A couple of weeks ago I attended a book signing and Q&A session with Manu Feildel at the Alliance Francaise of Sydney. The 12:30pm session booked out so fast that they had to add another one mid-morning, which booked out just as fast. This man sure has a lot of fans!
Manu, mostly famous for co-hosting popular cooking show My Kitchen Rules, was here to present his third cookbook, French for Everyone, which he hopes will show Australian readers what real French food is about: “We don’t eat confit of duck every day at home, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin or cassoulet… What we eat is what my mum cooked, which was what you guys cook but with a French accent.” “Every recipe [in the book] is easy to make, but they are very tasty, and there’s a lot of sauce,” he said.
Despite the recent closure of his Sydney restaurant L’Étoile, life seems to be smiling at Manu right now, between the success of MKR, his new food & travel show My France with Manu, his new restaurant in Melbourne Le Grand Cirque, his new cookbook, and his engagement to fiancee Clarissa.
Himself still can’t quite believe his luck: “I wake up every morning pinching myself. Ouch, I’ve got bruises everywhere!” he said to an already won-over audience. “It is incredible, I know that I worked hard to be where I am, but I still feel that I’m one of the luckiest men on this planet.”
He told the audience about the start of his career, when he left France at the age of 18 to work in London, and then his move to Melbourne in 1999 with $700 in his pocket, how he then completely fell in love with Sydney and decided to call it his home. There he worked with Tony Bilson (“a great friend”), whose restaurant ended up obtaining 3 hats, and he started making a name for himself in the industry.
The day he received a call from Channel 10 to audition for Ready, Steady, Cook! marked the start of his career in the media: “I was always interested in entertaining. Before I wanted to become a chef, I wanted to be a circus performer. [...] I thought if I can’t be in the circus, let’s do some TV, it’s pretty much the same!” he said, provoking laughter in the audience. The rest is of course history, with his appearances in Boys Weekends, Masterchef, then My Kitchen Rules, Dancing with the Stars, and the recent My France with Manu.
A few brave souls asked during the Q&A whether he was cooking at his new restaurant, to which he responded: “Never! I’ve got slaves now. I’ve got the whip!” He also joked that Louis Vuitton doesn’t sew all the handbags himself!
Manu explained that his head-chef Fabian Oliveau, who used to run L’Étoile in Sydney, has followed him all the way to Melbourne to look after the restaurant: “We write the menus together, he does all the hard work, I just taste it, tell him if it’s good or not, and then start from there. And he’s very good… he’s French!”
Despite having quite a tight schedule, Manu was kind enough to cut his break short to answer a few of my questions…
FW: How was it to go back to France, with camera crew in tow? How did your family react?
Manu: Going back to France was very exciting because I left France a long time ago, and every time I go back was for a quick holiday, and you need to see all your family, you need to jump from someone’s house to another, and you don’t rest, you don’t really have a holiday and you come back exhausted. This time it was still work, but it was so well organised that I didn’t need to worry about anything, from a town another city to another town. I rediscovered my own country, and seeing my family was fantastic. I think my family was a bit surprised and shocked by all the TV crew around, but I think what they said to me is I haven’t changed a bit, so regardless I’ve become what I’ve become, I haven’t changed from the Manu that they’ve met form when I was a little kid, I’m still the same Manu.
FW: Do they realise how famous you are here?
Manu: My mum comes here every two years, so she had a little episode of what’s going on in my life every time, and they knew there something that was happening to me, but the difference between telling them and seeing it, it’s very different, so seeing the TV crew following me everywhere was a bit of a surprise and a shock.
FW: Are there gonna be more episodes of My France…?
Manu: I’m going back at the end of May for another 3 weeks. We go this time from the Alps, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence to Marseille. So it’s very good, another 2 episodes!
FW: What do you miss most about France?
Manu: I think what I’ve realised is, because when I left when I was just 18 years-old, I’ve done some of France, but not all of it, and the fact that I came back and did the filming from Brittany all the way down to Biarritz, I’ve rediscovered France, and what I missed I’d love to go there a bit more often, for pleasure and just spend a bit more time there. And what’s great about it is that nobody knows who I am there, so I can actually travel without being stopped here and there. But what I miss is all the little markets, the little villages, the beautiful cheeses and the charcuterie, things that we have here, but not the same quality I suppose.
FW: Would you consider going back and live there to introduce your son to his French heritage?
Manu: Yes it is part of his heritage, but I don’t think it’s possible to go back and live there, because I’ve got a busy life here, and I’ve got a couple of jobs here that I can’t replicate over there. For me to become what I am back in France, I would have to start my life all over again. It would be a silly thing to do, but maybe I’d like to retire in France, maybe when my career slows down a bit, maybe I’ll have a holiday house, and I can spend a few months at a time, that would be nice.
FW: How’s your new restaurant going?
Manu: This is week 3, so it’s only been open for 15-16 days, so it’s early to say, but so far so good. We are busy already, I hope it’s gonna stay like this, I think the food is very simple French food, which people seem to really enjoy, there’s nothing complicated and people seem to enjoy that.
FW: Would you say that this restaurant resembles you the most?
Manu: It’s pretty much a full circle: the food I got brought up with, and then it became a lot of fine dining food, and back to what I was doing when I was much younger. This is my life going back to where I was, I think that’s what I want to do, it’s all a bit of what I’ve done under one roof.
FW: Your fiancee is Malaysian (actually Malaysian, Chinese & Sri-Lankan I found out). Has she helped you discover new types of cuisine?
Manu: For sure, I love every type of cuisine, I know that French is what I do, but I eat everything, and Malaysian food, I just love it, it’s really really nice, we cook at home together, so either I help her to cook, or she helps me cook my dishes, so it’s really good.
FW: Your life seems to be pretty complete at the moment. What’s the next dream you would like to achieve?
Manu: I know, it’s ridiculous! Let’s go back to My France with Manu, I would like to do that more and more and more, and maybe do My World with Manu, and travel all around the world and eat food!
And on that note, it was already time to finish the interview and get Manu back to his publicist and fans.
All in all, despite not being quite as receptive to his Gallic charm (French accent is not that exotic to me!), I found him to be a genuinely nice guy and, yes, pretty charismatic and endearing. You go Manuuuuuuuuuuuu! ;)
Check out the Alliance Française de Sydney‘s website for more info on the events that regularly held there.