After nearly two-and-a-half years out of the kitchen, Jean-Christophe Novelli this week returns to his first love when he begins work as chef-patron at Auberge du Lac, the 50-seat restaurant at the heart of the Brocket Hall private estate in Hertfordshire.
Novelli’s appointment a fortnight ago is a coup for Brocket Hall owners CCA, but is also a significant departure for Michelin star winner Novelli, who is turning his back on the London restaurant scene six years after opening Maison Novelli in Farringdon.
Novelli’s highs and lows have been well documented: he opened seven restaurants over 18 months from July 1996 to December 1997, ran up serious debts and lost five, holding on to the Maison Novelli and EC1 restaurants
Now, at 41, Novelli says he has had enough of London, although he will maintain an interest in Maison Novelli, acting as a consultant and adviser.
“I started moving out two years ago when I moved to Amersham, 30 minutes from here. That has changed my life completely. I no longer have to take headache tablets or anything like that,” he says.
“I’m not saying that London is a problem, but I was a little bit too much driven. I’ve had several restaurants and have been to all corners of London. It’s very tough, very hectic, and the competition is ludicrous. It’s very unnecessary. There are a lot of people fighting for the same customers.
“But here we’ve got two exquisite golf courses, a fabulous name – Brocket Hall – we’ve got Auberge, the clubhouse and the terrace for the summer.”
Big changes are afoot. The name will change to Novelli at Auberge du Lac and a refurbishment is pencilled in for January.
In the meantime he aims to replace the tables and chairs, bringing in round tables to increase the covers to nearer 100.
He will oversee a team of 11 chefs and increase the opening hours from five days a week to seven. There will be more front of house staff, a cookery school, a bakery and a smokehouse. There will also be ducks drying at the window and an updated wine cellar, he adds.
The emphasis will be on seasonal food, and customers will be able to take afternoon teas or have morning coffee. “I’m going to try to be conventional. We’ve got a lot of traditional customers. We’re not going to scare people,” he says.
As directeur des cuisines – his official title – Novelli will supervise the Watershyppes restaurant in the estate’s golf clubhouse, Brocket Hall itself, and the Grill at CCA’s London Capital Club in the City.
“I had so many propositions: taking over the Oxo Tower, the Mayfair Club. I feel so privileged to know that people wanted to do things with me, besides Maison. Maison will always be Maison, but it can walk by itself now, the machine is rolling,” he says.
“I have come to a stage where my life has changed totally. It isn’t just work, work, work. But not just playing golf, either – I still don’t manage to bring that ball up from the 18th hole to the green,” he jokes.
“I appreciate walking in the morning, the fresh air. I don’t have to smoke 20, 30, 40 cigarettes a day or drink like there’s no tomorrow.
“My dream will be we do 50 for lunch and something like 70 for dinner seven days a week. That will be fantastic.”
Novelli’s change of direction has coincided with what could be the start of a new catering dynasty. His daughter, Christina, who turns 16 in November, has said that she wants to emulate her dad and go to catering college, something of which he is immensely proud.
“She is doing very, very well already. I would love her to come here, but not now. She needs to understand the catering life,” he says.
by Nic Paton