Cooking is a recipe for success to boost bond with my son
The French chef tells AMY PACKER why mealtimes have become special since his three-year-old’s autism diagnosis
AS A Michelin-star chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli was always keen for his children to share his love of food.Yet he never imagined just how important mealtimes would become for bonding with his fourth child,Valentino.
Late last year, his son was diagnosed with autism, a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
It has impactedValentino’s development and the three-year-old hasn’t learned to speak – and no one knows if he ever will.
But the former Hell’s Kitchen star has found he can communicate with his son through food.
“Valentino won’t eat unless he is starving – and he eats very slowly. But when he enjoys something he didn’t expect to, it’s so wonderful to see,” says the 59-year-old. “He starts tapping his foot, as if he is listening to great music, and he has his hands up to the sky or like he’s playing guitar.You can see he is loving it. He has these reactions that he doesn’t have the rest of the day. He loves to eat – that is one of his things – and we are quite fortunate in that respect.We know when he is enjoying a meal because he will devour it like there is no tomorrow.
“It’s great to be able to create these responses in him with food. But then I am a chef,” laughs Jean-Christophe.
He and his fiancée Michelle, 44, live in Hertfordshire and have two other sons Jean, 11, and Jacques, seven, while Jean-Christophe also has a daughter, Christina, 33, from his first marriage.
“I’ve always used food to engage my kids,” says Jean-Christophe. “With
Jean and Jacques they learned French because at every meal I make them converse in French while we eat.
“Mealtimes have been one of our true pleasures during lockdown, coming together to eat great food.”
The news ofValentino’s autism was particularly tough for the family as it came 12 months after he had gone into remission from stage four neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer he had been diagnosed with at just 10 weeks old.
During the cancer treatment it was discovered thatValentino has Microdeletion Syndrome, a rare genetic condition which causes learning difficulties, autism and schizophrenia in around half of those who have it.
“Doctors had made hints for some time that there might be something else, but we thought his development might have been slow because of the chemotherapy,” admits Jean-Christophe.
“Valentino doesn’t look like he has been through what he has been through, he looks like an ordinary child ready to go to school.
“But he suffers from severe autism and mental illness that unfortunately for him and us means the world will be a difficult place for him.That’s not something any parent wants for their child.We love him so much and he’s just wonderful, but his vulnerability is, at times, overwhelmingly terrifying.
“Like all parents going through this will appreciate, it changes everything within your family dynamic.We tend to avoid things we loved, like family outings or breaks or just socialising because it’s just too stressful withValentino’s high level of needs.
“It’s hard and we worry we aren’t doing enough to help him, but Michelle has been amazing, researching everything, and we’ve had so much advice from the National Autistic Society.
“My sister is a social worker in France and she is so impressed with the support we have been given. Because of coronavirus, people are finally realising how brilliant the NHS is, but my family have known for a long time.We have seen it first-hand because of everything Valentino has been through.”
Having watched as his son benefitted from incredible advances in cancer treatment, the chef is concerned about the effect the pandemic is having on funding.
“Cancer charities are having a really tough time at the moment but cancer is a horrific disease and one that will still be a problem once the current crisis is over.”
NEUROBLASTOMA, which Valentino suffered from, is a cancer of the nervous system and one of the most common children’s cancers.
Sadly, it also has one of the lowest survival rates. But a project currently funded by regional cancer charity NorthWest Cancer Research is seeking to change this by discovering better and kinder treatment options and combinations that will stop tumour growth and spread. “When I heard of the fantastic work being carried out I knew I wanted to support them,” says Jean-Christophe, who is raffling the chance to win an online cookery lesson to help raise funds.
“I am grateful every day that Valentino has been cured but I know that this wouldn’t have been possible without the advances made by vital research of this kind, so I want to do anything I can to help.”
Jean-Christophe is open about the fact the trauma has changed him. “We didn’t realise how much we actually endured. It took more than a year for us to realise how stressed we had been by it all.
“When I wake up now it isn’t about me, it is about my kids. Now, doing anything for myself is the last thing on the list. I feel like I don’t exist any more, I exist for my kids – and I’m fine with that.”
Jean-Christophe is offering one lucky winner a private lockdown cookery lesson via video chat. Tickets costs £5 each, entries close on May 25. Go to justgiving.com/ fundraising/jeanchristophenwcr. For more information about North West Cancer Research see nwcr.org