Photography by Ryan Kurtz
Jean-Robert de Cavel promised us five years, tops. Two decades later, the chef who arrived to take the reins at Maisonette has seasoned the city with his restaurants, his protégés, and his enthusiasm for all things Cincinnati.
The first thing you should know is, he didn’t want the job. But in October 1993, chef Jean-Robert de Cavel found himself facing a familiar decision: Should he stay or should he go?
Ask just about anyone who has come in contact with de Cavel and they will tell you he’s like a shot of espresso, radiating energy right out through the tendrils of his Mad Hatter hair. Stillness simply isn’t in his DNA. Corsica. Chamonix. Monte Carlo—as a young chef he’d loved and left them all, in search of new kitchens with new lessons to learn.
A year before, he’d departed a cushy post as executive chef at Le Regence, the restaurant in the luxurious Plaza Athénée Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side, to re-open La Gauloise, a bistro in Greenwich Village. De Cavel had been treated well at Le Regence and barring disaster could have stayed indefinitely. What’s more, he’d met an attractive young woman there—the Plaza Athénée’s assistant room service manager, Annette Pfund, a German who’d been raised in Algeria, where his own father had served in France’s Zouave corps during the Algerian Revolution. Pfund had an 18-month work visa but a 12-month apartment lease, and she’d recently accepted his offer to move in with him and Escoffier, his cat. Still, at 31, de Cavel was a man in constant motion.
The opening of La Gauloise had gone well. De Cavel’s own Art Deco posters complemented the restaurant’s classic belle époque decor as did his collection of vintage salt and pepper shakers, which he displayed in a vitrine near the kitchen. Most important, his modern twist on bistro fare was getting favorable nods from the press. But he quickly found himself caught in the crossfire of two sparring owners, and within the year they told him he could buy them out or shut down.
And then Daniel called.
Daniel Boulud was already cutting a superstar’s swath through New York’s dining scene. The two had met while de Cavel was the chef at Le Regence—a job Boulud had previously held for two years before taking over the kitchen at Le Cirque and eventually opening his own temple of haute cuisine, Daniel. Boulud had been impressed. “I always liked his cooking, his personality, and the ambition I saw in him,” Boulud wrote me in an e-mail. So he called his friend to tell him about an opening at a Mobil five-star restaurant called Maisonette. The owners were a family by the name of Comisar and the location was Cincinnati.
In Boulud’s tiny office at Daniel, he and de Cavel found Cincinnati on a Filofax map. De Cavel thought about going after the job, but not too seriously. Other opportunities were percolating, like the rotisserie concept he was mulling for a space in uptown Manhattan. Still, five stars are five stars—Le Regence only had four—and he was happy to accept an expense-paid getaway if all he had to do in return was cook something. In October, while Annette met up with her family in Madrid and assured them that this Cincinnati thing was a bit of a lark, de Cavel landed in Hebron. Because the airline lost his luggage he had no suit and tie for his first night in town and therefore couldn’t dine at Maisonette, which hewed to a rather strict dress code: jackets and ties for men, dresses for ladies. So Nat Comisar and his cousin Marc, who’d been handed the reins by Nat’s uncle, Lee, took him to the family’s other restaurant, Chester’s Road House, in Montgomery.
Out of 100 applicants, de Cavel was one of three finalists invited to cook for seven members of the Comisar family, soon-to-retire Chef Georges Haidon, and Maisonette maître d’ Richard Brown. He was given a list of the kitchen’s provisions in advance. Would he need anything else?
“They were a five star restaurant,” he says, ending his sentence with an exaggerated shrug—French for You do the math. He figured they’d have what he needed. He had no special requests. No recipes written out. No plan. Jean-Robert de Cavel came to audition for the top job at the country’s longest running Mobil five-star restaurant, to cook for the family who’d owned it since 1948, and…winged it.
