Thursday, August 28, 2003

Chef finds delicious success

Bucking the odds, Jean-Robert de Cavel pushes Pigall's to a level that delights patrons and impresses national critics

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jean-Robert de Cavel serves guest Whitney Simon at his "chef's table" in the kitchen at Jean-Robert at Pigall's restaurant on Fourth Street, downtown.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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Suddenly, with no warning, the chef cuts into the young cook as if he's filleting sea bass.

What have you been doing? Jean-Robert de Cavel screams. Can't you do it RIGHT?

The cook blushes and stammers, trying to explain why she didn't have enough shrimp prepared for the beet, goat cheese and microgreen salads. It's a few minutes after 6 p.m. on a showery August Friday at Jean-Robert at Pigall's, downtown. De Cavel is expecting more than 100 guests, and his sous chef - his second in command - is off. This is not the night to forget anything.

The chef isn't interested in excuses. He stomps out of the bustling kitchen to find shrimp. When he returns , he's joking with her - sipping the puckery, caffeinated "energy drink" Red Bull and popping his favorite peanut M&Ms.

[IMAGE] In his kitchen, de Cavel lectures one of his cooks.
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But soon, de Cavel is yelling at the young woman again, ticking off a nearly indecipherable list of food orders in his French accent, ending distinctly with, You go, GIRL!

She goes. Fast. And she gets it right.

Since opening Pigall's a year ago this week, de Cavel and his staff have been getting it right, drawing praise from critics and customers.

"We have such a wonderful experience when we eat there," says patron Mary Ellen Cody of Hyde Park, who puts Pigall's on par with restaurants in New York, Chicago and the West Coast.

In May, Conde Nast Traveler named Pigall's one of the top 75 new restaurants in the world. This month, de Cavel learned his restaurant is a finalist for Esquire magazine's list of "Best New Restaurants 2003."

It's been such a successful year, de Cavel has decided to open a casual French bistro downtown on Vine Street this fall.

All of this is impressive given the obstacles the former Maisonette chef faced in opening: A sagging economy, troubles downtown, and renovations that put him months behind schedule.

This all pales to the loss of his 3-month-old daughter, Tatiana, his only child, who died from sudden infant death syndrome in June 2002. Her death nearly caused him to walk away from the project.

But with the support of friends and his wife, Annette, de Cavel numbed the terrible pain enough to complete renovations to the old Pigall's building on Fourth Street and assemble a staff. He hung up the striking terra cotta-colored awning last August, and the people came in to see what he had built and eat what he cooked.

And they kept coming.

Some new restaurants experience a busy "honeymoon" period, usually lasting no longer than six months after opening. But Pigall's sweet season has continued without signs that it is close to being over.

For the first time in more than 25 years, this could be the year Mobil Travel Guide awards two Cincinnati restaurants with five stars.

When the Mobil ratings are released in late October, the owners of Maisonette hope their restaurant gets the five-star rating for the 40th consecutive year - longer than any restaurant since the rating began in 1958. Last year, Maisonette was the only restaurant in Ohio and one of 14 in North America to earn the distinction. And based on response from customers and critics, the new Jean-Robert at Pigall's may also be poised to receive five Mobil stars.

"I think it would be great, wonderful," says Nat Comisar, Maisonette managing partner.

Mobil did not rate Pigall's last year because the restaurant had been open less than six months when the ratings were released. And although Pigall's is eligible to be rated this year, Shane O'Flaherty, who oversees Mobil's restaurant-inspection program, declined to say whether Pigall's has been evaluated. (Mobil inspectors base ratings on several anonymous visits every year, but they do not visit every restaurant.)

Pigall's owner Jean-Robert de Cavel says Mobil has not told him whether his restaurant has been rated, and he has not contacted Mobil.

"If I get four stars and the Maisonette gets five, I would not be disappointed," says de Cavel, who left Maisonette in 2001. "I would be pleased for the Maisonette."

The last time Cincinnati claimed two five-star restaurants was 1976, when Mobil awarded the stars to Maisonette and the old Pigall's, which was opened by another former Maisonette chef, also a Frenchman, Maurice Gorodetsky. In 1970, three Cincinnati restaurants - Pigall's, Maisonette and the Gourmet Room in the former Terrace Hilton - earned five stars.

