Jean-Christophe Novelli's recipe for driving pleasure
The only time I’ve ever really had my dream car, one that I polished and loved and cleaned every five minutes, was my first vehicle – an old Citroën DS.
I was a baker then, about 18, and had just passed my driving test, even though my father had been letting me drive – sometimes to the beach when we lived in Arras, France – since I was 14. A family I knew gave me the car for nothing; it was great to drive and very special to me. Sadly I didn’t have it for long; I had to give it up when I went for National Service soon afterwards, but the memory lives on.
There have been many cars since then and I’ve driven many thousands of miles too – often about 20,000 a year – with my family but also for business, as I have to cover long distances to food festivals, to visit food producers or to find new products at markets, often while carrying lots of equipment.
I have never forgotten my first car, however, so it was a special moment when the latest DS, the 200bhp DS5 Hybrid4, was delivered to the 14th-century farm in Hertfordshire where I live with my fiancée Michelle and three-year-old son Jean, and where we have the Novelli Academy Cookery School. I didn’t have a chance to drive it for much more than 20 minutes until I suddenly had to do a 200-mile trip, mostly on motorways, to Wigan, for a food festival and to cook at a stadium restaurant. It was a revelation.
It wasn’t just any trip; I had all my equipment – saucepans, my own knives, a hob and lots of food in boxes – and three of my chefs on board too. The Citroën handled it all perfectly and, instantly, I knew I was back in a DS.
It seemed strange at first; like getting into the cabin of an Airbus; lots of controls but also – unexpectedly – silent, because of the electric motor which is part of the hybrid system. I pressed the throttle and there was no sound; it was good that the heads-up display in the windscreen popped up and reassured me we were moving! It crept away like a snow leopard stalking its prey, but when I put my foot down I could feel the car leap to life.
Despite the heavy load it responded instantly, hugging the road and cornering wonderfully. The boot could be a little bigger – some of it is taken up by the hybrid technology – but it carried us all in total comfort. Best of all you can put your foot down without someone trying to make you feel guilty about the environment: it’s a hybrid, and I got about 45-50mpg.
Certain aspects of a car are always important to me. It’s a tool and – like a kitchen knife – must work consistently, with precision, the same each time you use it and that sums up this Citroën. I don’t usually like lots of technology and the DS5 – with its four-wheel drive, its electronics and safety aids that keep you in lane on the motorway – is very advanced. But you quickly get used to it; you just drive it.
Comfort is very high up the list for me, vital when I sometimes drive to Munich or Austria on business or for keep-fit training. One of the only few times I relax and catch up with phone calls is when I’m driving. The Citroën is good for that because it’s quiet; it suppresses wind noise well at speed. The car can work in pure electric mode at low speed, but even when the diesel engine kicks in or the car switches from 4WD to two-wheel drive it’s very smooth. We tried to catch it out during the transition but never could. It’s like an experienced Ibiza disc jockey blending one track with another.
Comfort and smoothness are important when you have a family, especially with our evening routine. Michelle likes the DS5 but probably not as much as Jean, who has already driven my Land Rover by standing on the seat and turning the wheel. You see, he has to have a short drive – in the back! – just before he goes to bed to help him to go sleep. It works every night.
There’s a lot of motoring with the family; I drive about five miles to Jean’s nursery every morning. Often I’ll stop at a park to go for a run, or go to the swimming pool. Everywhere we’ve gone I’ve noticed people looking at us in the Citroën; perhaps, like me, they like its sleek, aerodynamic lines.
But what I like most is that the DS5 is impressive to drive, with most things done for you. It is a family saloon with the feel of a sports car, with a driver’s seat that hugs you and every dial and switch within easy reach.
This car, you feel, is so good it does not really need a driver and yet – just like my old DS – you know you are in control. That is what this car is all about; it treats you with respect.
Novelli's recipe for safe driving
Just as I have never burned a dish, I have never had a crash; I drive with total concentration and look far down the road to see what might happen. You have to be a perfectionist in the kitchen and on the road too, you need discipline to do both properly.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Once I was locked up for the night by the gendarmes when I was 18, in Boulogne, France, on a long weekend with friends while we were hunting for a nightclub at the seaside. I had an ancient Renault 15 with no handbrake, and just second and fourth gear but no reverse. My friends were pushing me back into a space but I missed and ended up stuck against the pavement and another car. The gendarmes arrested me; I had no tax or insurance and they took my car away as a public danger.
Since then I’ve owned many cars – most of them in rather better condition than that Renault – including a Nissan Micra, lots of Peugeots (a 106, 306, 205, 304 and 403) as well as a Porsche Cayenne and Land Rovers, which are useful where we live as the weather can suddenly change, bringing snow. The DS5 – which has 4WD – would be good for that, too.
I never gamble with my driving – or my cooking. I’m angry when I see people driving fast; they should think about whom they could hurt; maybe someone’s child or parent. They should go to a circuit, like Silverstone, to see that this is the place to enjoy speed, not the roads.
I want to follow them and tell them this but I don’t; I remain calm and in control. Just as I do when I’m in the kitchen.