Richard Brown recalls the audition with laser-like sharpness. “His first course was a shrimp cocktail. He placed five shrimp on a plate and split the bottoms so they would stand up. The tails were all toward the center of the plate. He made small bouquets of celery greens and little lettuces and swirled them in a vinaigrette he’d made, shook off the excess, and put the bundles right in the center of the tails of the shrimp. It was,” Brown says, “just like a little flower bouquet.
“He did skate wing with a beurre rouge and flash-fried basil leaves. The basil was so fresh and crisp, you put it in your mouth and it just dissipated.”
Brown was blown away by what de Cavel sent out. He wasn’t the only one. He recalls someone asking aloud, “Is Cincinnati ready for this?” and owner Lee Comisar replying, “I don’t care, they’re going to get ready.” In the minds of everyone at that table, de Cavel had nailed the job by the second course.
Nat Comisar likens de Cavel to a jazz musician, citing his ability to “rearrange on the fly”; improvisation has long been his strong suit. For de Cavel, born in 1961, it’s a skill that was honed well before the touch of an iButton backlit all the world’s mystery and became serendipity’s digital spoiler.
Growing up in Lille, near the border of Belgium, de Cavel tapped his passion early. “I always wanted to cook,” he says. “Even in the Boy Scouts I wanted to be the cook.” After high school he began a two-year apprenticeship at Le Feguide, a restaurant in a Lille train station, while also attending culinary school. “I realized that by being a chef, I could travel. I could go anywhere,” he says. From Lille an aunt helped him get work at a restaurant near Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean coast. After fulfilling his mandatory military service, he hopped a train to his first real job, a position he’d found through a trade paper at the Hotel Bristol in Zermatt, Switzerland. His communication with the owner had been conducted entirely in French; what he didn’t know was that he was going to work for a German chef, in a German-speaking region of Switzerland. No way to know until his train, crowded with riders chattering in French, made a stop in Geneva. His countrymen disembarked. One stop later everyone around him was speaking German. It was too late to turn back. He’d have to wing it.
When the Comisars made their offer, de Cavel agonized over the decision. Cincinnati could be a good spot for a few years, he thought. But from there—who knew? Back to New York perhaps, or over to London, where young chefs were invigorating the U.K.’s culinary scene with French-inspired food. London would be the perfect place for a French chef to land after a tour in the American Midwest. But still: Stay or go?
De Cavel arrived in Cincinnati in November 1993 with a girlfriend, a cat, and a commitment to Maisonette. He left behind kitchens in some of the world’s most luxurious playgrounds, only to find himself with a job he hadn’t wanted in a once mighty river town where, when he arrived, the downtown streets looked like an empty Hollywood movie set by 9 p.m. most nights.
Sitting in the sunny kitchen of his home in Newport, sipping the cappuccino he has made for me—the chef who famously can’t say no doesn’t like to hear it either—I ask why he decided to make the move. “I thought it was a place I could make a difference,” he says. “And when you do that, you really give it everything you have.”
Bien fait. De Cavel is now something of a grandfather to many restaurants around the country opened by chefs who trained in his Cincinnati kitchens. He’s been a tireless champion of his adopted city and has been instrumental in kick-starting downtown’s dining revolution. His current home base, Jean-Robert’s Table, quickly became the heart of the city’s culinary scene when it opened on Vine and Eighth Streets in 2010; his latest venture, French Crust, a café and pâtisserie two blocks away that he co-owns with fellow Frenchman and pastry chef Jean Philippe Solnom, was mobbed the day it launched in September. He has been more visible than any mayor, at times seemingly everywhere at once. There he is with his family at the Sacred Heart Ravioli Dinner in Camp Washington. There he is again, making a cameo appearance in the premiere of Cincinnati Ballet’s Nutcracker, at Diner en Blanc in Washington Park (his hair and beard dyed white), slurping pho at Song Long in Roselawn. He continues to give his time and talent to charitable causes all over town. Zoofari? Yes. Juvenile Diabetes? Yes. March of Dimes? Hospice of Cincinnati? Yes and yes.
