Internationally acclaimed Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Novelli speaks candidly to Kathryn McKenna about his baby son, whose cancer is now, thankfully, in remission, and why he is looking forward to launching his first restaurant in Northern Ireland.
Little Valentino was just six weeks old when he was diagnosed with stage 4S neuroblastoma, an extremely rare form of childhood cancer, which had grown into an inoperable tumour around his neck.
As well as the heart-breaking prospect of losing him to the aggressive condition, the much-feted chef also faced losing fiancée Michelle when she was rushed to hospital with deep vein thrombosis on his 56th birthday.
Jean-Christophe who has two other sons says: “Valentino is definitely all better, it is just all so fantastic.’’
“They (his children) are my biggest achievement in the world. I am fortunate to have three boys who are giving me an extension of life! You cannot die young with three children. My daughter is 32 and going through it all herself now! ‘‘I feel like a very privileged grandfather.
“Quality time with the family is the most important thing to me. When I was younger I missed out on a lot, I worked six days a week and I missed a lot of my kids growing up. Michelle and I have a routine that allows for both of us to rest and have quality time with the kids.
‘‘We have learnt that tomorrow can bring the unexpected; memories we will have forever but regrets will haunt you for life. We have been through hell but are looking forward to the future together.”
The gourmet chef was in Belfast recently to oversee final preparations for the opening of his inaugural restaurant on the island - Novelli at City Quays.
The waterfront establishment is set to open in April as part of the all-new AC Hotel Belfast, the £25 million hotel owned and developed by Belfast Harbour in the heart of its landmark City Quays development.
Whilst here, Jean-Christophe spent the day with the restaurant’s new ‘grand chef’, local man, Jim Mulholland, overseeing final progress checks on his custom-designed kitchen and terrace restaurant.
When I walk into the grand meeting room in the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office to meet the multi Michelin Star award-winning chef, the camaraderie between Jean-Christophe and Jim Mulholland is obvious as the pair sit comfortably chatting amongst themselves.
Upon my arrival, Jean-Christophe enthusiastically leaps from his seat, hospitably offering me a beverage in his charming Gallic accent.
And his enthusiasm at having well known local chef Jim Mulholland on board is palpable.
“I think it is vital to have local ties to the restaurant and Jim certainly knows the best of the best,” he explains. “When I first met him, I was incredibly impressed with his knowledge of local produce which I am delighted to be bringing to the restaurant. I knew that Jim had what it takes, I could see it in his eyes, he’s got character, strong but a good manager.
“Jim is going to be the man in charge of the kitchen,” Jean-Christophe laughs, “He will be as important as the captain of the Titanic!
“He boasts an enormous amount of results and experience, and is central to the new restaurant. We have the same conviction, the same passion, the same mission. I just love Jim, he is an absolute gentleman!”
Jim, who is highly respected in the industry, first came to the celebrity chef’s attention in 2016 when he cooked for him at Ballyrobin Country Lodge, making a memorable impact both for his food and his personality. He says of his chance meeting with Jean-Christophe, “It was fate.”
Jean-Christophe agrees: “When I met Jim it was a complete coincidence. My plane had been delayed and it was late at night. We cancelled our original plans and ended up in Jim’s restaurant, and I’m so glad we did. All of a sudden, I had my head chef.’’
But when it comes to dining, the former chef to the Rothschild family, confides he prefers to eat at home with his family, than go out.
“We don’t go out, because I cook all time.
‘‘If you could see my kids when we go out somewhere, you would understand,” he laughs.
Dubbed ‘the nations favourite French chef’, one would be forgiven for feeling slightly starstruck at the prospect of meeting a man who has achieved such prestigious accolades in the world of cuisine. But Jean-Christophe, who began his exciting career at the tender age of 14 as a baker in his home town of Arras, Northern France, has clearly remained grounded. In fact, from humble beginnings Jean-Christophe’s life changed completely when he arrived in Great Britain in 1983.
He spent a year taking care of Keith Floyd’s pub, The Maltsters, as head chef, whilst Keith was filming his famous TV shows. Then in 1996, Jean-Christophe opened four restaurants in London, and so began the foundations for his internationally based mini empire.
Shockingly though, Jean-Christophe had just £500 in his pocket when he began his solo venture. He now runs several successful culinary businesses with the help of fiancée Michelle, including his cookery school, Novelli Academy, which is located in his home in the picturesque village of Tea Green, Hertfordshire.
ean-Christophe is referring to his three young boys with beautiful fiance Michelle. It comes just a few months after the family celebrated Christmas in the knowledge that their one-year old son Valentino is in remission from cancer.
“But I do think it is always silly to compare yourself to somebody else. I am a firm believer in ‘you can do anything you want if you do it well and you believe in yourself, and have fun.’ Have a good time!”
has named local man Jim Mulholland as the ‘grand chef’ of his
“It’s vital to nurture talent and encourage youngsters,” Jean-Christophe reveals, “In fact I get more excited to see young people cook than celebrities. We need young, fresh, innovative people to provide something different.”
It is also the first in the AC Hotels by Marriott’s global portfolio, which boasts more than 100 hotels, to feature a destination restaurant