In the cosy surroundings of his country kitchen, Jean-Christophe Novelli cuts a dashing figure in chef’s whites as he tosses herbs, smashed garlic and Mediterranean vegetables into a shallow pan.
But while the French chef has made numerous confident TV appearances, his sojourn into the international restaurant business in the mid- to late-1990s proved to be a bruising experience.
Starting out with only £500, Jean-Christophe rapidly built an empire of seven restaurants in London, France and South Africa. He tasted stellar wealth and success, but fell into trouble within a few years. “I kept growing and growing my business in a way that wasn’t sustainable,” he explains.
With his current business venture, Novelli Associates, Jean-Christophe has literally come home. Started nearly 10 years ago with his partner Michelle, his internationally acclaimed cookery school The Novelli Academy is run from his home – a 14th-century farmhouse in the pretty Hertfordshire village of Tea Green. At its heart is the homely demonstration kitchen where traditional features and modern equipment sit side-by-side, and a wood stove and log-fired bread oven radiate warmth.
“We have grown this business from nothing,” he says. “We started on a very small scale in 2004, and now the business is very busy and popular, and very versatile on a worldwide platform. Our courses are for professional chefs as well as hobby cooks – people come here to learn new techniques or simplify their cooking skills, and find out how to recognise great produce.”
Apart from courses in his own kitchen, Jean-Christophe and his small team offer external events, and corporate clients form a large part of their business.
Reassurance a call away
Though Jean-Christophe’s first love is cooking and entertaining people, he is equally conscious that running a business of this nature brings obligations to staff and the need to comply with regulations. He has relied on Mentor’s support in this regard since his local NatWest Relationship Manager, James Farrelly, introduced him to Mentor shortly after opening the doors to the Academy.
“All I want to do is be a chef, to cook and give my customers an enjoyable time, but with the responsibility of being in charge of a business and employing people, it’s clearly very important to me to keep in step with changes in health & safety and employment law.
“To be honest, these things are like a foreign language to me, and I don’t really have time to understand these complex issues. Mentor has helped me keep on top of my personal legal obligations. If we are unsure of something, we just make a phone call and get an answer straight away. I believe that Mentor is a necessity for us - we need the expert knowledge and protection.”
As with any other business in the catering and hospitality trade, health & safety is a priority at the Novelli Academy. “We deal with perishable high-quality produce – so we’re focused on hygiene and the safety of our clients and ourselves. It’s about a lot more than food hygiene: we always have the safety of our clients and staff in mind. But even though we’re on the ball, there are processes we were unaware of and this is where Mentor’s help comes into its own, ” says Jean-Christophe.
Mentor’s clear and easy-to-use checklists have given Jean-Christophe the confidence that the implemented health & safety systems and processes are robust - for example, being able to provide corporate clients with up-to-date risk assessments on request is an essential tool.
Knowing that Mentor’s Advice Service is on hand 24/7 is very reassuring, should something unexpected happen, says Jean-Christophe. “We are in the business of people enjoying themslves. People come from all over the world to experience something truly amazing with us, but you have to expect the unexpected when dealing with clients with such high expectations.
“For instance, someone could have an accident somewhere within the Academy - it hasn’t happened, but it could one day. A business like ours, dealing with the public, can be vulnerable. So it’s reassuring to know there’s advice from Mentor available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in any eventuality.”
At present, Novelli Associates employs a team of three full-time staff and several part-timers - plus casual staff when required - in a range of roles, including hosting, administration, sales and marketing, as well as chefs who assist Jean-Christophe on outside appearances and demonstrations. “Our staff are versatile, multi-tasking people and some are young. They work varying hours - it’s not just a nine-to-five job - and some have the chance to travel abroad with me on occasion,” he adds.
“Because of the different staff roles, we need to make sure we stay on top of employment legislation the entire time and this is one headache we just pass onto Mentor - they simplify the relevant legislation.
“Mentor has definitely helped me with HR. I am not an HR expert, but I am able to run a company and staff, realising my own limits when it comes to employment law. I spend a lot of time using my five senses to create exciting dishes. However, when you employ people you have to keep up to date with all aspects of the law otherwise you may overlook something vital that may affect you in the future.
“That’s where Mentor has come in - they have helped me to remain at the helm of my business and to implement the right control systems. With Mentor’s help we have achieved this step by step; their service is set up in a very easy-to-understand way, so our staff know where they stand.”
As an example, Mentor recently advised Jean-Christophe when he decided to give a ‘young and dynamic’ part-time employee the chance to go full-time. “I didn’t know the procedure, so Michelle phoned Mentor. They were quick and their advice was useful. Now, both sides are satisfied that the correct procedures and documentation are in place. It’s great for staff to feel comfortable and secure too.”