Jean-Christophe Novelli: 'I'm losing my hearing' - The Telegraph
Still, the 53-year-old remained in denial about his condition, believing that he was too young to be suffering from deafness. He finally received a diagnosis late last year of age-related and noise-related severe hearing loss.
A hearing aid has transformed Novelli’s life. Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, the chef has decided to talk about his condition for the first time to encourage over-50s to seek help.
“Why did I not seek help sooner? Because I’m a prat,” he said. “I never admitted it. How long could I have been better off if I had not been putting pride or vanity before everything?”
Novelli has been working in restaurant kitchens since arriving in Britain aged 22, in a career that earned him four Michelin stars. In 1996, he opened Maison Novelli, his own restaurant, in Clerkenwell and went on to open a string of other establishments.
“Chefs work in very noisy environments,” Novelli said. “You don’t speak, you scream. The sense of urgency means there is a lot of movement. It is horrendous – the banging, the pots – even for someone who has clear hearing.”
The enormous kitchens of the Four Seasons on Park Lane were the noisiest of all. “It was an amazing establishment with 20 departments. I never realised I was probably working in the worst environment out of all of them.
“I could cope with the noise when I was in prep – that was fine. But when it came to developing something new or trying to come up with the next à la carte recipe, I was not focused. The noise interfered with my concentration. But I never complained.”
As time went on, Novelli found it increasingly difficult to conduct a conversation if there was any background noise.
On the wall of the chef’s home in Tea Green, Hertfordshire, is a picture of him mid-conversation with the Princess Royal. It is clear from the photograph that he is straining to hear, his face screwed up in concentration.
The Princess was asking Novelli to help with a fundraising banquet. “She spoke to me very well in impeccable French but I couldn’t get it at all. You can see I am turning my good ear to her.”
On another occasion he met Baroness Thatcher, but struggled through the conversation. “If it’s friends or customers, you can get them to repeat. But with these people you only have two minutes and you might not even have a chance to speak to them again.”
There are other memories which now make him cringe with embarrassment. A night flight to Dubai in which he realised the glares of fellow passengers were aimed at his iPod, playing at top volume; the Q&A in front of an audience of hundreds at which he realised, to his horror, he could not make out any of the questions.
He even returned a “faulty” mobile phone because he could not hear on it. “I said, 'This earpiece is not right.’ Obviously it was right; my ear wasn’t.”
He was eventually persuade by his fiancée, Michelle Kennedy, to get tested. She put the reluctant Novelli in a taxi to Specsavers in Hitchin where a “fantastic, quick” test provided the diagnosis.
Novelli now wears a hearing aid and is delighted that it is so discreet as to be unnoticeable. "Don't forget, I come from a time when wearing a hearing aid meant a massive square box on the back of your ear," he said.
Wearing it is now "part of my life - like putting a jumper on."
It has brought additional benefits: his neck is no longer stiff from craning to hear, and he has stopped suffering from headaches brought on by the stress of maintaining a lengthy conversation.
According to Action on Hearing Loss, 8 per cent of people in their 40s have some kind of hearing loss, rising to 19 per cent of people in their 50s.
One in six Britons will be affected in their lifetime, but most people wait an average of 10 years between first noticing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis.
“There are so many people over 50 who completely refuse to say that they have a problem. I had always associated it with people who are much older,” he said.
“It can happen to anyone. Just have a test. It doesn’t cost you anything, it doesn’t harm you, and you will be much better off.”
Jean-Christophe is fronting Specsavers hearing centres’ ‘Putting hearing loss on the menu’ campaign, which aims to raise awareness of age related hearing loss. For more information, or to book a free hearing test, please visit http://www.specsavers.co.uk/hearing