So to raise the extra money I worked on a cross-channel ferry between Dover and Calais at the weekend. Five days a week I was one of the top chefs in the UK in a Michelin star restaurant; but on my days off I cooked egg, chips and beans! It is very difficult to work on a boat; I was sea sick. I couldn't stand up in heavy weather. But I had to do it because that money was just enough to buy the place. I never thought of giving up because I can absorb a lot of problems - that is my virtue. Finally I bought a lease for 20 years, but for the first three months I didn't have the landlord's consent. He wanted pounds 20,000 guarantee to prove that I could pay the rent, but I didn't have the money. So he was waiting to see if I could pay - if not I would have lost everything.

I had been working in one of the most beautiful restaurants in London, and in my own place I had to use school tables and white metal chairs. I did not even have my name on the front because I couldn't afford the signwriter. I had a week's salary from my old job that I used for cash flow to buy wine and food. I was very lucky because three staff came for just pounds 150 to help me. I said, "If you work, I'll give you shares." We suffered. I was working like a dog from early morning to late at night. In fact we slept there because the terrines were in the oven and there was preparation to do for the next day. At the weekend, I would clean and paint.

I had the same spirit, the same passion, the same love for food as I always had but I couldn't buy expensive produce. I had to go to the market and buy the most economical ingredients. Diners paid pounds 150 a head at the Four Seasons but in my cafe-restaurant I used to provide the same concept in a much cheaper way. I was charging pounds 3.50 for a starter and pounds 6.95 for a main course. A month later I was almost bankrupt because my cash flow was low. I had some overheads I wasn't expecting and my takings were not big enough.

I'm willing to risk everything I've got but I knew that physically I was going to die; you can only work so hard. I was walking around thinking, "I'm finished". I told no one; I didn't want to discourage them. One Sunday I went to Covent Garden and drank a coffee in a cafe and on the table there was a newspaper. In it was an advert for a loan shark - quick money at a high rate of interest (22 per cent). I rang and pretended that I still worked for the Four Seasons and needed pounds 10,000 to re-do my flat. Every morning I was checking the post, and there was nothing. A week later they sent me a cheque, I couldn't believe it. I've never cried in my life but I nearly cried that day. I said, "Thank God." That was my last bullet to survive. Even if one day I have pounds 10 million in my pocket, I will never forget that cheque.

Shortly afterwards, a small man and his daughter came to eat and he asked me my name and complimented me on the food. He wanted to look around. I was frightened that he was a hygiene inspector! Finally, he said, "When you were the chef at the Four Seasons, I ate there. Today I didn't pay the same price but I can assure you the meal was exactly the same." I thanked him, he paid the bill and revealed that he was a journalist from Time Out.

When the review was published, there was a queue outside and not enough food in my fridge. I was fully booked and in one month my turnover grew to more than 10 times its previous size. From pounds 4,500 pounds a week, I started taking pounds 65,000, which was nearly the amount of my original loan from the bank. I got a result and I will never forget that excitement. However, the toughest moment is now. Eighteen months ago, I had only four staff but now I employ 100 people. Everything has become so large it is uncontrollable. It is hard, my name is 10 times bigger, but when I go back home to bed I am still a human being. I have to take a sleeping tablet and I wake up in the morning and become an animal.

If I do not have the fighting instinct I know I will die, so I have to be like that every day. On a Sunday, if I take time off, I become a zombie because my brain can't cope with being slow. Once I took off three days and I was ill, there was not enough adrenaline coming in. It's a very narrow world in the kitchen. The greatest people are more expressive but it is not a life. It is impossible, I promise you - it kills you. I have no interests except work and the time I spend with my girlfriend or my friends - especially Marco Pierre White. I don't go to the pictures. I don't watch TV or read newspapers. My life is a very strict and rigid formula. I don't get paid a wage, every penny goes back into the business. I don't care where I live, I could buy a house tomorrow but I still rent a one-bedroom flat. Money is irrelevant; I take cash out of the till if I need a taxi. I'm happy with nothing. Expressing myself and to prove a point is much more important. I'm happy but exhausted, I slept just four hours last night. I had a banana this morning but I haven't eaten all day - just two litres of coffee and a packet of cigarettes. Everybody tells me that I have to be careful and look after myself but I swear that if I become bankrupt tomorrow I will shoot myself. I will never work for someone else. What has happened is unique. I don't want to regret anything. There is so much competition, it is like football and music. One minute superb, the next - out!

I don't want to go back to where I came from. Growing up in France was hard, my parents didn't have any money. My mother caught polio in a public pond when she was only four. This was during the war. She was paralysed up to the neck and the whole family walked from the North down to the South to avoid the Germans. She has recovered to some extent and is now only paralysed to the hip but she could never ride a bicycle or drive a car. Her life was very limited and I was too hyperactive for her. As a boy, I nearly died. I would jump from the roof of one house to another. I fell and my jumper caught on a nail sticking out of the gutter. My friends pulled me up by the neck and nearly strangled me. I just had to risk things. I would knock myself against walls. I was completely crazy. At school I couldn't stay at my desk and always had to speak so I was put on tablets. One day they actually tied me to my chair because I disrupted the class. I used to hate the routine. Finally, aged 10, I was sent to the transition class for people who are thick. I was there for four years; but I wasn't thick, I was disturbed. I didn't know how to express myself.

We lived near a bakery and every morning when I went to school I used to see the lights in the basement and would stop to watch the men working away in their white coats. I liked the smell and the warmth. I started working in the bakery at weekends from 6am until 11 at night. But one day there was a terrible accident. The apprentice got crushed in the blender, they couldn't stop him being dragged in and he died. After that I was not allowed to go back. Times were tough and I was misunderstood; I was thrown out of school, they told me I was wasting my time. I was 14. I am lucky, but the reason I am successful is not that I am a good chef or have a good formula, it's because I persist and I don't worry. For my French National Service I was trained as a blue beret and sent to the Lebanon. It was very intensive. I learnt to be myself under pressure.

I had a million reasons to close up and push the keys under the door of my first restaurant but I did not panic. I now have six places, four in London and one in France and South Africa. I have paid for everything myself. Next year I have my own television series and I will be featured on a commercial for Sea France, the cross-channel ferry I previously worked for, promoting their gastronomic menu. I've learnt a valuable lesson - the importance of being accessible. I'm very excited about introducing top- level food to people who've not been able to afford it before. London is becoming the European gastronomic city and I know I have to improve or I will be back where I started. But I've survived a lot - it has to be something much bigger to destroy me.

Jean-Christophe Novelli's restaurants include Maison Novelli; Novelli W8; Novelli EC1 and Les Saveurs de Jean-Christophe Novelli.