Cover Story: Recipe for Good: Person of the Year

Jean-Robert de Cavel combines business savvy with an urban sensibility and a desire to give back to his new hometown

Feb 23, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Jean-Robert de Cavel, CityBeat's 2004 Person of the Year.

Jean-Robert de Cavel is CityBeat's 2004 Person of the Year. That might strike some as an odd choice, given that our past selections tended toward activists and political movers and shakers.

How does Cincinnati's best known chef fit into this set of people who have made a difference to our community? While the Person of the Year has typically been someone fighting injustice and bureaucratic oppression, the common thread has been people who step outside of their everyday existence to promote positive change. That's a good description of the Frenchman with an unruly mane of hair who's become a favorite son.

Let's start with the obvious: de Cavel has been a celebrity since he arrived in Cincinnati in 1993 as the chef de cuisine at The Maisonette, downtown's legendary five-star restaurant. For decades, Maisonette chefs have been the focus of attention because of the establishment's national profile, earning a string of five-star ratings from the Mobil Travel Guide that's now extended to 41 years, longer than any other U.S. restaurant.

But he didn't stop with The Maisonette. In 2001, rather than moving on to culinary opportunities in other cities — surely an option available to him — he chose to stay in Cincinnati and open his own high-end signature restaurant. Some would argue that he's outstripped his former employer with Jean-Robert at Pigall's, although he downplays any notion of competition.

Nevertheless, while The Maisonette seems to be struggling for customers and has announced it will move to a non-downtown location, Jean-Robert at Pigall's has customers lined up and clamoring for more on Fourth Street.

He seconded his vote of confidence in downtown by opening another restaurant, JeanRo. He surprised everyone with a quickly assembled joint venture in Oakley, Pho Paris, fusing Vietnamese with French cuisine. And he has more projects simmering on the back burner, including a new café to open in Covington this spring.

While those ventures make him a hero to urban dining lovers, Jean-Robert has truly endeared himself to the community with his tireless dedication to worthy causes. If there's a celebrity benefit, it's likely he and his staff will be there to please guests palates.

When he suffered a personal tragedy, losing his newborn daughter to SIDS in 2002, the community at large poured out its condolences. A year later, when he and his wife mounted a benefit to create more awareness of SIDS, dozens of restaurants stepped up to make it a surprising success.

With his irresistable French accent and his darting, dark eyes, Jean-Robert de Cavel has earned his place as contributor who makes a difference on many fronts in Greater Cincinnati. We're pleased to recognize his efforts.

Arriving in Cincinnati
When Jean-Robert came to town, he not only took the helm of its most respected kitchen but was expected to sustain an unprecedented track record. The Maisonette, after all, had acquired a coveted five-star ratings from the Mobil Travel Guide since 1963.

No one would have been surprised if the change in chefs caused Mobil to withhold its supreme accolade for a year. Jean-Robert's predecessor, Georges Haidon, had reigned in The Maisonette's kitchen for more than 20 years. But Jean-Robert didn't miss a beat, and the restaurant kept its top-of-the-line ranking throughout his seven-year tenure.

Ironically, Jean-Robert wasn't necessarily looking to become a star chef. He was, however, after several years in New York City, open to suggestion.

"I was looking for a job," he says. "The Maisonette contacted me. I was not really planning to come to Cincinnati. When I applied for the job, it was not really wanting the job — it was trying to get away from New York City."

He and Annette Pfund, who is German, had met working at a showcase restaurant at Hôtel Plaza Athénée, an intimate, European-style hotel in Manhattan where Princess Diana was a regular customer. After several years in the big city, they were ready for a change of scenery.

But Jean-Robert didn't completely understand how The Maisonette was a key component in Cincinnati's personality and civic pride.

"When you live in New York City," he says, "you don't realize ... it's such a big city, and one restaurant doesn't take all of the attention."

But The Maisonette in the 1990s did just that. It's hard to imagine an adult in Cincinnati who doesn't know about the restaurant, whether or not they've dined there. It's the gold standard.

Jean-Robert promised the Maisonette's owners, cousins Nat and Michael Comisar, he would give them three to five years. Following that, he says he imagined he'd leave town for a new opportunity.

"You do not expect to stay here," he muses.

But he loved the fact that the Comisars ran the restaurant in a very hands-on fashion.

"I was part of the community by becoming the chef of The Maisonette," Jean-Robert says. "I was the first chef who had never worked with the company, never knew anyone from the company and got hired completely from the outside. What helped me to take the job was that it was run by a family. You see the boss. With a family, they are in the same shoes you are as a chef. The Maisonette had the feel of the closest way to a European restaurant."

