Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli launches awards to celebrate courage of children with cancer
- Credit: Cancer Research UK.
Celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli and his partner Michelle Kennedy have opened their hearts about their baby son’s cancer battle and the lasting impact it has had on their family.
Little Valentino Novelli, the youngest son of the five-time AA Rosette and multi-Michelin starred French chef, was diagnosed with the rare childhood cancer, neuroblastoma, at just six weeks old.
Former TV Hell’s Kitchen chef Jean-Christophe said he and Michelle, who live in Tea Green, found the thought of their baby son dying incomprehensible as they placed all their belief in the “amazing” NHS who took care of Valentino during two years of gruelling treatment.
But their relief when he went into remission was short-lived after Valentino was diagnosed with severe autism within a year.
Even though the couple were acutely aware of some of the signs – Valentino liked to play alone and heartbreakingly he couldn’t and still can’t talk – the news came as another body blow to his parents.
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Once based at Brocket Hall restaurant Auberge du Lac, Jean-Christophe spoke about his family’s ordeal and how he has reassessed what is important in life as he helped launch the Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People Star Awards, in partnership with TK Maxx.
Valentino has received one of the awards himself, which celebrate the courage and bravery of children with cancer.
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To launch the Star Awards for 2020, dad-of-four Jean-Christophe hosted a virtual cook along with a group of children from across the UK, including seven-year-old Edith, who has recently finished more than two years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Jean-Christophe said: “We are almost four years on now since Valentino was diagnosed in 2016 and we have been fortunate.
“Every day I wake up thinking this has not happened – but then we thank God that we live here, with the amazing NHS in this country. Not everyone is as lucky.
“Things will come to me and I will have a flashback even now. Michelle and I were not aware enough of cancer – it was a new area for us.
“Cancer gets locked in your mind, you don’t know what is going to come next.
“We suffered and were in bits, and of course I cried and Michelle cried, but never for one minute did we believe he was going to go.
“We believed that whatever we are going to go through, one thing that was not going to happen – he was not going to die. That wasn’t an option.”
The couple first noticed something was wrong as Michelle fed newborn Valentino one evening and Jean-Christophe popped in to kiss them goodnight.
Michelle, 45, said: “We noticed a strange little lump on his neck so we took him to be checked out the next day.”
They were sent to Luton and Dunstable University Hospital for tests before moving to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Valentino was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that affects mostly children under the age of five. It forms in the nerve tissue and usually starts in the abdomen.
Jean-Christophe, 59, added: “The lump on his neck was the shape of a snake and it was growing dramatically. They tried to remove it but had to stop the surgery. They said it was too risky and that’s when they decided to go straight for chemotherapy.
“Michelle was with Valentino 90 per cent of the time and I was constantly going back and forth to take care of our two older sons, Jean and Jacques.”
He added: “The most important thing to us was that our boy was going to be alive. There was no option with this for us.
“The worst thing was that we did not know how long the tunnel was. There was no light in that tunnel and we knew it was going to be a very, very long time.
“Here was our baby boy who we had only met in person six or seven weeks earlier. There was no reaction, except tears. He was too small to know what’s happening.
“Sometimes you would just see his eyes glassy and tears coming down his face.
“We were entirely in the hands of the NHS and had total belief in what they told us. They were phenomenal.”
The couple tried to shield their sons Jean, now 12, and Jacques, now eight, from what was happening with their baby brother as best they could. But when news of his cancer diagnosis became the talk of the school playground, Jean-Christophe was forced to tell them.
He said: “They knew something was wrong but I tried very much to keep things going as best we could and we had the help of Michelle’s friends, who were incredible and would come over in shifts to help until I got home each day.
“I was driving the boys to school one day when Jean asked me why Valentino’s name was always mentioned in the playground. That’s when I had to stop the car and tell them.”
Despite their wish to keep Valentino’s illness private, the couple were also forced to make it public as Jean-Christophe began cancelling work – including the opening of his new restaurant in Belfast – in order to focus on their son.
Now life has finally settled down for Jean-Christophe, who runs a successful cookery academy from their home in Tea Green, and priorities have changed.
The family is looking forward to a ‘normal’ Christmas at home this year – and are hoping to be joined by Jean-Christophe’s daughter Christina, from his previous marriage, and her wife Tara.
But as well as work, the popular chef is also helping to raise awareness of children’s cancers and the need for dedicated research to improve survival and reduce the side effects for children with cancer.
He said: “This whole experience has made us appreciate little things even more.
“I saw Michelle doing things that I didn’t think she was capable of doing. The strength she had – she was the captain of the boat. She was just incredible.”
He added: “We’ve been through these terrible times. Sometimes you can’t communicate too much with people who are going through or coming through such a traumatic time and so we wondered what we could do instead.
“When we heard about the Star Awards we had no hesitation to get involved immediately.
“Giving a little bit of excitement through what we love – we both come from a cookery school world – and giving the pleasure of even a pancake, to see those kids have fun and try something like this was beautiful.”
• ABOUT THE STAR AWARDS
Nominations for the Star Awards are now open and Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People is calling on families of young people affected by cancer from across the UK to nominate them in the run up to Christmas.
Every eligible child who is nominated receives a trophy, a £50 TK Maxx gift card, a T-shirt and a certificate signed by celebrities supporting the campaign. Their siblings also receive a certificate.
The Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People Star Awards are run in partnership with TK Maxx, the biggest corporate supporter of the charity’s work into children’s and young people’s cancers.
Since 2004, the retailer has raised over £40 million for Cancer Research UK.
Over £37m of this total has supported research to help ensure more children and young people survive with a good quality of life.
Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People is the part of Cancer Research UK that supports research into cancers that affect those aged 0 to 24.
Around 4,400 children and young people in this age range are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK – that’s around 360 cases every month, 84 cases each week, and 12 cases each day.
To nominate a star, visit cruk.org/starawards