Chuck Martin

• Born: Sept. 12, 1961, Roubaix, France.

• Home: Hyde Park.

• Education: Le Feguide culinary school, Lille, France.

• Work experience: Sous chef, La Bonne Auberge, Antibes, France; chef, La Bonne Auberge, Hotel Malliouhana, Anguilla, British West Indies; executive chef, Le Regence in Hotel Plaza Athenee, Manhattan; executive chef, La Gauloise, Manhattan; chef de cuisine, Maisonette (1993-2001).

• Honors: Nominated as Best Chef, Midwest, by the James Beard Foundation, 2000 and 2001; recipient, medal of the Chevalier de l'Order du Merite, 2002.

Jean-Robert at Pigall's, 127 W. Fourth St..

Open: 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday. (Closed Sunday and Monday.)

Reservations: 721-1345. (Reservations can be made up to two months in advance on the first day of each month.)


While many Greater Cincinnati restaurants struggle to find customers during the week, Pigall's, where the minimum price for dinner is $65, routinely serves about 100 every weeknight. A dinner reservation for Friday and Saturday, when Pigall's serves more than 130 people each night, may require a call up to two months in advance.

"We're getting much support from the community," de Cavel says. "That's what surprises Annette and me."

He shouldn't be surprised. Cincinnati has adopted him as its favorite Frenchman. Since he arrived at Maisonette in late 1993, de Cavel has thrust himself into the community - generously teaching cooking classes, rarely saying no to charitable benefits. Cincinnatians love his wild hair, expressive brown eyes and musketeer-like streak of beard.

But mostly they love him for his passion to be the best - and for staying in their town when he could have opened his exquisite restaurant anywhere.

That Friday night, Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan visits the kitchen after dining with her husband to thank the chef. "We're just so lucky to have you!" she says.

Talented staff helps

De Cavel and his partners, Martin and Marilyn Wade of Blue Ash, spent more than a year and a reported $3 million renovating the storied 19th-century building that houses their restaurant. It held the first Pigall's, a French five-star restaurant that thrived during the 1960s and '70s. The partners adorned the interiors with Italian tile and blond maple walls, and brought in china and Damask linens from France.

"I was astonished at the modernity and handsomeness of the place," says New York food writer John Mariani, who dined at Pigall's in July and gave the restaurant favorable mention in Wine Spectator. (Mariani also writes the "Best Restaurants" feature for Esquire, and has reportedly written another favorable story on Pigall's and other Cincinnati restaurants for Wine Spectator.)

De Cavel has stocked his restaurant with staff who embrace his high standards. He is popular among the troops, but doesn't hesitate to discipline them.

"He's unbelievable," says pastry chef Karen Crawford. "He's creative and supportive of my ideas."

In the dining room, Richard Brown, formerly of the Maisonette and the Palace, serves as maitre d' - the man who doesn't forget a customer's name or birthday.

Sommelier Gary Boswell assembled a wine cellar that won a "Best of Award of Excellence" from Wine Spectator this month.

The chef's German-born wife strolls the dining room, greeting guests and watching for a misplaced fork or napkin.

"No one sees like the eyes of the owner," says Annette, a graduate of a Swiss hospitality school. Nearly every night, she comes to the restaurant after leaving her day job as sales representative for Air France at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

In December, Annette and the staff scored a coup when they found room on a Friday night in the middle of the holiday rush to seat rock musician Bono, film star Chris Tucker and 19 members of their entourage. Brown and his staff discreetly seated the celebrities upstairs and de Cavel improvised a special menu. Bono and friends stayed until nearly 2 a.m., dancing and drinking wine.

"It was great teamwork," the chef says.

It is a formidable team, perhaps unparalleled in Cincinnati's restaurant history. But those inside and outside the operation give most of the credit to de Cavel, who relentlessly pushes himself and his employees to a higher level.

"For me to find satisfaction, it's very hard," he says. "I'm bit of a perfectionist in some ways."