Whatever has been offered, whatever has been asked, his response has always been a quick and emphatic yes. But his de-votion to his adopted American home hasn’t come without cost. In 2002, as de Cavel prepared to open his own highly anticipated restaurant, Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, he and Annette suffered a devastating tragedy when their 3-month-old daughter, Tatiana, succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Seven years later, a very public and acrimonious divorce from his business partner, Martin Wade, forced the closure of Pigall’s and the dissolution of the Jean-Robert French Restaurant Group.
After either one of those setbacks he could have packed up and left town forever and no one would have blamed him. So what made him stay? You could argue that he stayed because his natural integrity meshed with the city’s Midwestern authenticity; or because it’s a place where he could befriend potters and P&Gers alike, and that the strong friendships he forged here have seen him through the most wrenching times of his life. You could say he stayed for the love and validation he gets for everything he does, or the fact that Cincinnati reminds him so much of Lille, that river town in northern France where he was raised with four siblings in a close-knit Catholic family.
But I have a feeling he stayed because of the chicken.
“I was freaking out.”
That describes the approximate state of Paula Kirk’s mind in July 1994 as she puzzled over what to serve at the dinner party she was hosting for this new hot-stuff French chef and his chic girlfriend. The owner of Paula’s Café on Fourth Street, Kirk was one of the first people in town to befriend the de Cavels. She wasn’t quite aware of them until she noticed Annette one night at Maisonette. You couldn’t not notice her striding through the hushed, plush dining room wearing a suit jacket and leather hot pants with stockings.
“It was shocking to see someone walking into Maisonette dressed like that,” says Kirk, who watched as plate after plate of impressively creative food was delivered to Annette’s table. Kirk knew right then: These were people she wanted to know.
Now she’d gone and done it by inviting them over. How do you cook for a cook who’s cooked it all? One who can recall any flavor, and doesn’t need to fiddle and tweak and correct; one who can sit down with a pen, pad, and a cup of coffee and construct a menu because, as he once told Richard Brown, “Honestly Richard, I already know how everything tastes.”
Kirk is an avid foodie and accomplished cook, but she fretted over what to make and admits she was intimidated. She considered making duck confit, among other, more ornate things. “I finally thought, Screw it,” she says. “I’m going to make fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and blueberry pie.” The chicken, fried in her grandmother’s skillet; the Southern green beans cooked with ham; the gravy, potatoes, and pie—everything came out perfect. And the chef who tastes with his mind learned something new: in Cincinnati, first you make a divot in your mashed potatoes and then you pour on the gravy.
“He was thinking he would sauce up the plates first,” says Kirk. “It was a whole [new] experience for him.”
The night I visit de Cavel at Jean-Robert’s Table, there are seven sauces, one for each protein on the menu, each gently warming in a hot water bath. True to his billing, de Cavel is hard to pin down. He darts around the kitchen, orange socks peeking out from gray pants and black clogs, while his crew—four young line cooks and two experienced sidemen, chef de cuisine Jared Whalen and sous chef/meat station master Roy Silcott—get busy with final preparations before the start of 5:30 dinner service.
Table is only two blocks around the corner from Maisonette, which closed in 2005. The space lay dormant until last summer, when one of de Cavel’s early acolytes, David Falk, installed the biggest, flashiest iteration yet of his flagship restaurant, Boca, replete with a glamorous two-story spiral staircase, chic exposed concrete walls, a menu rooted in Italy, and a Ferrari of a kitchen with a wood-fired grill and four sous-vide circulators.
I ask de Cavel what he thinks of Falk’s new place; he is, as always, candid. “I’m jealous,” he says, rolling out sheets of puff pastry for a squab entrée in less space than most people use to make a sandwich. His envy is understandable. When Jean-Robert at Pigall’s opened in 2002, it had all the bells and whistles, including two private dining rooms, a six-seat chef’s table, Limoges china, and Christofle flatware. I look around Table’s kitchen as line cooks Travis Reidel and Andrew “Curly” Meyer carve out precious counter space to prep for dinner.
“Where’s your circulator?” I ask. He nods toward a cramped, paper-packed cell near the back door. “In the office,” he says.
