In 1993, French chef Jean-Robert de Cavel came to Cincinnati from New York to be Chef de Cuisine of the five-star-rated Maisonette. Over the next 20 years, he drastically changed the way the Queen City looked at French food, became an integral part of our local tapestry and fostered the careers of countless young chefs. In honor of his momentous anniversary, CityBeat asked the acclaimed culinarian, mentor, philanthropist and owner of Jean-Robert’s Table and French Crust Café a question for each of his years spent here.
CityBeat: Did you always want to be a chef?
Jean-Robert de Cavel: Always. I was always the one in the kitchen helping my mom cook for our family.
CB: What originally brought you to Cincinnati?
JR: My first interview at the Maisonette. … I had no idea where Cincinnati was.
CB: Did you have any pre-conceived notions of the city before you arrived?
JR: I was expecting to see a small Chicago, but it was more like a city I wasn’t familiar with in America. I’d only been to big cities or tourist towns like Boston, Chicago and New Orleans.
CB: Did you have any idea when you arrived that you would be here so long?
JR: Never! When you take a job at a five-star restaurant, you have to commit to at least a few years, but the people I met here and a few other factors made me feel comfortable to drop my luggage.
CB: What was your first impression of the city when you arrived?
JR: I enjoyed the skyline and the river surrounded by hills. I was a little disappointed by the low energy downtown, but a few decades later, things are changing for the best.
CB: Did you have to bribe Annette (de Cavel’s wife Annette Pfund-de Cavel, catering account executive at The Hilton Netherland) to move here?
JR: Moving from NYC to here wasn’t easy, but sharing the enthusiasm and welcoming from the Comisar family and Maisonette team made the move less of a challenge. And it helps that Cincinnati is a very German city.
CB: You’ve settled in Northern Kentucky. Why?
JR: We lived in Hyde Park when we got here. I wanted something close to work and Newport is great; it’s the best downtown suburb. Crossing the river is wonderful in any season. But really, I consider myself a Cincinnatian.
CB: You’ve played a huge role in the career of so many chefs in Cincinnati. What’s most gratifying about that?
JR: It’s very satisfying to be recognized for what you do. But I owe so much to the chefs who taught me. And it feels good to be able to do that for other people.
CB: What do you think a chef/owner’s most important role is?
JR: To make your team take ownership so your guests will know and feel it. Running a business is a long-term commitment — a long time after the honeymoon with many people dependent on you.
CB: What do you consider your greatest strength/weakness?
JR: If you ask most people, they’d say my ability to know how flavors go together in my head before I taste a dish. But I think it’s when I commit to something, I commit 150 percent. My weakness is procrastination and my inability to say no.
CB: What advice do you give young people who want to be chefs?
JR: Do not run before you can walk. Strive for perfection. The people around you will make your reputation. You know what you learn, so learn a lot. Don’t forget, a chef is a cook.
CB: How would you feel if your daughter Laeticia wanted to continue the family legacy?
JR: I will be very supportive and will share everything I have learned —especially about the balance of this job — that you have to love what you do.
CB: How do you think Cincinnati’s culinary landscape has changed since you’ve been here?
JR: In 1993, Cincinnati had fine dining and very casual and nothing in between. The gap is now filled with so many more restaurants that are chef driven and supporting local products. I’m very proud of it.
CB: What do you do on your day off?
JR: I try to enjoy family and friends. And stay involved in the community through festivals or the arts.
CB: Do you cook at home? Who do you enjoy dining with most?
JR: Yes, I do. It’s important to sit at the table with family and friends. But my rule is quick, fresh and tasty. I also enjoy going out and supporting local restaurants.
CB: You’ve cooked for some of the most famous/powerful people in the world. Is there anyone you would still like to cook for?
JR: From princesses to presidents, rock stars and Oprah, I’ve enjoyed them all. But I get the most satisfaction out of cooking for everyone who comes to the Table.
CB: How to you plan to celebrate this anniversary year?
JR: It started when the team at Boca and some chef-friends got together to give me the most beautiful 20-year celebration party. I realized during that evening it’s about a solid friendship with the city. So I started making my Cincinnati Bucket List. All this year, you’ll find me celebrating what’s best about Cincinnati. And we’re taking it on the road in May to cook at the James Beard House in New York City.
CB: You recently opened the French Crust Café. Do you have plans to open any more restaurants?
JR: There’s always a pot simmering on my stove…
CB: What’s your plan for the next 20 years?
JR: Keep cooking and enjoying what I do. And making a difference in Cincinnati. And helping the new generation to succeed.
CB: What would you like your legacy to be?
JR: That I enjoyed my life. That everything I’ve done, I’ve done as passionately and positively as I can.