Monday, 6 February 2012

The Lost Interviews, No. 1: Jean-Christophe Novelli

In a short series of 'forgotten interviews' that never saw the light of day, here's one from 2008...

Jean-Christophe Novelli

Jean-Christophe makes women swoon, men jealous and everybody hungry. But it hasn’t all been sweetness and light for the French chef and TV personality. He went bankrupt in 1999, losing all of his London restaurants. On the bright side, the same year, he was voted “the world’s fifth most alluring man” by Harpers & Queen magazine. James Brennan spoke to him about his financial meltdown his image and his unfortunate spat with Sunday Times food critic Michael Winner. 

Tell me about the Novelli Academy.

When I lost everything about nine years ago, it took me about a year or two to get back on my feet. And I thought to myself, I’ve been in the trade now for 30 years, and I wanted to be more involved with the trade, with food, but in my own way. So I got the kitchen table from the garden, brought it inside the farm and started inviting people. I did it for my family and my friends - they could come into my kitchen and it was fantastic. But I started from the age of 14 and learnt everything I could for myself - so I thought it was time to pass that on. It became very popular, so I had to get another table. The more I taught them, the more I leant, and I enjoyed that. I used to go to work for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and I said I didn’t want to do that any more.

How did you get into such severe financial trouble in the late 1990s?
I grew very quickly. You see, the secret in business is to make sure you’ve got money when you start the business. But I started with 500 quid. Then I became popular and opened seven (restaurants) in one go on my own. The day I left the kitchen it was a big mistake. I was acting like a chef rather than a businessman - with emotion, and making the wrong decision. Nothing was calm, everything was affected. And I couldn’t cope (laughs)! I learnt - if it had been one or two places, then fine. But it was too much. After that I bought a fourteenth century farmhouse and let people come to my kitchen. And I’m just about to sell the format in Los Angeles.   

How badly will the global economic crisis affect restaurants?
It’s tough, very tough. Nobody knows what’s going on. And especially now people are more involved with food, they can cook. Before, a lot of people could hardly cook an omelette! Now they are miles away - with so much more experience. There’s a different way of surviving, and I think it’s going to be hard, but I don’t know anybody who’s not affected. I know people who are thinking of closing on Mondays, all day, and opening on Tuesday for lunch. But I knew something like this would happen - I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m very sensitive because of my mistakes. And when there is terrible weather (in the UK) also, it’s awful.

What did you learn from working with Keith Floyd in the ‘80s?
I learnt to interact with people, actually, to come out of your shell. And not to act too intense with your cooking. I learnt his sense of humour. And don’t forget that before I worked with him I was his friend - before I came to the UK. It was a good relationship - in fact, I’m the only one he never sacked! 

Does your heart-throb image ever get in the way of the food?
Ah, I don’t think it does. If it did, do you think I would be able to work like I did all my life? When I was in Paris, I worked every day doing 200-300 covers at lunchtime. And my dream was to come to Great Britain, and then America one day. And I stuck to my dream. I just came back from Los Angeles and I just finished my TV series, which is coming out next year, in February. It’s going to be massive. And that’s why I’m going to start my cookery school over there, to expand it.

You famously barred the food critic Michael Winner from one of your restaurants. Why was this?
To be criticised is one thing, but it has to be constructive. It has to be fair. I don’t like to waste my time with anybody like this. I’d always had time for him and treated him like a customer, but one day there was a picture of this chap in front of one of my establishments saying how bad it was. How would you feel? Frankly, I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him. Then he came back years later - ha, ha - and I jumped on him. I’d organised photographers outside, and kindly stopped him. It was not for me, it was for the people he had hurt. He tried to demolish my staff and myself. My new receptionist did not organise things when he walked through the door and he went bananas! My restaurant manager was in tears - in fact, he left. He was one of the best.

What do you think of food critics?
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I have been reviewed by hundreds and hundreds of people, food critics, journalists, the lot. And I’d never been criticised like this in my life. I’ve had far more great reviews by people who I have never even met. Journalists come to my restaurant and they give false names. Matthew Fort (food editor for The Guardian)? I thought he was ex-army. I cook for customers, not food critics. Actually, I spoke too long about it - that’s not good. I’ve wasted my time and your time (laughs).

You have restaurants in the UK and more in the pipeline - any lans to expand in Dubai?
I don’t know because the problem I have is my farm, my academy is doing a lot better than I thought. It’s unbelievable. And think there’s something in people coming to your house, your farm, to you. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I love it. But I don’t know - Frankly I have to be very cautious with my time. I have just bought some land in Spain to get my own olive oil. I I’m looking at getting cooking into rehabilitation, for drug addicts, alcoholics, anorexics. Anyone with a problem. I think cooking is great therapy. 

Image 'borrowed' from