In sous-vide cooking, raw food is encased in vacuum-sealed plastic bags which then simmer in a circulating water bath at a precisely controlled temperature. The technique has been embraced by 21st-century fine dining chefs.
“I have a different approach,” de Cavel says in his still strongly accented English. He doesn’t use his sous-vide circulator at Table. Instead he employs a Silcott—Roy Silcott, the stout, affable veteran of the lines at both Maisonette and Pigall’s who can throw down consistency against any programmable kitchen bot. Silcott schools me in the preparation of a pork trio entrée and explains how Annette helped him pull off his recent wedding at the Netherland Plaza’s Hall of Mirrors (where she works as a catering account executive) and ticks off the ingredients in a white wine beurre blanc sauce with star anise and Pernod, all while turning out order after order of perfectly seared scallops. Because Silcott can do that, de Cavel can do what he loves to do: wing it.
“I love cooking. I never want to be a chef who doesn’t cook,” de Cavel says, already tasting in his mind the surprises he will send out to the Gordons, who have come down tonight from Oxford.
Dr. Gilbert Gordon and his wife, Joyce, moved to Oxford in 1973, when Gilbert became chairman of Miami University’s chemistry department. Dedicated gourmands, they soon became Maisonette regulars. “We always anticipated excellence at Maisonette and got it, but we always knew what we were getting,” Gilbert Gordon says. “With Jean-Robert, that wasn’t the case.”
I had called the Gordons hoping to get a quote or two about de Cavel; instead, they invited me to visit them in their gracious home in Oxford. As we talk, seated in a comfortable living room full of decorative souvenirs from a lifetime of world travel, Gilbert pulls from a box a neatly typed sheet of notes detailing a Maisonette dinner they had in 1994. For them de Cavel prepared: duck carpaccio with foie gras; stuffed zucchini blossoms with beet puree; cold vegetable vichyssoise with warm sea scallops; sweet breads in pastry; cantaloupe and watermelon gazpacho; tiramisu of white grapes and red wine; rabbit with cepes, porcini, and oregano.
“He knew he could do anything with us because we were open to it,” says Joyce Gordon. Her husband carefully places the sheet back in the box with the other 82 pages that document every unique menu de Cavel cooked for the couple during his seven years at Maisonette. The Gordons followed him to Pigall’s and then to Jean-Robert’s Table, where they dine five or six times a year. He’s never made them the same thing twice.
Not everyone was as open to change at Maisonette. By 1993, nouvelle cuisine was already 20 years old. His first day on the job, de Cavel says, “I realized my food was two generations ahead of what they were doing.” Fusty classics like the tableside Caesar salad and Chateaubriand remained tremendously popular. De Cavel was urged to retool the menu almost from the moment he arrived; still, he resisted. He knew better than to get rid of moneymakers and he respected the legacy of the man he would replace: For the first few weeks of de Cavel’s tenure, Chef Georges Haidon worked next to him to ease the transition. Once the kitchen was under his command, he dazzled the willing and built his following, one Gordon at a time.
“I thought he’d last a couple of years at the most,” says David Cook, who served as executive sous chef under de Cavel. Which is to say, after 45 years, things at Maisonette were done a certain way. When de Cavel arrived he was shocked to find sugar caddies on the dining room tables. One of his first demands: the sugar caddies must go. He also expected clean shoes on his chefs and perfection on the plate. Cook was eager to work for a chef who expected excellence, not excuses. “Sorry doesn’t help, buddy!” de Cavel would often yell.
“I learned a lot of French curse words because I got yelled at a lot in French,” says Cook, who now owns Daveed’s Next, in Loveland.
Most of those who worked under de Cavel found him brilliant and formidable but not one to hold a grudge. “All bark, no bite,” is how David Falk describes him; he fostered a camaraderie that endeared him to his cooks. “It was a great kitchen to start in. Five-star, but the culture was family,” says chef Jeremy Lieb. “Jean-Robert took the time to show you and explain.” Lieb left Maisonette and Cincinnati in 1995 for a stint in France, eventually moving on to Daniel in New York and Le Cirque in Las Vegas before heading to Atlanta, where he opened the acclaimed Trois, one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in 2007. Now Lieb is back as executive chef of Falk’s ever-expanding Boca Restaurant Group.