In New York, Jean-Robert had kept himself busy in the kitchen, paying little attention to the image he created in the media. He didn't have that choice in Cincinnati.

"Maybe I was still a little bit shy," he says. "I don't think I was really made for New York. I was always cooking, never meeting people. I was a little too young. In Cincinnati I was put on the spotlight immediately, and I had to be myself right away. That's one of the things that made us a part of the community very quickly. I think my job and everything I do is important, but we have to live our life and enjoy every day.

In 2001, Jean-Robert and Annette decided it was time to seek new opportunities. They surprised — and pleased — many Cincinnatians by remaining in the city.

"We always loved New York," he remembers. "I was there for eight years, Annette was there for five. When you live there for some years, there's always something that you love about it. There's things you hate about it, too! You become a New Yorker. But we didn't want to go back to New York."

They had explored other cities and locales, including Connecticut and perhaps a return to Europe. With local friends and business partners Martin and Marilyn Wade, they spent two years exploring options, which led them to Fourth Street and the building that once housed another legendary five-star restaurant, Pigall's. (It earned the honor from 1967 to 1972 and again in 1975 and 1976. It had a four-star rating until it closed in 1990.)

"Everyone always talked about Pigall's as the 'true French restaurant' in the city with a 'true French chef,' " Jean-Robert says.

One day, he recalls, Annette was getting her hair done two doors down from the then-closed Pigall's.

"I did something I never thought I would do," he says. "I walked by because Annette was not ready, we were going to get a coffee, and I walked by the Contemporary Galleries furniture store. I saw that Pigall's was empty, I don't know why, I saw the sign and it really caught my eyes. I actually went back to work at The Maisonette that night and called Jimmy Gherardi."

Another noted Cincinnati chef, Gherardi had been a partner in the last set of owners who operated at the Pigall's location (a barbecue joint called "Pig Al's"). Gherardi arranged for Jean-Robert to see the space.

He says, "Of course, that was the wrong thing to do, because after that I could not get this thing out of my mind."

A long way from home
A restaurant on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati was a far remove from where Jean-Robert started. Born in Roubaix, France, he applied to cooking school in Lille at the age of 16. He worked in a Michelin three-star restaurant in Antibes, France, then made a stop in Anguilla, British West Indies, before landing at Le Regence in Manhattan's Hôtel Plaza Athénée.

Eight years in New York and seven at The Maisonette provided Jean-Robert with an excellent resume, but in 2001 he was ready to pursue his dream of his own restaurant. He and Annette had purchased a home in Hyde Park, and they liked the community.

They were also well known for their willingness to help out with worthy causes. Although Jean-Robert is quick to point out that restaurants and chefs supporting charities is a uniquely American phenomenon, he got the idea pretty quickly. Once his role at The Maisonette made him an instant celebrity in Cincinnati, he used that profile to support worthy, high-profile causes — James Beard Foundation, TV Food Network, March of Dimes, Taste of the NFL, Hospice of Cincinnati and many more.

His willingness to lend his reputation and presence to fund-raisers, however, seems almost to be rivaled by his steadfast commitment to downtown Cincinnati. Once he focused on Pigall's former location on the city's historic Fourth Street, he never looked beyond the central business district.

"Annette and I," he says, noting their European roots, "we could never live a suburban life. We will live in Cincinnati. We love downtown. Right now we live in Hyde Park in a house we bought seven years ago on a nice street. I've never lived in a suburb in my whole life, and Annette didn't either. When you come to America from Europe, you think of cities, not suburbs.

"I was looking at a (restaurant) location in Hyde Park, and even that felt far away because I wanted to be serving people staying at a hotel. I know we want to connect with European people, people from New York, people who come from all over the world to Cincinnati. They will stay in a hotel downtown. They're not going to be in Hyde Park Square, and they're not going to be in Mount Lookout Square."

The challenge, however, became one of timing, since at the precise moment Jean-Robert announced his departure from The Maisonette, in the spring of 2001, the city was hit with racial unrest and a downtown boycott. That gave the couple some second thoughts.

"I was not so worried about the riot," he explains. "Nothing really happened. But the consequences were left behind, and that worried us a lot, the boycott against the convention center and people thinking it was dangerous to come downtown."

He tells a story about attending a funeral in Mount Lookout and meeting an older, longtime Cincinnati resident.

"Everyone was mentioning that the restaurant was good," he says, "and this gentleman turned around and said, 'So who are you?' I said, 'I'm the chef at Pigall's.' He said, 'Oh, I don't go downtown, it's so dangerous.' He lived in Mount Lookout! He was probably a successful businessman during his life. I was shocked!"

