Hell’s Kitchen star Jean-Christophe Novell’s joy at son’s cancer recovery
Little Valentino Novelli chuckles happily as he runs about playing chicken with a pet hen in his family’s back garden.
It’s the kind of golden toddler days snap every doting parent would
treasure for ever.
But for TV chef Jean-Christophe Novelli and fiancee Michelle Kennedy, this is a sight they feared they might never see.
Just 18 months ago, six weeks old Valentino was beginning a fight for life after being diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, a cancer that has one of the lowest survival rates for children.
His tearful parents were plunged into months of despair and helplessness as they watched their baby battling against overwhelming medical odds.
Now Hell’s Kitchen star Jean-Christophe and Michelle, 42, blink back tears of joy as 20-month-old Valentino plays happily with his siblings.
“We had to wait 20 months to see the light in his eyes,” said Jean-Christophe, 57. “But he’s such a character these days.
“Before he didn’t smile, but now he’s always laughing and smiling. He’s normal again. You don’t appreciate normal until its taken away from you. It’s probably been the best year ever.”
Now Jean-Christophe is looking forward to his first Father’s Day with his little boy at home.
Jean-Christophe’s other sons Jean, nine, and Jacques, five, have been hard at work on home-made cards for the big day – and Valentino’s is paint prints of his hands and feet.
“If I live until 100 I will look back and these prints will be one of the most special things in my life,” said Jean-Christophe, also dad to Christina, 31, from a previous relationship.
“But it’s Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas every day for us because the fact my son is here makes life special every day. We really did not believe it would happen.”
Newborn Valentino was just settling in with his overjoyed family in October 2016 when his parents found a lump in his neck at their home.
He was rushed to hospital where an MRI scan revealed a neuroblastoma tumour – a rare cancer of the nervous system.
The tot endured four rounds of chemotherapy at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, and a further two courses of the most aggressive form of the drug when initial treatments failed to shrink the growth.
His parents stayed by his bedside throughout the treatment.
“From one day to another our life changed entirely, completely,” recalls Jean-Christophe.
“It didn’t matter how much we loved Valentino, we had no control of his future.
“It was like a nightmare. Michelle and I were thinking the worst, without sharing it with each other.”
To cap it all, in the midst of Valentino’s cancer battle, Michelle, 42, developed deep-vein thrombosis, a serious blood clot in her leg, collapsing in front of her eldest sons in February, 2017. She was blue lighted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London and given emergency surgery.
Separated from her baby boy, the mum-of-three hallucinated that she was talking to Valentino and that he was in the bed next to her – a traumatic memory she puts down to the cocktail of medication she was given.
But Michelle, a former marketing consultant, recovered.
And little Valentino battled on until his parents were at last given the news their child was cancer-free in April last year.
“I was putting the boys to bed when I heard a scream from Michelle as she picked up the phone” recalls Jean-Christophe.
“It shook me. I thought this would either be the worst or the best phone call of my life.”
The happy news came on the same day Jean-Christophe’s mother Monique, who lives in his native France, celebrated her 89th birthday.
It is a coincidence the chef says has special significance because Monique also beat the odds to survive polio when she was a child.
Jean-Christophe and Michelle whisked the family off for a break in Bournemouth to visit his older daughter, keen to start making memories free from the shadow of cancer. But the trauma continued for the family long after their baby was home for good.
“Even six months after he was given the all-clear I couldn’t sleep” said Michelle.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about the hospital, the nurses, and all those other children in the ward, including those who didn’t make it.
“Every detail of it came back to me at night when Valentino was lying next to me in bed.
“He still had his Hickman line into his heart and his feeding tube in for about three months after he came home.
“I couldn’t seem to separate myself from him. It was hard going back to normal life.”
“When someone said they had heard of other kids with neuroblastoma where the cancer had returned it knocked me for six. I hadn’t even thought it could come back.”
But now the couple are determined to put their nightmare behind them.
They are embracing the future as they watch Valentino playing with his brothers in the paddling pool, chasing their pet chicken Mary around the garden, and watching him mimic his older brothers as they sing Incy Wincy Spider to him.
He is fascinated by butterflies and has started smelling the flowers in the garden of their Luton home.
“I get really tearful when I see them all playing together,” says Michelle. “Especially when they are all laughing.
“I watch my boys teaching him Simon Says and playing on their scooters together. It gets me quite emotional.”
Jean-Christophe, who was renowned for his fiery passion in the hit ITV show, nods in agreement.
“There’s nothing in my whole life that has given me pleasure like being with my family,” he says.
“It’s the only thing I ever wanted. It’s only now that we’ve managed to grow together as a family – before we were dismantled, just surviving. But now we are living our best life.”
Valentino has started to walk, and is learning how to speak after mastering his first word – ‘mama’. A month ago he also started eating proper food. “You have no idea how much it hurt me buying those jars of baby food,” jokes Jean-Christophe.
“But he is getting stronger every day now he is eating properly. He’s less tired and has more stamina.
“About two months ago I saw him kick a ball for the first time.
“We are only now enjoying the pleasure of having our baby and we are swept up in this happiness.
“When we reach his 21st birthday we will celebrate it big time.”
The couple are also planning another big reason to celebrate next year – their wedding.
They have been together for more than a decade and hope a big wedding party will help them draw closure on a difficult couple of years.
“To call Michelle a rock would be an insult – she has been a mountain of titanium,” says Jean-Christophe. “I want to give her the wedding of her dreams.”
The couple are planning the bash for next year when their sons will all be old enough to act as pageboys.
Jean-Christophe will have to fit their wedding planning around the opening of his new restaurant Novelli City Quay in Belfast, and the start date of his new cookery school, The Corran, in Wales.
But when it finally comes round, it will be another chance for them to create happy memories that every day are beginning to outnumber the sad.
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