“You knew he loved you,” says Falk, who de Cavel nicknamed “Scampi” to differentiate him from Cook, the other Day-veed in the kitchen back then. “He’s like Beethoven. His food has always been rooted in the classics, but it’s such fun and he gives it such flair that it mirrors his personality.” Falk credits de Cavel with giving his generation a creative license that makes an enterprise like the Boca Group possible in Cincinnati. When de Cavel recognized talent he pushed those baby birds from his nest, so they could get experience in other restaurants. When Falk worked at Spiaggia in Chicago prior to Maisonette, chef Paul Bartolotta didn’t call him Scampi. “I think his nickname for me was, ‘Hey you fucking asshole,’” Falk recalls.
De Cavel’s nurturing environment helped propel Nate Appleman to relative stardom. Appleman eventually became the executive chef at two wildly successful San Francisco restaurants, A16 and SPQR—as well as an Iron Chef—before moving to New York to open Keith McNally’s high-end pizzeria, Pulino’s. Today Appleman is corporate chef for Chipotle Mexican Grill, the $2.7 billion dollar fast food success story. De Cavel took a chance on Appleman, hiring him over the phone (“I never do this,” he told Appleman. “What if you showed up weighing 500 pounds and couldn’t fit in the kitchen?”) then assigning the 18-year-old to the meat station, the hardest, hottest job on the line. De Cavel was always supportive, “but not a hand-holder by any stretch,” Appleman adds. Nor was he a diva. “We were a team and he relied on every person there,” Appleman says. “It wasn’t all about him. We were all part of something bigger.”
No matter how much de Cavel may have hollered during dinner, it was history by the time the first round of Rolling Rocks hit the bar at Barleycorn’s, where Maisonette’s crew often went to unwind. “Even if he was furious with you in the restaurant, that was completely over when we went out,” says Richard Brown. Hopping around France as a young cook, de Cavel was used to making family out of friends. At the inn where he cooked in Serre Chevalier in the southern French Alps, he became like a son to the elderly owner, stacking firewood, shoveling snow, and learning to make the beef stew just how she liked it. Then he’d hit the disco with the guys running the ski lift at night. Why should Cincinnati be any different?
Blowing off steam over drinks after closing is ritual to most cooks. Firing at hay bales with crossbows? Not so much. But occasionally de Cavel and Cook would take their beers and join Maisonette’s butcher and roast chef, an avid hunter named Michael Reed (who now works at Boca), for a little late-night target practice on the top level of the Ninth Street parking garage. “A few beers and firearms—maybe not so good,” reflects Cook.
On September 12, de Cavel celebrated his 52nd birthday. In typical fashion he marked the occasion by serving someone else, this time at a fund-raiser for Findlay Market. When I met him the next day I brought a bag of Peanut M&Ms—his favorite treat—as a token. Not five minutes later, Renee Koerner from Big Fish Farms in Bellevue arrived bearing a birthday jar of her artisanal paddlefish caviar. I almost felt trumped, but de Cavel has always embraced the high and the low with equal gusto. He’ll happily prepare sweetbreads and snails with a truffle bordelaise sauce at a hospital fundraiser in Oxford and just as happily chow down on fried chicken at Greyhound Tavern. (I told you it was the chicken.) He gave me a taste of the caviar but kept the M&Ms for himself.
Despite the physical demands of restaurant life he claims no concessions to his age, save one—a pair of reading glasses he abhors that stay tucked in the pocket of his chef’s coat all night long. He’s twice as old as some of his cooks yet seems to possess twice their energy. One year for his birthday, de Cavel, a huge Elvis fan, actually did something for himself: He took a brief vacation from the Maisonette kitchen and piled into a 50-foot RV with Annette and 12 of their friends for a three-day road trip to Graceland. They dubbed themselves “The White Trash Group.” “That’s his lowdown side,” says Paula Kirk, who went along. The group set up camp at a KOA and had a blast touring Elvis’s home and splashing around in the campground pool. “It was incredible,” Annette says. She can still recall the name of the row where they parked the RV: Heartbreak Lane.