But Jean-Robert is an optimist.

"I think Cincinnati's downtown will never go away," he says. "I actually think we were on the edge. I think downtown was doing fine, but then the riot came and that put everything the city had been working on back a few years. (I'd already decided to open this restaurant so) I didn't have any more choice. But I was very positive about it. It was the right thing to do."

Jean-Robert has made it work. From the moment he opened Jean-Robert at Pigall's in the late summer of 2002, it's been a bona fide success. There were naysayers at first, convinced that what he was creating was too high-falutin' for Cincinnati. Some thought that a fixed-price restaurant wouldn't be accepted, and others believed the menu was a little too chi-chi for local tastes.

Those doubters are probably in line today trying to get a reservation. And they're willing to pay the $75 fixed price, up $10 from when the restaurant opened.

But Jean-Robert is not one to rest on his laurels, and he had visions for more ideas for restaurants he wanted to create. For many years — even before he decided to reinvent Pigall's — he had envisioned establishing a bistro.

"I'm a collector," he says, smiling. "I love to collect junk. I have collected advertising things for a long time. I would go to a flea market, to an auction, I would buy things, posters and stuff. In the beginning I was thinking I would use all of that at Pigall's — sort of a bistro style but a bit more upscale."

But Pigall's became more like a refined Parisian restaurant than a French bistro. Still, that idea was never far from his heart.

Since Pigall's is strictly a dinner operation, he says, "I had time on my hands." (At The Maisonette, he began working at 9 a.m.; with Pigall's he doesn't have to arrive before noon.)

"I have a little more freedom in the morning," he says. "A friend of mine is in commercial real estate, and I was always looking for a New York-style restaurant spot. It was not easy, because every restaurant spot was already taken. One day I was going to have a coffee, and I saw this space (on Vine Street) and I said, 'This is perfect for a small bistro.' It was just the perfect spot."

The space on Vine Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, just a few blocks from Pigall's, struck him as the perfect location — near several hotels and just a few steps from Fountain Square.

"A lot of people from the food business called me when they started knowing I was doing something," Jean-Robert recalls, "and they would say, 'Where is this place? I have no idea where it is!' People who worked in the office building knew it, but the restaurant people, no. It was perfect, and for six months many of them had no idea! I think the location is ideal for a downtown restaurant, for the food I want to do, for the style."

The bistro opened in the spring of 2004 and took on Jean-Robert's nickname, JeanRo. It was yet another vote of confidence in downtown Cincinnati.

There was a steady demand for dinners, and before long he added lunchtime service of casual French fare from Croque Monsieur to bouillabaisse. It's not a place you have to make reservations months in advance, but it's not unusual to have to wait for a table when you drop in.

Success breeds success
The success of JeanRo further enhanced Jean-Robert's local reputation as someone who could make a restaurant work. So it came as no big surprise when the owners of Andiamo!, an upscale establishment in Oakley, approached him and his business partners to help their attractive but struggling operation.

Jean-Robert was hesitant to become a consultant, but when the opportunity came to buy the attractive space he took the plunge.

Today he acknowledges that this move wasn't part of a plan. But it fit nicely with an idea he'd conceived years earlier, based on many visits to Roselawn's Song Long Restaurant, a place Jean-Robert describes as a favorite Sunday or Monday evening stop for dinner.

"We started knowing the family, and I always talked to Mary (Le) and said it would be nice to do something," he says. "Even the name, Pho Paris, was something I came up with five years ago. But with the other restaurants, this wasn't something we were thinking anymore. When the partners of Andiamo! contacted us, at first we refused the offer."

But Jean-Robert and his partners kept considering the opportunity, and finally they went for a Monday evening dinner and looked more carefully. They all agreed that the location was perfect, and the purchase was quickly resolved.

"We talked to Mary Le," the matriarch of the family that operates Song Long, "and it went very quickly," he says.

The fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisines has been popular since the doors reopened in August 2004.

And there's more to come: Early in 2004 he purchased the building in Covington on Greenup Street that had been the popular Wildflour Bakery, a casual eatery. (He also hired its one-time owner, Justin Dean, to manage JeanRo.) There's been a lot of work to turn the building into a facility that meets his standards and expectations, but Jean-Robert expects it to open sometime in the spring.

"We put in new floors, new paint," he says. "It is going to be even more casual than the bistro. I'd call it a café more than a bistro. Maybe a late breakfast to a late lunch, open at 8 maybe until 3 in the afternoon. We'll probably do that Monday through Friday, and maybe three nights a week — Thursday, Friday and Saturday — with a very simple menu, very limited choice. And we will charge a very reasonable price."

