Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli on how son's cancer battle led to his appearance on Celebrity Hunted
It's hard work being on the run, even when it's for a good cause: celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli tells Gail Bell about how his Celebrity Hunted experience for Stand Up To Cancer helped him 'turn the page' on his own son's cancer journey
AFTER being chased all over Britain by police and intelligence officers and being fitted with a GPS tracking tag "like a real baddie" for TV charity special Celebrity Hunted, it's taking chef Jean-Christophe Novelli a little time to re-adjust to normality – but at least he's no longer sleeping in his back garden.
Filming for the celeb-based version of C4's hit reality series in aid of Stand Up To Cancer finished several weeks ago. Last week, the multi-Michelin Star winner flew into Belfast to check up on his Novelli at City Quays restaurant ahead of his imminent An Evening with Novelli event at the AC Marriott Hotel-based eatery.
When we met, the chef told me he thinks he's "fine now" and is definitely no longer looking over his shoulder.
"Taking part in the programme definitely makes you feel paranoid; it's all about paranoia and that can be hard to shake off," he says, in noticeably less exuberant tones than those usually associated with the upbeat Frenchman, once voted the 'World's Sexiest Chef'.
"When the programme ended, we had access to psychologists and psychiatrists, but I felt I didn't need them. I went home and just sat still in a chair and watched TV. I ate everything because I had lost so much weight and, for the first five days, I slept continuously.
"I cried – that was actually the first thing I did – and, for a while, I would waken up in the middle of the night and go out and sleep in the garden because I just couldn't be in a room.
"I would lie there, looking up at the sky, not moving for hours, falling asleep and then waking up with my back wet and cold. It was bizarre."
With Celebrity Hunted still being aired, Novelli (58) isn't able to give too much away about how he and his partner, Italian chef Aldo Zilli, finally fared – but, in terms of his son Valentino who was diagnosed with aggressive neuroblastoma at just six weeks old, it has helped the chef finally "turn the page".
Today, while the much-loved three year-old whom Novelli shares with fiancé Michelle Kennedy is now cancer-free, Valentino has recently been diagnosed with a severe form of autism.
"It has been another severe blow, but doesn't compare to the cancer diagnosis," Novelli says.
"Now, we don't cry anymore. We used to cry easily; before it would have been in the morning, evening, afternoon... then it became just in the evenings – then it disappeared.
"There's nothing which can be compared with what happened two years ago. Valentino's cancer doesn't exist any more; he is eating well, he's growing, he's strong. Now we just have to learn sign language because of his autism.
"He is this amazing little personality and that keeps us going. You can see he's a bit behind in his development, but he's quick and he's smart. He looks at you and he smiles – he can't participate in conversation, but I think he understands without speech.
"When we speak about him, which we do all the time, he just looks and then he smiles and he is communicating – especially with his mum who has done a fantastic job and is still doing it."
The French-born, Hertfordshire-based chef, who has two other sons with Michelle as well as an adult daughter from a previous marriage, decided to take part in Celebrity Hunted and try to win a share of the £100,000 prize for Cancer Research UK because of Valentino.
But, he confesses, being "hunted" alongside four other pairs of celebrity fugitives is not something he believes he would seriously contemplate again.
"It was definitely a unique experience," he says of the Stand Up To Cancer version of the programme, which sees contestants trying to escape capture for 14 days from a team of professional 'hunters' who deploy a mix of old fashioned detective skills and ultra modern equipment.
"It was much more difficult than I thought it would be. Basically, you don't know where you are and you have to keep running because you know you are always being watched.
"You are half-way through a plan and then you have to come up with another plan... you never have five seconds to yourself. And Aldo and I thought we knew each other, but we didn't. We had massive arguments because everything was so intense and because the programme makes it all feel so real.
"Actually, I thought afterwards that we live in a really safe country and the baddies will always be caught in the end."
Some of the duo's (mis)adventures see them trying to mingle incognito (a difficult state when you're a celebrity with a cameraman in tow) at a Gay Pride event, escape on motorbikes to an airfield, hitch a ride on a private jet and then become stowaways on a yacht with a couple they'd never met before.
On one occasion, Novelli dresses as a builder to enter a hospital and visit his son and then leaves again, disguised as a doctor. At one point he had hoped to escape to Belfast by flying into Belfast City Airport in a monoplane and hiding out in the basement of his restaurant at the AC Marriott Hotel.
Sadly, that plan was scuppered as Belfast was discovered to be beyond the geographical remit and the plane wouldn't be allowed to take off.
There were several near misses, some hilarious moments and nothing, it seems, was off limits: the hunters secretly placed a tracker on Michelle's car, visited his home and even tried to bribe his children with sweets.
"Ha, that didn't work at all," Novelli says, allowing himself a little laugh.
"My son said, 'You will never find find my dad; he was in the army [for France's obligatory stint of national service] and he will kick your backside'.
"In hard moments, a sense of pride kept me going. My son said, 'Dad, we love you, but we don't want to see you before two weeks are up'. It was my son's birthday while I was on 'the run' and I couldn't say, 'Happy Birthday', Apparently, he said, 'I don't care about what I do for my birthday, but I don't want to see my dad'."
The most bitter aftertaste for Novelli (whose nickname, rather appropriately, used to be 'Houdini'), was meeting with strangers and hearing their own harrowing cancer stories.
"That was really difficult," he says.
"You become aware of how many different cases of cancer are all around us. Everywhere I went, I realised, this is not just us. It was like we were really part of something, a group of people who really wanted to do something to stop it.
"It was important to make a point and stand up to cancer, but I never planned to be a 'baddie'. I'm just happy being a chef."
:: An Evening with Novelli takes place at Novelli at City Quays (Novellirestaurants.co.uk/belfast) on November 14. The next episode of Celebrity Hunted airs at 9pm on Sunday November 10 on Channel 4.