De Cavel had promised himself a three-to-five-year tenure at Maisonette: He stayed for seven. But he was itching for his own place and had been making quiet inquiries for a while. Then he saw a for lease sign at the old Pigall’s building on Fourth Street and quickly started visualizing what could be in that space. “I saw Daniel [Boulud] have his restaurant, and then open another place. It was the same with Michel Rostang [in Paris]; he had his fine dining restaurant and his bistro. I thought I could be that person here,” says de Cavel.
But his original partners, Maisonette regulars Tom and Kathy Huff, backed out of the project as costs started to mount during the building’s renovation. They did leave de Cavel a parting gift: their accountant Martin Wade and his wife, Marilyn Scripps Wade, whose great-grandfather founded the E.W. Scripps media empire. The Wades were willing to stick with de Cavel, and despite warnings from friends about the pitfalls of partnering, he threw in his lot with them.
De Cavel’s sensibility infused every aspect of the restaurant. He commissioned hand-thrown chargers from an artist he met at a Hyde Park art show, purchased paintings and menu art from Todd Westermeyer, a friend and chef at Maisonette and Pigall’s, and handmade restroom sinks from his friend Scott Kelley, a potter. His whimsical salt and pepper shakers were on view once more, this time in sleek, built-in wall displays. “It was the anti-Maisonette,” says Brown.
But in June 2002, as he prepared to unveil his dream restaurant, de Cavel’s 3-month-old daughter, Tatiana, died in her sleep. After a funeral attended by 400 people (and a eulogy by Martin Wade), the de Cavels flew to France to grieve with family. “I thought he was going back,” says Anne Thoman, a longtime server who has worked with de Cavel for 10 years. It was a concern held by everyone hired to work at Pigall’s: Perhaps they’d lost him for good. But two weeks later, the couple returned. “He is always thinking of others and I really think it was the outpouring of support that got him through,” says Thoman. Gilbert Gordon tears up when he recalls how de Cavel kept one of Tatiana’s baby socks in his pocket as he cooked when Pigall’s finally opened, two months later. Says Brown: “The day we opened he stood in the kitchen and sobbed.”
As the grief subsided, a torrent of activity followed. De Cavel drove his cooks hard (“The yelling was the worst at Pigall’s,” says Silcott) but Jean-Robert at Pigall’s quickly racked up four Mobil stars and became one of only 19 North American establishments to be recognized by Relais & Chateaux. De Cavel received a third James Beard nomination for best chef in the midwest in 2006 and the following year was named a Master Chef by Maîtres Cuisiniers de France.
Working with Wade, he also began a breakneck expansion of the Jean-Robert brand, over the next five years adding JeanRo Bistro, Pho Paris, Greenup Café, Lavomatic, and Twist to the family. De Cavel appeared on The Dish, a daytime cooking show on WKRC-TV, and signed a deal to handle catering at the Newport Aquarium. It was quite a juggling act, and friends were concerned that he might be spreading himself too thin. “He never knows when to say no and it affects his business and his family,” says Dennis Speigel, a close friend and consigliore. “I’ve seen him do the craziest, dumbest things just because someone asked.”
Speigel himself instigated at least one of those crazy things: a boar-hunting trip in the hills of West Virginia. The night before the hunt, Speigel’s party (which also included David Cook, lawyer Robert Brown, investment banker Murray Sinclaire Jr., and Kroger executive Geoffrey Covert) enjoyed an elaborate meal with a dozen bottles of wine followed by a nightcap of local moonshine in mason jars. At 4:30 the next morning, deeply hung over, the group loaded up their rifles and headed into the woods with their guides. “Jean-Robert shot the first boar,” recalls Speigel. “You think he’s going to shoot you the way he handles a gun, but he has great hand-eye coordination.”
