Star chef Jean-Christophe Novelli is to headline the Durham City Food Festival later this month. KATHARINE CAPOCCI catches up with the nation's favourite French chef who says his children are now the Michelin stars in his life
FETED Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Novelli sounds a little tired when he rings through for our chat.
As well he might, as he has recently became a father for the third time, with second son Jacques just four months old.
But the critically-acclaimed chef – holder of four Michelin stars during a glittering career – wouldn’t have it any other way, declaring his children his Michelin stars of today.
Fondly known as the nation’s favourite French chef, Jean-Christophe, 52, has lived in Britain for 29 years, and is also dad to Jean, four, and daughter Christina.
“My daughter is 26 and now I have two young boys which for me are more important than the Michelin stars. I keep my awards for my boys.
“That’s my Michelin stars ... my kids, my family life.”
He says he is in the privileged position of now being able to spend more time with his family.
“Before I used to work all the time like a donkey! Christmas, New Year… now I can afford not to do so.
“I have a chance to meet a lot of people now. I’m very fortunate to travel and see great people now.”
That includes the good folk of our region when he headlines the Durham City Food Festival next weekend on October 27 and 28.
Jean-Christophe will be hosting two cookery demos each day at 11.15am and 3.15pm inside the gourmet food marquee at Palace Green, situated between the cathedral and castle.
As well as signing copies of his latest cookbook, he will be taking part in a VIP evening the Friday before in Cafe Cenno at Durham’s indoor market.
He says he’s also looking forward to exploring Durham further.
The chef, who now runs a cooking academy from the home in Hertfordshire he shares with partner Michelle, says: “I have been in Durham before. I know it’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to it. It will be a fabulous show.”
The chef, famed for his appearances on TV’s Hell’s Kitchen, was also the star name at Alnwick Food Festival last month. He is delighted to be returning to the region once again.
“I was in Alnwick, it was my second year, and it was fantastic. It’s a very beautiful little town.”
Jean-Christophe is a frequent visitor to our region, having visited many times over the years, in particular when he worked with the old Findus factory.
He was a consultant for the former frozen food giant at Longbenton until the factory closed down. And Findus used to feature a range of his restaurant-quality frozen food, fronted and endorsed by him.
“I know Newcastle very well. I visit Cumbria a lot too.”
There’s even a hint of a new professional partnership in Newcastle. Jean-Christophe talks of “something big in the pipeline, which will involve working in the North East.” But he can divulge nothing further on the plans as yet.
Jean-Christophe, a keen sportsman and runner, who is teetotal, says he likes to swim in the lakes in Cumbria.
“I spend a lot of time when I’m free in the Lake District. It’s somewhere I’m very fond of.”
The focus of the Durham festival will be the food marquee, which will house over 80 food retailers, including a wide range of independent food producers from across Cumbria and the North East. Products on offer will include everything from fine wines, marinades, meat and fish to pies, puddings, cakes, organic vegetables and fruit.
Durham Continental Market will also run from Oct 25-28 featuring food and drink from around the world in the Market Place.
Jean-Christophe says: “I’m signing some books.
“I will take time to meet people and this is what I enjoy very much.
“It’s a good location. I’m there for three days and I’m hoping to explore the local attractions.”
He adds: “I am delighted to be associated with the Durham City Food Festival 2012. The North East is home to a fantastic wealth and breadth of talented producers and chefs who are passionate about their food.
“The festival is flying the flag for quality and diversity and I am pleased to be a part of it.”
He will be joining a whole host of starry names at the tasty festival, including demos by local chefs Bill Oldfield and Maunika Gowardhan and national names including acclaimed chocolatier Paul A Young, who was raised in County Durham and now lives in London where he has three chocolate shops.
Paul is appearing at the food festival, courtesy of Durham Book Festival, and the tutored tasting will be based on recipes from his Adventures with Chocolate cookbook; Signe Johansen, the author of Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking, will also show how to put together a speedy Scandi lunch.
