The Bigger Picture

The French Open

In the latest of a series, Emma Deighan looks at internationally-renowned hospitality figures providing a source of inspiration to the local trade

The French Open

HRNI editor Emma Deighan and Jean-Christophe Novelli

The French Open

Jean-Christophe outside the construction site of the AC Marriott Hotel and his new restaurant

The French Open

The French Open

The French Open

There is no better endorsement of a city’s hospitality offering than the investment of an internationally revered chef. Here Emma Deighan chats with Jean-Christophe Novelli about his new signature restaurant in Belfast, why he’s not here to compete and why he prefers a woman’s touch in the kitchen…

When Jean-Christophe Novelli came to Belfast to provide a taster of his upcoming restaurant at the AC Marriott Hotel in City Quays there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.

The 5 out of 5 AA Rosette and multi Michelin Star award winning chef, dubbed ‘the nation’s favourite chef’ has chosen Belfast as the location for his first restaurant in Ireland and no-one was in doubt that the offering would be pretty spectacular such is his reputation. And it was.

Jean-Christophe, 56, had called in the assistance of Niall McKenna and his team at James Street South to prepare a three-course lunch at the Harbour Commissioners’ Office recently, that will be typical of the French fare served at the simplistically titled ‘Jean-Christophe Novelli at City Quays’ which will open in March 2018.

Beginning our interview with compliments to the chef, Jean-Christophe praised the team who perfectly executed his menu: “He’s just fantastic. I knew of him. He has a great reputation and is a very modest chap. The menu wasn’t a problem for him, it was just perfect.”

A stark difference to a similar event he harked back to many years ago in Copenhagen. “I sent my recipes and I was delayed to the event so I arrive minutes before service and the restaurant is full. I’d never met the chef before so I asked to taste the food and I think ‘what the f**k is this?’. We hadn’t got time to change anything. In the end there was nothing wrong on site, it wasn’t them, it wasn’t my recipes it was their eggs and their cream. They were weak. You see the cows and chickens there only see the sun for six months of the year so there isn’t the same strength and textures,” he divulged.

No stranger to the city, Jean-Christophe first came to Belfast over 22 years ago and since has been visiting ‘like Columbo’ navigating the restaurant scene here to test the water but he makes it very clear that he’s not here to rival those establishments he’s had his eye on.

“This is the first thing I want to say, I am not here to prove anything or here to compete. I’m here to be part of the movement which is improving. From my first visit all those years ago so much has changed and I’m here because I want to be part of the party,” he said.

His confidence in his new venture is very evident when he talks passionately about the restaurant and promises to ‘look over that place like I’m looking over my sons and my daughter – with pride and excitement’.

“That establishment you see on the Quays is going to be there for at least 150 years.

“For me this is a great investment and when you’re an investor you don’t gamble and I’m not a gambler. It’s going to be a beautiful venture.

“I feel Northern Ireland is the place to be. There is so much going on here that I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before now. I feel like there’s going to be an explosion here, the waking of a giant,” he continued.

Presently under construction, the AC Marriott Hotel and Jean-Christophe’s 104-seat restaurant will feature a double height glazed façade with waterfront views across Belfast Lough and the menu will have all the French flair, brasserie-style, that is associated with the popular chef.

He plans on sourcing locally and this objective extends beyond the ingredients on his menu and into the kitchen.

“As a chef I’ve always looked at the best product geographically. I already bought stuff from Northern Ireland; prawns, flatfish from up north, potatoes, good beef, butter, I could go on. I value the produce here and I would be silly to buy from anywhere else,” he explained.

Referencing his kitchen and front of house team Jean-Christophe, who hails from Arras, France, admitted that it’s the only thing left he really has to work on; “Ideally it has to be someone local,” he said of his lead in the kitchen. “A chef or chefette. I would prefer a chefette. I’m not against male chefs and that would be an insult to say I was but with a woman it’s different,” he revealed.

He attributes this preference to the inspiration in his life – his mother, Monique. “I am who I am today because of my mother. She is the organiser, she’s always consistent and she can cope with any situation. She’s a fabulous cook and every woman in my life were excellent cooks.

“I’ve experienced women in front and I find that easier. They focus on the details.”

Monique lives with a disability having suffered from polio as a child and this saw Jean-Christophe heavily involved at mealtimes. “She couldn’t move that much so I helped a lot. Had that not have happened I would have been, God knows, a fire fighter. I became good because I wasn’t taught, I helped out and watched,” he explained.

Looking to the finer details of the restaurant; from appointing staff to finalising the menu (which he expects to do three month’s prior to opening) Jean-Christophe added: “That’s the excitement of getting to the day, finding the staff and one thing we are going to do is spend time getting the right programme and we have an obligation to spend a certain amount of time on that.

“I won’t create the menu too early because I’ll be a different chef in a year’s time. What will be great about the opening is the timing. It will be spring and everyone will be happy. We will have just come out of the hell of winter.”

It’s convenient then that Jean-Christophe’s home, and award-winning cookery academy, is so close to Luton Airport allowing him to quickly access the city at short notice for such events and, he hints, he may look at purchasing a property here to be closer to his Irish project.

“To be here in City Quays allocates you to a position that it’s very clear where you are. Who knows, we may buy somewhere here,” he concluded.

City Quays is Belfast’s newest mixed-use regeneration project, providing Grade A office space, a 190-room hotel, retail, cafes and restaurants in addition to new residential accommodation. More than £250 million has been earmarked for investment across the 20-acre site.

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