The trip was a bright spot in a year marked by increasingly strained communications between de Cavel and Wade. In 2008, when the wind got knocked out of the economy, Pigall’s hit the doldrums. The relationship between de Cavel and Wade—already frayed—unraveled completely. In February 2009 Pigall’s closed. “They did too much, too fast,” says Speigel. “And they were both at fault for that.”
If anyone ever wondered what it might take to deflate de Cavel’s boundless energy and optimism, here was the answer: economic collapse. “I had been through tough times and never really got down,” he says. “But I lost everything. And at that time I was really, really depressed, because it was so personal.”
Barred from opening a restaurant for one year by a noncompete agreement with Wade, de Cavel once again faced that familiar quandary: Stay or go? This time, going wouldn’t be so easy. Despite interest from the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo and The Charlotte Inn in Martha’s Vineyard, the implosion of his restaurant group had left him in a difficult financial position. In 2004, the de Cavels’ second child, Laeticia, was born and soon after they moved into a 100-year-old home in Newport that needed extensive renovations.
De Cavel wasn’t one to let a little thing like unemployment or $60,000 in credit card debt prevent him from honoring cooking commitments he’d made around the country. If he had promised to do the Food + Wine Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, then he would go, paying his way out of his own pocket. But for the first time in his life, cooking was the last thing he felt like doing. Even if he could open a new place, he thought, what bank would give him a loan? “Mentally, I was too tired,” he says.
He took refuge in Dennis Speigel’s office on Victory Parkway and pondered his next move. “We didn’t want him to leave Cincinnati,” says Speigel, who is one of three people de Cavel credits with pulling him from his slump. The others were Dan Cayse, a former vice president of Cincinnati State—who handed de Cavel a lifeline in the form of a job at the Midwest Culinary Institute—and his lawyer Robert Brown, who staked Jean-Robert’s Table along with Speigel.
But even as de Cavel faced the withering of everything he’d built, the seed he’d planted with Lavomatic—the bistro in Over-the-Rhine that is still owned and operated by Wade—was about to yield a crop of tender young dining shoots. “He got to the promised land, but not through the gate,” says Speigel, referring to the urban beachhead de Cavel established in what is now called the Gateway Quarter. Again he had provided a glimpse of what could be to another generation of chefs. Today, when Dan Wright opens Senate for lunch, it is to a crowd already waiting at the door, and if you want a Friday night table at A Tavola, or Abigail Street, or Kaze, well, lotsa luck.
Between Robert Brown, Speigel, and the bank, de Cavel was able to open Jean-Robert’s Table in 2010 for $300,000. Three years on, he has paid off his loans and owns it outright. While not the pinnacle of culinary calisthenics that Pigall’s was, it is precisely in tune with what diners the world over want these days: top-flight food in a relaxed atmosphere. The place feels homey in no small part because it’s family-run: Whalen and Silcott in the kitchen, old friend and former La Normandie maître d’ Marilou Lind at the front of the house, and Thoman serving guests in the dining room.
Table’s menu shows that de Cavel remains at the top of his game. In his mind, he knows that a couple of pieces of caramel corn will play perfectly in a salad of sweet lobster meat and sharp greens. He knows a hit of Banyuls vinegar makes Sallie Ransahoff’s jewel-toned tomatoes tomato-ier, and that a coin of buttery sautéed foie gras sitting atop a crisp yet creamy cake of grits will encourage plate licking. He’ll still blast a line cook for plating a fish entrée with ratatouille after he already sent ratatouille to that diner three courses back. But being branded a donkey for a flub like that is a small price to pay for young chefs who want de Cavel’s name on their résumés.
At 11 p.m., as dinner service winds down, he makes time to visit with the Gordons before they depart. When the Table closes, some of the staff may gather at Knockback Nat’s for a nightcap. But tonight de Cavel, whose day started with an 8 a.m. meeting at French Crust, will head home, back across the river he loves to see every day, where he might catch an old movie on French satellite TV before heading up to bed.
