Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Maisonette signs up new chef

Frenchman will lead 5-star landmark

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        He's young, French and affable, with solid culinary experience at restaurants in Europe and New York. Now, Bertrand Bouquin will become executive chef at Cincinnati's Maisonette, only the fifth man to hold the top position at the venerable downtown restaurant. After an eight-week search, managing partners Michael E. Comisar and Nat Comisar told their staff Monday that they have hired Mr. Bouquin, 31.

        Mr. Bouquin is resigning as chef de cuisine at Club XIX at the Lodge at Pebble Beach in California to take the Maisonette position. Before he moved to California in January 2000, Mr. Bouquin worked as senior sous chef for more than two years at the acclaimed Restaurant Daniel in New York. He plans to start the Cincinnati job by mid-August.

        “This is the best career decision for me right now,” said Mr. Bouquin, who considered opportunities in San Francisco and New York. “I didn't want the pressure of working for a restaurant in a big city again.”

        Mr. Bouquin has a hard act to follow. Since his arrival in 1994 at age 33, popular executive chef Jean Robert de Cavel maintained the Maisonette's impressive string of Mobil five stars (the restaurant has won Mobil's highest restaurant rating 37 consecutive years) and was nominated as “Best Chef, Midwest” by the James Beard Foundation for the past two years.

de Cavel reopening Pigalls
Inside the Maisonette
        In May, Mr. de Cavel surprised many by announcing he was opening his own restaurant, Jean-Robert at Pigall's, on West Fourth Street, downtown, early next year. His last night working in the Maisonette kitchen will be July 21.

        “I think Bertrand has the same vision I had when I came here,” Mr. de Cavel said. “We have a very similar background.”

        Besides their French heritage, the departing chef and new chef have other things in common, including a foundation in classical cuisine, brief stints working in New York and high respect from Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of the acclaimed Restaurant Daniel in New York. Mr. Boulud recommended Mr. de Cavel for the Maisonette job in 1994 and endorsed Mr. Bouquin in May.

        “Daniel just told us we had to talk to this guy in Pebble Beach,” Nat Comisar said.

        The Maisonette owners interviewed eight male candidates — four Americans, three Frenchmen and one German-born chef — before narrowing the list to three who came to Cincinnati to “audition” for the job. For their tryouts, the chefs prepared a multicourse meal for six members of the Comisar family, Mr. de Cavel and for mer Maisonette chef Georges Haidon.

        The quality of the food was equal, the Comisars said. But it was Mr. Bouquin's passion for food and his quiet, almost shy personality that helped win him one of the top restaurant chef jobs in the country.

        “We were looking for someone who shared our values and goals,” said Michael E. Comisar. “And we also knew we all had to get along.“

        The consulting chef who hired Mr. Bouquin at Pebble Beach — Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco — described the young chef as “on the reserved side.”

        “He's not a chef who's going to brag about himself for hours.”

        Although he is sorry to see Mr. Bouquin leave, Mr. Keller believes he is “absolutely ready” for the Maisonette position.

        Mr. Boulud said his former sous chef is shy “but a good leader.”

        “He is a person who appreciates challenge, and who has precision and consistency in his work,” Mr. Boulud said.

        By hiring Mr. Bouquin, the Comisars may have secured the services of another talented chef — Mr. Bouquin's 30-year-old wife, Tanya. She will leave her job as chef de cuisine at Stillwater, another restaurant at the Pebble Beach resort. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Ms. Bou quin met her husband while working at Restaurant Daniel.

        Although she and her husband said they would have no difficulty working together at Maisonette, Ms. Bouquin hasn't decided when and where she will cook in Cincinnati.

        “Once we get there, I think I'll concentrate on finding a house and getting us moved in,” she said.

        Mr. Bouquin grew up in the small village of Nevers, in the rural, southern part of the French Burgundy region. As a child, he helped his parents cook at home, sometimes “licking chocolate off the spatula” and by age 13 had decided he wanted to be a chef. He began his restaurant apprenticeship at 16 and worked near Lyon and in the south of France before landing the first sous chef position at the Michelin three-star Restaurant Bruneau, in Brussels, Belgium.

        Mr. Bouquin spent two years at Bruneau before realizing his dream of moving to the United States in 1997. He passed up a job at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to work for Mr. Boulud. At Daniel, where he was known as “Bebert,” he was one of the most popular chefs among the staff.

        He left Daniel for Pebble Beach because, he said, he “needed room to grow.” At Club XIX, he produced contemporary French cuisine with a California accent — scallop and oyster seviche with cilantro and lime, sauteed Monterey Bay Abalone and Chilean Sea Bass with Provencal Crust.

        “I have a California touch, but I'm not too California beach boy,” Mr. Bouquin said.

        The new chef is not sure what changes he will make to the Maisonette menu — he wants to see what local food products are available. (Nat Comisar assured regular customers old favorites, such as lobster bisque, Dover sole and brill in puff pastry, will remain on the Maisonette menu.) But Mr. Bouquin promised his food — although contemporary French — will be different than his predecessor's.

        When Mr. Bouquin came to Cincinnati for his audition, Mr. de Cavel warned him about the demands of being the new chef at Maisonette.

        “My advice was the restaurant has been here a long time,” Mr. de Cavel said. “Customers are going to come, but you have to satisfy them.”

        Mr. Bouquin admitted he is a little nervous about maintaining the restaurant's five-star ranking. But he sounded like the confident chef at the most revered dining institution in town as he commented on Mr. de Cavel's plans to open a restaurant.

        “I'm not worried,” he said. “Competition is good.”


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