Diner: Soul of the Chef

Experiencing an evening at Jean-Robert's table in the kitchen

Jymi Bolden

Jean-Robert de Cavel (rear right) and his culinary staff at Pigall's tak a break at the Chef's Table in the upscale restaurant's kitchen.

Great parties always end up in the kitchen. The kitchen is an extraordinary atmosphere, the soul of the home intensified by a wide range of sensorial experience. It is warmth and mother, exotic flavors and armchair travels, conversation and connection. It is relationship — the good, the bad and the ordinary. This idea of relationship is at the heart of the Chef's Table: a table set in a restaurant kitchen to provide an opportunity for guests to interact with chefs, and for chefs to establish deeper relationships with guests.

So it is a Friday evening that finds four close friends — who generally spend a great deal of time together preparing and consuming food — at the table of Jean-Robert de Cavel in his kitchen at Pigall's (127 West Fourth St., Downtown). First of all, let me say that there is a certain cachet to being paraded through a crowded dining room by the maitre d' into the heart of the establishment.

"They must be someone," I'm sure I hear the diners whisper with what could only be envious glances as we grandly disappear behind the kitchen door to be royally presented to the kitchen court.

Pigall's kitchen is well-designed: adequate workspace for master craftsmen, yet intimate enough to feel familiar. The Chef's Table sits in an alcove directly facing the sauté and broiler stations, far enough to avoid the effect of the heat, close enough to witness some beautiful choreography.

We are welcomed like favorite relatives with a glass of champagne, "compliments of Jean-Robert," and told we are the first to sit at the new table he had purchased earlier in the day. We decide that carving our initials in the pristine dark walnut would not be a good way to inaugurate the table nor endear us to our hosts, opting instead for a boisterous toast with the champagne. The table is set in uncluttered elegance with china, silverware and linen, all custom-made in France. At the center sits a bubble vase brimming with a dozen creamy white tulips.

For a restaurant kitchen with gleaming stainless steel and a team of uniformed artisans, it invokes a feeling of cozy hospitality. The alcove abounds with interesting objects such as Jean-Robert's collection of culinary themed salt-and-pepper shakers tucked into built-in niches, two smaller tables holding a pink piggy bank (where it will be suggested later that we can insert some appreciation for the kitchen staff), a "Best Of" award plaque, extra linens and silver. My favorite part of the alcove are the peepholes in the wall designed to discreetly view the main dining room. This appeals to the voyeur in me, but it likely has a practical side for the chef and kitchen staff. At least that's what they tell me.

The en famille atmosphere is part business savvy and a cornerstone of Jean-Robert's success, but mostly it is an expression of who he is as a man. With an enthusiastic "Bonjour, bonjour," he is suddenly tableside offering warm hugs, firm handshakes and conversation about recent travels. He appears energetic if a little tired, looking like an eccentric scientist dressed in chef whites and sporting a wiry head of hair that appears to have its own agenda, as if he had acknowledged long ago that any attempt to tame it would only end up in defeat.

All of this — along with his thick French accent — suggests a presence of intense creativity that leaves us salivating at the possibility of experience beyond the mere art of dining. Indeed, after he spends a few moments chatting about our food preferences and recalling what he served my friend, Peter, who had dined at the chef's table two weeks previously, he scurries into the belly of the kitchen, leaving us with the kind of heightened anticipation that I can only describe as sexual.

After the sommelier introduces himself and asks if we would like wines paired with the dishes Jean-Robert will prepare for us, we settle back to watch the kitchen theater. Directly in front of us, the charcuterier slices lamb chops with the precision of a surgeon — a task we will see him repeat many times during the evening with equal tenderness and affection. The sous chef is in the role of expediter tonight, microscopically examining each plate at the center island before it's whisked away by a server. The plates are beautiful. It's 8 p.m., and the kitchen staff is hitting a groove, hustling in high gear, turning, plating, cooking, stooping to retrieve a filet from the cooler, turning-firing-plating, sing-song calls of "Salmon is a medium, salmon is a medium-rare." The dance takes over, and each cook is fluid, all swiveling hips and marionette arms. It's like a watchmaker's shop.

I close my eyes to deeply inhale the aromas, opening them to a darling "l'amuse-bouchée" (a bite to amuse the mouth) of tuna tartare set before me. Our server has poured a sauvignon blanc to accompany this dish as well as the next, which turns out to be a sweet and salty shad roe with anchovy cream. As the evening progresses, each course (seven in all) builds upon the last, with astounding creativity in every dish. With each one, Jean-Robert describes the plate placed before us and adds special touches, ladling a stunningly gorgeous beet sauce or hand-shaving a black truffle, where needed. When not at our table, he is glancing our way constantly from the line, timing the next course, keeping contact and all the while conducting the corps. This is his table, the representative customer, the ultimate guest.

By the sixth course of black bass in a pinot noir reduction with the aforementioned black truffles, I'm well past giddy from the extravagance, from the incredible sensations on my palate and from the wine that seemed ever-flowing.

"This food makes sex obsolete," I hear myself saying too loud. The food is perfect in every way, an exhilarating flavor carnival. I feel as if I've taken a wild ride through a sensorial fantasy. I float up toward consciousness just in time for the pastry course: a frangipane tart, warm chocolate cake, a tropical-themed strudel and hazelnut chocolate tart. Jean-Robert sends over the pastry chef, Karen Crawford. More hugs. She seems pleased but embarrassed by our compliments and makes a polite getaway.

The energy of the chef's table takes on the same energy of the kitchen. By the end of the pastry course, we are at once over-stimulated and exhausted. The kitchen staff prepares to clean up. Jean-Robert closes the curtain between the chef's table and the line. He is preserving the mystique.

And it's done. We are ruined for any future dining experience. We hope we can forgive them, but we're concerned that we'll never be able to eat in a dining room again.

It changes the dynamics of the meal to observe the work. Part of the fun is watching the kitchen negotiate the high wire, where so many things could go wrong. It's a testament to passion, artistry and teamwork that they don't. It feels as if you have penetrated the core of the profession. But in the end it's relationship that draws you into the kitchen.

It is the soul of the chef.

JEAN-ROBERT AT PIGALL'S invites guests to request the Chef's Table when making advance reservations at 513-721-1345. Such requests don't guarantee you'll end up there, since the demand is high, but it's worth asking.