Day to day, life is busy for Jean-Christophe with his cook school and visits to festivals and shows. The Novelli Academy is based in his farmhouse home in the village of Tea Green.
“The cook school is busy. I do it in my home.” Jean-Christophe takes most of the courses himself.
He is also a regular on the foodie festival circuit. “I have done about 25 shows this year. Everywhere I have been they’ve been brilliant.”
He adds: “I love meeting the farmers and local producers. I’m very much a fan of local produce.
“With cooking, we cook to nature and it’s such a pleasure. The more you discover, the more ideas you get.
“I have spent years in the kitchen where I never spoke to anyone. For years and years I worked on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Jean-Christophe began his career at the tender age of 14 as a baker in his home town of Arras, Northern France, before becoming the private head chef to Elie de Rothschild at 19.
He arrived in Britain in 1983, a move he said he was derided for. “When I first came 29 years ago people used to laugh at me because I wanted to become a chef in Britain. They wouldn’t believe me. ‘Why are you going over there?’ they said. Now I’m laughing.”
He spent a year taking care of Keith Floyd’s pub, The Maltsters, as head chef, whilst Keith was filming his TV shows. In 1996, Jean-Christophe, then opened four restaurants in London, and so began the foundations for his internationally-based mini empire. Jean-Christophe won the first of his four consecutive Michelin stars during a stint at Le Provence, in the New Forest, before becoming head chef at London’s Four Seasons Hotel.
As well as being named AA Chef’s Chef of the Year, he was also a European Chef of the Year finalist representing Great Britain and has won 5AA Rosettes.
He has lived through some trying times though. An unhappy time followed at the end of the 1990s when, beset by financial problems, he lost the restaurants when the bank manager pulled the plug.
He’s still good friends with a lot of the established celeb chefs. Possibly not best friends with Nigella, though, after he rounded on her with a very personal attack following her comments on French cookery!
He remains firm friends with many of the old faces including Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. “They are very good friends of ours. “We go back a long way, 20 years. It’s something you never forget. Marco for me is a genius.”
Jean-Christophe is a great respecter of the provenance of good produce and instilling that passion in aspiring chefs of today.
“I always say if anyone wants to become a chef or try for a job in this industry, you have to work for a farmer, make cream, butter, milk, cheese … Even if it’s just for one weekend.
“See what it’s all about before going to college. Just to see where food comes from. It’s so interesting. That’s what I did.”
He also says he has witnessed nothing short of a revolution in British food from a time when we were derided as a culinary desert. “The change in British cooking it’s unbelievable. I’m very privileged to say that I’m one of those people who participated in the change.
“When you think of the standard, it’s a revolution.”
See www.durhamfoodfestival.com for further details. Admission to food festival author events is covered in entry fee: £4.50 and £4 in advance.
PLATTER OF GOODIES
Organised as a joint partnership between Durham Markets and Durham Uni, and now in its second year, Durham City Food Festival brings together regional, national and global food producers in the city’s peninsula, now a World Heritage Site.
The marquee will also host demos by regional chefs, including Bill Oldfield, Bob Arora from Sachins Indian restaurant and Maunika Gowardhan. It will be open on October 27 from 9am to 6pm and Sunday, 10am to 4.30pm.
Durham Book Festival, which runs until October 30, is working with the food festival to produce Cooking the Books, a series of talks and demos.
These include Adventures with Chocolate: A Tutored Tasting with Paul A Young, Oct 27, 1.15pm, food festival tent, Palace Green; Scandilicious: Signe Johansen, Oct 27, 2.15pm, food festival tent, Palace Green; Food Britannia: Andrew Webb, Oct 28, 2pm; See also What to Eat: Joanna Blythman, Oct 27, 11.30am, St Chad’s College Chapel, (£6/£4).
For more info visit www.durhambook festival.com