Jean-Christophe Novelli: 'I love Britain, but funnily enough I never got those English lessons' - Daily Mail
It was a magical move for me. I was born in Arras in northern France, and everything I liked came from the other side of the Channel – bands like The Beatles and The Rubettes, who I was crazy about, as well as English footballers such as Kevin Keegan. I was interested in the Queen and her family, red telephone boxes, black cabs, bobbies...
I’d been to England once with my school, and I still have a photo of me in Trafalgar Square feeding the pigeons.
I was so excited I didn’t sleep the night before because I was afraid of missing the bus, and I kept a 2p coin as a souvenir from the trip. I was desperate to go back.
I left school at 14 and began working as a baker in Arras before becoming, at 19, the private head chef to Elie de Rothschild [of the Rothschild banking and wine-making dynasty].
I was impressed by him partly because he looked like David Niven. I went everywhere with them and it was an absolute privilege. Then, in the early 80s the Rothschilds went to America and Elie asked me to go with them, but I chose to come to Britain instead.
I remember saying to my parents, ‘That’s it, I’m off!’ My mum wasn’t happy as I didn’t have much money and spoke no English, but my dad said, ‘I know you’re going to improve your life, so I’ll be happy if you do well.’ I came over on a ferry with one bag, watching the White Cliffs getting bigger and bigger on the approach.
I got a job at the Chewton Glen restaurant in the New Forest, where I met my first wife Tina.
It was superb, but they didn’t think I was good enough and threatened to sack me. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers, I grabbed the bottom of the boss’s trousers and begged him to let me stay.
He did, and I was soon promoted. I’ve never stayed in any establishment as long as that one. I proved myself by moving from one place to another. When I realised a kitchen would not move on, I moved on myself.
Then in 1996, with £500 in capital, I opened my first restaurant, Maison Novelli in London, and I’ve since added many more around the world, and had four Michelin stars.
It was after I’d gained my second that I made my first TV appearance, on the BBC’s Food And Drink. I got Gordon Ramsay on there too, giving him his TV break. In 2005 I opened my cookery school, The Novelli Academy – voted one of the top 25 in the world.
I’ll always be French and I love France, but luckily I’ve got what I wanted through my life in Britain.
It’s changed a lot since I’ve been here, but I still love British traditions, manners and humour.
Funnily enough, I never did have time for those English lessons!’