‘When I came here from France 30 years ago, the standard was not so good’

MASTER CHEF Jean-Christophe Novelli
MASTER CHEF Jean-Christophe Novelli
Craig Jenkins and his son Graham at HMS Sultan  Picture: PO Phot Nicola Harper

Families enjoy quality time at HMS Sultan fun day

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Jean-Christophe Novelli runs a busy cooking academy, travels all over the country to food festivals and is about to become a father for the third time.

But the 51-year-old seems to think that’s taking it easy.

TASTY Last year's food festival at Gunwharf Quays

TASTY Last year's food festival at Gunwharf Quays

These days he’s less involved in the cut-and-thrust world of the award-winning restaurant – where chefs overheat even if the food doesn’t – and is more likely to be found in the kitchen at home.

Of course the AA Rosette and Michelin award-winning chef hasn’t really moved into the slow lane. It’s just that he’s relishing the joys and challenges of family life and is passionate about the academy he runs from his 14th century Hertfordshire farmhouse.

‘I used to love it very much and of course I miss it,’ he says of working in the country’s premier kitchens and running his own top restaurants.

‘But it is very different when you are up against the clock and it’s run, run, push, push in a restaurant.

‘It is so much pressure. Then you give the food to somebody else to take out and you aren’t there for the best bit.’

He hasn’t become less passionate about food, it’s just that he loves working with people at the cooking school. And it allows him to spend more time with his family, which is about to grow. Fiancee Michelle is expecting a little brother or sister for their three-year-old son Jean in about five weeks.

‘Of course I feel very chuffed and excited,’ he says. ‘That is why I am happy I have more time to spend with my family. I want to teach my children French and how to cook. That is more important than a Michelin star.’

He also has more time to attend food festivals. The suave French chef is certain to pull in the crowds with his Gallic charm, good looks and, of course, culinary expertise when he gives demonstrations at Gunwharf Quays’ Closer to Food event in Portsmouth this weekend.

‘I’ll give little tips, how to get the most out of your products and using less salt. I am 51 now and have a family so I am concerned about that.’

He’s thrilled to see that more people are taking an interest in their food and where it comes from.

The Closer to Food event aims to bring customers and local producers together so people can find out more about the products.

Jean-Christophe says: ‘It is very different now. When I came here from France 30 years ago, the standard was not so good. But it’s like a new world, people are producing fantastic things. Everywhere I go, north to south, east to west, there is something new to discover and enjoy.’

But he has a special reason for looking forward to the Portsmouth show. Jean-Christophe’s 26-year-old daughter, Christina, is based in Southampton and will probably visit him.

He’s extremely proud of Christina, his daughter from his first marriage, who is a singer and currently doing well in the US with her single Concrete Angel.

And her musical career makes the £5000 drum kit he bought for her when she was 12 seem worthwhile.

‘We went to get a recorder but she had a go on the drum kit. To see her with that was like me with my first set of kitchen knives. She was always very musical. So we went back and the drum kit was gone. I said the bad news is it was sold, the good news is I bought it.’

There is unlikely to be a father/daughter duet, but Jean-Christophe says Christina is a very good cook.

He says he regrets not being able to spend more time with her when she was a child – and that’s one of the reasons he’s grateful to have time with his son.

The chef met Michelle at Luton Airport and, showing an unrivalled passion, was so smitten he missed his flight.

The couple now run the academy together and take care of Jean, who not surprisingly knows his herbs from his spices.

‘He sits in a chair while I cook. He can identify several herbs now, ‘ says the proud dad.

‘But he is like all children. He is more interested when he is hungry.’

And even the family dogs – Jean-Christophe, never one to do things by half, has 10 – are discerning. ‘They get the leftovers,’ he reveals.

His own childhood in northern France set the scene for his career. He learned to cook by helping his mother and became a baker at just 14.

Now the TV star, who has appeared on Hell’s Kitchen and The Apprentice, is dedicated to improving other people’s skills. The people who attend academy classes range from professionals to those who struggle to boil an egg.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says. ‘I only ask that they have a passion for food and want to learn how to cook well.’

LOCAL PRODUCER

You don’t get much more home-made than the products of Premier Preserves. Julie Jeffery, who runs the business, grows her own fruit and makes her flavoursome goods in the kitchen at home.

Julie, who will be selling her jams at the Closer to Food event, loves experimenting with unusual flavours.

‘I love trying new things and actually it’s very rare that they don’t work,’ says the Portsmouth jam-maker.

Her flavours include fig and rhubarb and olalliberry, a cross between different fruits that originates from America’s West Coast.

THE FESTIVAL

As well as demonstrations from Jean-Christophe Novelli, this weekend’s event will feature a Great Taste Market, real ale tent, cake marquee and biscuit making for children.

More than 20 local food producers, selling everything from cakes to curry sauces, will have stalls at the market, which runs from 10am to 6pm Friday and Saturday and 10am to 5.30pm Sunday. Jean Christophe’s demonstrations will take place at 11am, 2.30pm and 4.30pm on Sunday.

For information on the three-day culinary event, visit gunwharf-quays.com