hearing loss: Award-winning chef Jean-Christophe Novelli reveals to Jeananne Craig how he came to terms with being diagnosed with hearing loss
Illustrious chef Jean-Christophe Novelli has cooked for everyone from royalty to sports stars, but, recently, he struggled to communicate with this star-studded clientele.
Not that the handsome, charming Frenchman was ever lost for words; an undiagnosed severe hearing loss meant he strained to hear what people were actually saying to him.
“I remember David Beckham brought the whole family in for a meal and at the end of it he came to the door of the kitchen to thank me for the food and to ask if I would have a picture taken with his mum,” says Novelli , 53, who is only now revealing that he has been in denial for years about his deafness.
“He had to repeat twice what he wanted because I just couldn’t pick it up - I thought at the time, ‘He must think I’m stupid not understanding him’.
“I briefly met Baroness Thatcher and I remember that as difficult because were in a noisy place with background noise. There was another occasion when Princess Anne came up to me at a function to ask me to help with a fundraising banquet. She was speaking in perfect French but I just couldn’t get it at all and in the photograph of me with her you can see the strain on my face. I’m also turning my left ear, what I know realise is my better performing ear, towards her.
“If it’s friends or customers or colleagues you can ask them to repeat things, even if it’s embarrassing, but with these famous people you may only have two minutes and you might not get a chance to speak to them again. It’s been very stressful.”
Novelli was convinced he was too young to suffer from hearing loss so was shocked when he finally received a diagnosis late last year of age-related and noise-related severe hearing loss. A hearing aid, from Specsavers, transformed his life and he is talking about his condition to encourage those over 50 to seek help - according to Action on Hearing Loss, 8% of people in their 40s have some kind of hearing loss, rising to 19% of people in their 50s.
“Why didn’t I do something about it sooner? Because I was unwilling to admit to it - it was about pride and vanity - I thought wrongly that hearing aids were still those horrible little boxes stuck on top of your ear and would make me look old,” he says candidly.
“I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, how much I was just struggling but it was becoming harder to ignore. Last year a question and answer session in front of a big audience when I literally couldn’t make out the questions being asked of me was a horrible experience.
“Just to add to it I was also getting neck strain from craning my neck to try to hear people and headaches after a long day of concentrating so hard to listen.”
It was his fiancee Michelle Kennedy, 36, who took matters into her own hands, bundling him into a taxi and revealing only at the last minute where he was going.; for a hearing test. He now wears an aid so discreet, it’s unnoticeable.
“I’m so happy that she did that, even though I was grumpy at the time and arguing it was unnecessary!” he says with a wry smile.
Novelli has been working in restaurant kitchens since arriving in Britain aged 22, in a 30-year career which has earned him four Michelin stars, and seen him open Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell, in 1996, plus a string of other restaurants. Yet surprisingly, he only puts part of the cause of his hearing problem to working in noisy kitchens - he blames his love of music more.
“In catering people don’t speak, they scream at each other and there’s always crashing and banging of pans and equipment - but listening to loud music probably had a much bigger effect.
“I was young and quite lonely, barely speaking any English, when I first arrived in Britain, and my way of winding down after a busy day in a kitchen was to listen to music playing at full blast on headphones. Sometimes my ears would feel as though they were burning at the end of a session and if I went to clubs I would stand right next to the speakers so I could literally feel the noise pumping through me. In a way I can’t regret it because music is still a pleasure but I think I’ve paid a price for it.”
The chef, who has appeared on Hell’s Kitchen and Loose Women to name but two had another pressing reason for wanting his hearing to be 100.
“I realised it was not fair on my children if I ended up struggling to hear them as they grow up,” says Novelli, who has two sons, Jean, five, and Jacques, 18 months, with Michelle. The couple live in Hertfordshire where they run a cookery school. He also has a 25-year-old musician daughter, Christina, from his first marriage.
He clearly delights in being a hands-on father: “I can’t understand fathers who say it’s not a man’s job to change nappies.”
“When Christina was born I was working six days a week and living in a caravan. It was tough but it had to be that way to get established. I am very close to my daughter now and she is very successful in her career but I know I can never get back those years when she was around six and seven and I worked all the time and was never off with her at holidays like Christmas,” he says.
“Now, the family is central to my life. Doing the school run, helping my boys - Jean speaks French and is already a good swimmer - is fantastic and I know the value of the time with them.
“I’m totally involved and they keep me young. I try to be as fit as possible so I will be there for them while they grow up. Michelle and I don’t drink or smoke and we watch our diet.”