Manu Feildel is in juggling mode. In a spare half hour between back-to-back press interviews for My Kitchen Rules, he chats to WHO on his way to the studio, fresh from dropping his son, Jonti, 5, to school. In a few hours he'll be back in the kitchen of his acclaimed L'etoile Restaurant & Bar in Sydney's Paddington, whipping up his signature Boeuf de Boucher before falling into bed at 1 AM. With his culinary career at its peak, there's little time to himself.
"Lately, it seems I spend half my days doing all the interviews and then I'm in the kitchen at night," says Feildel, 36, who balanced his restaurant commitments with filming for three months before Christmas. "If it's not work, it's Jonti. If it's not Jonti, it's something else. I don't have time to relax!"
More than ever now, as he dishes out the verdicts as a judge with fellow chef Pete Evans on Seven's reality cooking hit. "I woke up this morning to a text from Pete saying the show is No. 1 - ooh la la!" quips the French-born chef (he moved to Australia in 1999) in his characteristic twang.
The show might be No. 1, but it's son Jonti who remains his priority. "Everything I do, I do for Jonti," says Feildel, who split from Jonti's mum in October after 12 years together. "Everything changed when he was born. I was only living for my career, which is still very important today, but I was never happy enough - I was young, I wanted everything now," he adds. "Then he was born and it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
Jonti lives with Feildel a few days a week at his home in Sydney's eastern suburbs, and when Dad's not cheering him on at swimming class, the pair spend weekends scootering in the park, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, drawing - Jonti's artwork decorates Feildel's office - and having steak and chips at the local pub. "He's like me in so many ways," says Feildel. "He's a clown. Physically, he is like me and he can be grumpy, which is like me as well. But he's very loving. We're best mates."
But before Jonti came along, Feildel was devoted to food. Raised in Brittany on France's west coast, the youngest of two children to secretary Evelyne and chef Patrick, who split when he was 4, it seems Feildel was destined to be a chef - his great-grandfather was a pastry
chef, grandfather and cousin were chefs and his mother a great home cook. "Originally, I wanted to be a circus performer," says Feildel, who quit school at 14 to attend a local amateur circus school three days a week. When he failed an entry exam for a professional circus school in Canada at age 15, his mother suggested he work as an apprentice cook in his father's restaurant - and he quickly developed a taste for all things culinary. "I loved putting a smile on people's faces," he says.
Since then, he's worked in top restaurants around the world and enjoyed four seasons as chef on Ten's Ready Steady Cook. After he opened L'etoile in March 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald's 2010 Good Food Guide awarded the French bistro a Chef's Hat. "Manu is one of the most amazing people to work with," says long-time friend Evans, who met Feildel when he hired him to be head chef of his Hugo's eateries in Sydney more than a decade ago. "Not only is he very intelligent and a wonderful chef of the highest degree, but he's very entertaining and charming and extremely witty. He doesn't settle for second best, but he can laugh along the way."
So has Jonti inherited a flair for food? Feildel says his son loves to lend a hand in the kitchen, rolling pastry or buttering toast. "If he wants to be a cook when he grows up, then I'll be there for him," he says. "But he wanted to be a tennis player when the Australian Open was on!" Regardless of his calling, Feildel plans to be there every step of the way: "Being a single parent is hard and can be frustrating sometimes. But the moments you spend with your child are so amazing, it gives you the energy to get on with the rest of your life."
My Kitchen Rules finals airs Mondays and Tuesdays, 7.30 pm, on Seven