In between cooking demonstrations at Taste of Dubai, the Michelin star chef tells Penelope Walsh why he's a fan of Time Out, and likes being a Frenchman abroad.
Jean Christophe Novelli: You know in 1996, an editor from Time Out came to my restaurant in London [Maison Novelli]. I didn’t know who he was and he didn’t have a clue who I was, of course. A few days later, there was a story about my restaurant in Time Out London. After that my restaurant was fully booked every single day, lunch and dinner. It saved my life. I only had a tiny restaurant, and trying to open a restaurant was tight, very hard.
What brought you to London originally?
I wanted to live in Britain, learn English. Obviously I still haven’t learnt English properly, but I'm getting by. I remember, when I got the sack after only one week [in the UK] and they were trying to send me back to France but I said 'no way, no I’m not going to go back to France’.
Because I would be finished. There’s no way I would have had the chance to express myself in the same way. I love my country. France is an amazing country but I don’t see myself living there and I don’t see myself going back there, I belong in the UK. I’m more French [abroad], than I am when I’m in France to be honest.
Surely, at that time, there would have been more job opportunities for a chef in France, than in the UK?
Yes... but to be a French chef, whether you are good or not good, and especially if you are not good, at least you have the qualification that you are French. At least you’ve got a little bit more credibility to get a job. (laughs)
I got offered positions because I’m very driven. I have used food to become someone… which is just a happy man. I used food as a passport to reach my destinations. It gave me something to offer to make a living, not to gain a Michelin star. The day they gave me a Michelin star, I did not expect it. I thought it was a joke.
Do you have any restaurants in operation at the moment?
No. I don’t have to. I'm giving myself more creative space to do what I want to do.
Do you find cooking for an audience (like at Taste of Dubai) more satisfying than cooking in a restaurant kitchen?
Well, the direction I have taken has allowed me to end up here, it's not like I decided I want to do this.
But there are chefs that actively decide they do not want to cook in restaurant kitchens anymore
I agree. I mean, I'm 53 now, how can I run the kitchen like I used to? I’ve been in the trade since the age of 14.
Does that mean you don't have the same energy and stamina as before?
It's not that. I want to enjoy my pleasure. And I want to enjoy pleasing others, my way, not by delegation. Maybe I'm becoming more selfish, with myself, with my pleasure. And the feeling of giving pleasure is enormous. It's therapeutic.
Are you tempted to open a restaurant again at any stage?
I might consider putting my name on something but I definitely would not be there with them [in the restaurant]. There’s no way on earth I can manage that. And that’s why I am not doing anything because I can't commit myself to being there all the time.
Would you consider opening a restaurant in Dubai?
Yes, we are, of course. I think I still want to take that challenge. I understand very well what Gary Rhodes does here. And if you have a successful establishment like Marco Pierre White, it is an extension of yourself, in a place that is very unique. And I believe very strongly that people are still going to associate that place with you, even though the chef may not actually be there.
Dubai is an exception. Having a place with my name in London, I said no. Because I live in Britain, people expect me to be there every day, but I can't. So I said no, that's cheating. In Dubai, people understand, I can spend three months of the year here, but that’s it.
But what I would do, is I would bring a cookery school here. I've got a fantastic little concept [in the UK], which was made from nothing. And that excitement, is something I can pass on to somebody else. It's a lot easier to pass on knowledge and teaching than actually passing on a recipe for someone to repeat in a restaurant seven days a week, lunch and dinner.