Those who work for him might say that's an understatement.

"Sometimes, I don't think he realizes how high his standards are," says Brown.

As a chef who has cooked in Cincinnati for nearly a decade, he knows the city's palate. Over the past year, he has conjured imaginative but restrained dishes, such as Jonah Crab with Watermelon and Cantaloupe, Cr╦me Fraiche and Kentucky Spoonfish Caviar and Cauliflower Vichyssoise with Cherries and Summer Truffles.

Mariani describes de Cavel's cuisine as "traditional integrity bound to a great deal of creativity. Just right for Cincinnati."

Fixed price will rise

So far, de Cavel seems just right for his role as chef-owner, though, his wife says he has problems "switching off" thinking and talking about the restaurant. De Cavel takes Sunday off, but usually works Mondays, even though the restaurant's closed. His partners, the Wades, who turned the daily operation over to de Cavel in January, say he is now a keen businessman.

"He made the transition from employee to owner quickly," says Martin Wade.

His business acumen showed long before January. After all, de Cavel was the one who insisted on opening downtown, against the advice of the Wades, who favored the suburbs.

It was also his decision to offer a $65 fixed price menu that included service, taxes and valet. Many thought value-conscious Cincinnatians would balk at the format so common in Europe and larger U.S. cities. They haven't.

Which is why de Cavel is fretting over his decision to increase his fixed price to $75 Tuesday .

"I don't want people to think we are doing this just because we are successful," says de Cavel, who attributes the price increase to rising taxes and other business costs.

The price increase makes him more sensitive about his plans to open a downtown bistro this fall. Will cynics wonder if the Pigall's price increase is simply an effort to help underwrite the new restaurant?

"We are not doing this just to open another business or to try to be more successful," he says, while sitting in the deserted Pigall's dining room one afternoon. "I just think it (the bistro) could be neat for Cincinnati."

Annette jokes her husband needs the bistro to "stay busy." Pigall's is the only restaurant in which de Cavel has worked that doesn't serve lunch. He already plans to work lunch at the bistro, then walk over to Pigall's for the dinner shift.

"Jean-Robert has always wanted to open a bistro," Annette says. "Maybe that's why we're in Cincinnati."

The de Cavels still are searching for some cosmic reason why they settled in this relatively small city in Ohio, when they could have opened a restaurant in New York or in France. They especially agonized over this last summer, after the death of their daughter, when they were away from their families in Europe.

Soon after Pigall's opened, the de Cavels quietly planned to host a benefit in February, on Tatiana's birth date, for SIDS research. But the memories were still too painful, so they moved the event to June, one year after Tatiana's death.

The de Cavels enlisted more than 60 restaurants, pizzerias and bars in Greater Cincinnati to participate in "7 Days for SIDS" June 13-20. The benefit raised more than $40,000 for the Sudden Infant Death Network, making it the most successful SIDS benefit in Ohio and one of the most successful in the nation. The de Cavels plan to sponsor the event again next year.

On June 13, the anniversary of Tatiana's death, de Cavel came to the restaurant, but left before dinner service, saying he "couldn't focus." It was one of the few nights this past year he was not working in his kitchen.

"We cannot forget about her, but this (the benefit) is good way for us to deal with it," he says, tears welling in his eyes "To show people we care."

A kitchen love affair

Back in the kitchen on that August Friday, de Cavel is in his zone: orchestrating the delivery of food to the dining room and a party of guests upstairs, graciously serving six customers sitting at the "chef's table" in a corner of the kitchen - and closely watching the young cook who sometimes forgets to count her shrimp.

Anyone who sees this knows it's not the caffeine in the Red Bull that drives him. De Cavel fell deeply in love with the kitchen when he was 16. He still is.

His wife comes in to whisper to some the exciting news that Mariani has selected Pigall's as a finalist for his list of "Best New Restaurants" to run in November's Esquire. If they make the final cut, it will be the best national exposure the restaurant has received.

But Annette knows her husband too well to break the news to him just now.

"In the middle of service on a busy Friday with the sous chef off?" she says. I don't think so.

Hours later, when he is the last man standing in his kitchen, she will tell him.


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