The last time I meet with de Cavel, it’s a sunny October morning. We are sitting at a table near the front door at French Crust. Again I have accepted coffee and (full disclosure) a flaky, chewy croissant. If it was possible for him to sit still that long, he could hold court from this spot all day. “See you, Mike,” he calls to a departing friend; a former Pho Paris pastry chef arrives and introduces him to her boyfriend before they grab a table; David Cook stops by with his wife, Liz. He may not know everyone in town but everyone knows him.
“Jean-Robert has always brought an American creativity to his French background,” says Daniel Boulud. “With Jean Banchet at Le Francais and Jean Joho with Brasserie JO in Chicago, Jean-Robert has been a very influential French chef in the Midwest and helped maintain French cuisine there.” Yet the kind of national attention that seems due a chef of his skill and influence has eluded him. It is partially self-inflicted. De Cavel’s habit is to show everything on the plate and nothing on Twitter or Instagram; neither his face nor his food grace Table’s website. “He’s not out there hitting his own chest, saying ‘Look at me,’” says Appleman, himself a 2009 James Beard award winner. But it’s also the buzz-driven times in which we live. John Mariani, Esquire’s longtime food and travel correspondent, lays some of the blame on the media’s Pavlovian response to novelty, or what passes for it. “I have long regarded de Cavel as one of the finest French American chefs,” says Mariani. “But if the media covers [Cincinnati] at all, the current trend is to find hipster places with chefs tattooed up to their necks, doing loud, obnoxious eateries rather than restaurants.”
It’s funny to see a creative force like de Cavel, who has opened nine restaurants over the last 20 years, bemoan society’s constant need for new. Molecular gastronomy in Spain! Cocktails in bags with sippy straws in Miami! “I hope people are going to stop wanting something new all the time,” he tells me. Before he opened Table, he consulted with another Cincinnati restaurant icon, Jeff Ruby, who asked him what he wanted to do. “I want to be Arnold’s!” de Cavel told him. Ruby was dumbstruck—what could he possibly mean? “It’s still here,” he said.
De Cavel is unlikely to ever be content. He’s already laying plans for a new venture at Findlay Market, and is toying with a separate bistro concept. But without a partner to serve as a reality check, he has to temper his id. A little. “I have a business plan, a name,” he says of the bistro. “It could never happen…or it could.”
With its splashy design and “blow people away” ethos, David Falk’s new Boca is indisputably the hottest table in town. And with plans to expand Nada into other cities, Falk may well be the one to land Cincinnati on the nation’s culinary radar once again. But the heartbeat of the city’s dining scene will always throb in de Cavel’s kitchen. “Food’s going to come and go,” says Lieb. “My identity is not in the food, it’s in the people in the kitchen, and that I learned from Jean-Robert.”
Nate Appleman now works out of Chipotle’s test kitchen in New York where he explores the ingredients and techniques shaping millions of meals. So it’s not a stretch to assume that a little bit of de Cavel is in your next burrito bowl. “If you connect all the people he’s worked with, it’s huge,” says Appleman. “When you look at the impact he’s had—not just in dining but for the city—that’s something to envy.”
On a golden Sunday evening in late August, as things are winding down at the Germania Society’s annual Oktoberfest, the de Cavels come striding through the crowd with Laeticia and a group of her friends, looking like they’ve just arrived at the best party in town. With his trademark wiry hair in full effect, Jean-Robert looks relaxed and sharp in a checked shirt from the German clothing line Annette is promoting. “This is as German as I get,” he says. He may come to the event to honor his wife’s cultural heritage, but I suspect he stays for the chicken. Those Germans really know how to rotisserie a bird.
Last year the de Cavels officially became United States citizens. (“I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and became an American in Frankfort, Kentucky,” Annette likes to say.) With their daughter already a born-and-bred American, they felt citizenship was the right thing to do.
“I’ll always be French,” de Cavel concedes. But Laeticia’s teams wear red and live in a jungle. She is a Cincinnatian. Which is a pretty good reason to stay.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue.