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In Praise of the Pub - Jean Christophe Novelli's passion for the great british pub

By Max Gosney , 01-May-2005

Jean-Christophe Novelli - currently appearing on ITV's Hell's Kitchen - is a self-confessed Anglophile with a passion for the great British pub. Max Gosney finds out why he's such a big fan

If the passion has gone out of the cooking at your pub then French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli has some advice to help turn the temperature back up in the kitchen.

"Cooking should be wild like sex. There are no boundaries and you should push yourself to the extreme. That's the only way to get the best results and enjoyment from it."

A desire to serve fuss free food is proving a powerful allure at many UK pubs, according to Jean-Christophe.

The Michelin-starred chef - who was voted the world's sexiest chef by the New York Times and is currently appearing in ITV's new Hell's Kitchen series - holds a big affection for British inns.

He says: "I love pubs for their informality and back-to-basics feel. If chefs or managers can succeed in a pub then they can succeed anywhere, it teaches you everything you need to know about catering."

Jean-Christophe, who owns restaurants Novelli at Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, and Novelli in the City, rates his period at the then Keith Floyd owned Malsters Arms in Tuckenhay, Devon, as a career highlight. "It was unbelievable," he beams. "I had a fantastic time and used to love sometimes pulling a few pints and chatting with the customers. "The temptation to get back behind the bar remains strong. He says: "If I was not going the way I was then I would definitely have opened a pub. Perhaps in 10 years I will retire to a pub."

Jean-Christophe believes that traditional British dishes will drive the menus of any future pub businesses. He says: "I love things like steak and ale pie but made with the best cuts of meat. Many of these pub dishes are like classic cars in that you do not want to change them too much."

Bread and butter puddings, fresh-caught fish and casseroles are the Rolls Royce's of the pub kitchen according to Jean-Christophe. "You've got to do food that is simple, quick and not too clever, a good piece of fish or stewed oxtail. It's got to be home-made because customers know when they're being taken for a ride."

Facing the demands of balancing books and drawing up daily menus makes the pub environment the most suitable training ground for young chef talent says Jean-Christophe. The French chef who recently rejected offers from top chefs to tutor his daughter says: "Everything is budgeted in a pub and there's not the opportunity to flash money about buying ingredients like foie gras.

"A pub teaches you the basics of catering and I suggest everyone should do it."

British chefs are fortunate to have so many more quality, local ingredients to hand. They should be making the most of the fresh fruits and cheeses that lie on their doorsteps, advises Jean-Christophe. "When I worked at the Malsters Arms we had the most beautiful fresh-caught seafood. I remember eating a local crab salad which is still the best I've ever tasted."

A self-confessed Anglophile, Jean-Christophe seems to have adopted many of the culinary habits of his cross-Channel cousins. "I love beer as a drink and a cooking ingredient. I come from a great region in France with a passion for brewing. I also love prawn cocktails which can be great if made carefully."

The difficulty facing pub chefs, reflects Jean-Christophe, is convincing customers to embrace more cosmopolitan foods. "People tend to visit pubs for a drink so you've got to lure them into staying for dinner," he says.

"When I worked in a pub I would make little amuse-bouche for the bar. After snacking on scallops with black pudding and horseradish and bay squid with langoustine, customers would book in for a full meal."

And Jean-Christophe certainly stood by his principles when his daughter, Christina, decided to pursue a career in the kitchen. Declining offers from the super chefs, he pointed her, instead, in the direction of a stewardship at the Centurion pub at New Milton, Hampshire.

Novelli's pub tips

Pub heaven

Back-to-basics traditional cuisine - for example, bread & butter pudding, freshcaught fish and oxtail casserole Regionally-sourced ingredients

Prawn cocktail

Home-made tomato sauce


Unsalted butter or olive oils

More time on the stove, less on the hot plate

Offering dishes of the day

Pub hell

Complex, restaurant-style menus

Tomato ketchup

Disposable sauce sachets

Salted butter

Too much salt

For more info on Novelli visit