IT shouldn’t be a surprise really, but the chef Jean-Christophe Novelli uses food metaphors a lot. Building his first restaurant business from scratch, he says, was like having a huge appetite for more. The business collapsed into bankruptcy a few years later, he says, because he had too much food on his plate and got sick on it. He even uses a food metaphor when talking about the illness of his baby son and the moment he had to choose from three types of chemotherapy for him. “It was like a menu,” he says. “The worst menu of my life.”

Novelli talks like this because food is, and has always been, his obsession. He tells me about growing up in France. He was hyperactive, he says, and a bit of a troublemaker but he loved being at home and particularly loved being in the kitchen. “My mum said to me once ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with Jean-Christophe – he’s always in the kitchen or in the bedroom’. And I said ‘I know. I might be a chef or a porn star’ and she gave me a massive whack between my ears.” This is typical Novelli: bawdy, fun, straight-talking, a bit rude. We’re going to have to use a lot of asterisks in this interview.

For the moment, though, I want to know what he thinks of the food. We’re in a hotel in Edinburgh and it’s too late for breakfast and too early for lunch so the chef has plumped for a sort of posh Scottish version of beans on toast: pitta bread, haricot beans, onions, pork sausages, with an egg on top and drizzled with harissa. “I like the idea,” he says, quickly chopping the dish into pieces. “It’s very original.” In fact, he’s always rather liked British food and British people and Britain. “Because it’s such a confident country, we are probably the best country in the world,” he says. “That’s the reason I came over – clearly, I knew it was my future.”

Except that it turns out, sadly, that Britain doesn’t seem to love Jean-Christophe Novelli as much as he loves it. Recently, he, his Irish wife Michelle and their three sons have been applying for British passports to make travelling simpler but it hasn’t been easy. “The only one who had a problem is me,” says Novelli. “I had to answer a lot of questions. What is the Scottish national dish? Who is the current queen – Elizabeth or Victoria?”

Novelli also had problems when he tried to vote in the EU referendum. “I could not vote,” he says. “I went inside to get my right to vote as a citizen, because I think I am a citizen, and they said ‘you can’t vote’. I could see my name with a line through it. My wife voted, but I couldn’t.”

Novelli isn’t bitter about this – it seems to me that he’s bitter about very little – but he does point out that he has represented Britain abroad and worked as a chef in the country for 37 years.

“But not once did I mention I was a chef,” he says, “because I do not want favouritism.” I ask him how he would have voted in the referendum if he’d been able to and he says he can’t tell me. “I would not even tell my best friend,” he says, “I am not in this country to do politics.” He does point out, though, that Brexit could have a significant effect on the restaurant trade. “Anybody who’s good at maths will knew there’s going to be an issue with having the right number of people in the industry,” he says. “It’s a concern.”

I ask if he’s also concerned about obesity and what the source of the problem might be and he points down at his mobile phone. We’re getting fatter because of what we’ve down to our brains with technology, he says – the constant messages, typing, the phones and laptops – all of it means we are more absorbed in technology than in cooking and eating well. He points at his phone again ¬ “I think this is the thing that inflates your stomach,” he says.

Not Jean-Christophe’s stomach though. He is 58 years old but he runs, cycles, walks, and he does the plank for three minutes almost every day. In fact, he thinks he has the perfect technique for the exercise and insists I do the plank on the floor of the hotel so he can show me where I’m going wrong. He’s also keen to get his children interested in exercise and shows me a clip on his phone of his six-year-old son jogging along the road with Novelli driving behind him and shouting encouragement. I tell him it looks a bit scary and he laughs. “I love them to death,” he says.

But can he be scary – in the kitchen I mean? Isn’t that what chefs are like, particularly famous ones? “Of course I used to shout,” he says. “I was born very human. But there are different types of people – people who do well, people who don’t do well, and people who don’t give a f***. That’s where you see the other side of me. Everyone has to be multi-versatile and pull their weight. Yes, we all have a temper. You’ve got to be on time, precise and consistent.”

Kitchens are nothing compared to the army, though, he says, particularly the French army. Novelli did a year’s national service when he was 18 and says it gave him a sense of endurance and concentration like nothing else. He then jumped on a ferry to the UK and started working in kitchens and it was tough.

“You work all day six days a week in the same place,” he says. “You arrive, it’s dark. You leave, it’s dark. You don’t see the sunshine. The only sunshine you see is that Michelin star. You realise that it’s not just about how good you are, it’s about who is the fittest.”

Novelli’s aim was to build up his restaurant business which he did in the 1990s with very little money. “I can hear Gordon Ramsay saying to me ‘you’re spreading yourself too thin’ and I used to ignore everybody because I had developed a huge sense of appetite which is quite normal as a chef and I wanted more. I didn’t want the money, I wanted to do more. I went to the extremes but the biggest mistake I made was I stopped cooking and the more money I got, the more restaurants I bought, all with cash. I was stupid.”

Then, in 2000, the whole thing collapsed and Novelli was back to skint – a situation he says he knew from his youth and didn’t mind. “What happened was I was given too much good on the plate and I got sick on it, but now I eat slowly and I chew my food and I digest it.” What this means in practice is smaller, tighter business interests – the reason he’s up in Scotland is because he’s checking out a business opportunity; there’s also a restaurant in Belfast and a cookery school at his home in Hertfordshire.

But even that had to take a back seat two years ago when Novelli’s youngest son Valentino was diagnosed with the cancer neuroblastoma. “We spotted a little lump on his vein,” says Novelli. “People were saying ‘it won’t be cancer, he’s a baby, he’s too young’. But it took four days to find out that it was cancer.”

The doctors then hoped they could remove the tumour from Valentino’s neck but it was twisted round his veins and it would have been too dangerous to take out. Chemotherapy was the only option. “I saw forms on the table and they were asking us to sign,” says Novelli. “It was consent for him to have chemo. It was like a menu – the worst menu of my life. There were three options of chemo. I will never forget it.”

Novelli and his wife then spent every minute they had next to Valentino’s bed and the business took a back seat. The boy is doing well now though and is two and a half years old. “We need to go back every six months but he’s showing a lot of signs of becoming a normal human being. He’s not talking- he’s very behind because of what he went through – it happened to him when he was six weeks old. It’s like he’s been disconnected for a year.”

Novelli’s wife has also found an unusual way to give something back: she paints portraits, for free, for any family who’s been through a similar experience to them. Novelli is also starting to hope for the future. “I would love to say he is clear and I would hope that I would die before him. He’s just a happy boy."

The business is also up and going again. Novelli is promoting his cook books and his cookery school and he clearly has an eye out for a new business opportunity. He’s also happy with himself and what he does. He finishes off the posh Scottish beans on toast and then sits back and offers an assessment of himself. “I have never been a drunk or taken drugs,” he says. “I’ve never been an a**hole and I’ve never even been flash.”

Simply Novelli: Quick and Easy French Classics is published by Relish. For more information about his cookery school, visit