The Wildflour kitchen is tiny, Jean-Robert says, mentioning that you had to go through it to get to the basement. It's one of the many details he's poring over.

"As an owner, you can allow a lot of things," he says. "But if you put someone else in charge, you have to give them the best place to work. Wildflour became a space we had to work over. But I always liked the place.

When we got married, Justin did a little lunch for us there. It was a place we used to go very often on Sunday. We loved the Bohemian feel, the easygoing (atmosphere). But I realized after I purchased the building it had a lot of handicap. I want to do it very simple but good, a nice café."

We serve them, they serve us
Jean-Robert and Annette have become an integral part of the community, largely because of their giving natures. Of course it makes good business sense to keep the chef's profile in the public eye, but for them it goes much deeper.

"We've done many events for many years," he observes. "I will always do a charity event where my knowledge and my presence can bring joy, can make a difference. I'm always touched by that. People who own restaurants become part of the business cycle: We feed people who are very influential to other people. We make them happy. We make them forget about their difficult days or their difficult work. We do that on so many different levels.

"We are able to touch people by just taking care of them the best way you can. So they respect you and they put you in their world. A way to be able to thank them is to be open to charity events. It's a lot of work. Sometimes I think, God, I don't want to do it anymore, but then someone asks me and I do it, and when it's done I'm ready to do it again because I think it's something you really feel."

As we visit in mid-January, it's the day after Jean-Robert has participated in a successful tsunami relief benefit.

"To see everyone get together, that was very important," he says. "What I do is what I enjoy doing — cooking. For me to do it with other people, it shows respect to your co-workers, it shows respect to the people who do this activity. To have respect, you have to earn your respect. If people give it, you have to give it back."

Annette is quick to add that sometimes she has to push back when opportunities arise.

"I have to be the one sometimes to say, 'Jean-Robert, we have done enough,' " she says. "Even for financial reasons. I mean, there's only so much that we can allocate throughout the year. But it's important, because the community has been so supportive to us, that is a way of giving back."

And there's a personal motivation that goes much deeper for the couple. In June 2002, just a few months before Jean-Robert at Pigall's was set to open, their infant daughter, Tatiana, died unexpectedly of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). They were devastated, and the arduous task of opening a restaurant for a while seemed to be an empty task.

But they forged ahead, successfully launching the new enterprise that August. Shortly after opening Jean-Robert at Pigall's, Jean-Robert was awarded the Medal of the Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite by the Consul General of France, recognizing his humanitarian and culinary achievements. It's the highest honor made to someone in the culinary field, typically reserved for chefs working in France.

Jean-Robert appreciated the honor, but Tatiana's death deepened his and Annette's desire to find a way to help others who experienced the painful loss which had tragically changed their lives. After planning to do a benefit on Tatiana's March birthday in 2003, they found it was too painful. By June, though, they were ready to stage an event to raise money for SIDS research and heighten awareness for other families touched by this sad and often misunderstood phenomenon.

They envisioned "7 Days for SIDS" to be a one-time event, but its remarkable success — they recruited more than 60 restaurants and other dining establishments to participate — convinced them to make it an annual event. It returns for the third time June 13-19. (Information:

Through their efforts, they've already raised $82,000 to benefit SIDS Alliance of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, in addition to the Sudden Infant Death Network of Ohio. It's likely that the second anniversary of the event will feature another champagne brunch and silent auction; the 2004 event featured 18 of the area's best chefs, and it's likely that in June there will be even more.

Happily the de Cavels brought into the world a new daughter, Laetitia, now approaching her first birthday.

Annette calls their daughter "at least half American, a quarter German, a quarter French. Cincinnati is a place that everyone says is a wonderful place to raise a family. It's easier to raise her here than in New York. To keep the European touch, hopefully, when she's a little bit older, we can say, 'OK, go see Grandma in France, go and see the grandparents in Germany.' "

Since Annette now works for Air France, she says it's easy to arrange for travel back to Europe.

"We are working very hard to teach her our languages," she says. "Jean-Robert speaks to her in French, I speak to her in German, and the English will come naturally. It's a gift that we can give her. She might be the first-generation American from our families."

Despite his many successes, Jean-Robert says of his daughter, "After what happened to us, she is the biggest gift we can ask for."

'It's about everybody'
In April 2004, Jean-Robert was recognized by the Cincinnati Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which bestowed on him its annual Presidents Award. Singling out individuals who are community leaders, not public relations professionals, the PRSA award caught Jean-Robert by surprise.

"I was touched a lot," he says. "To be recognized by the Public Relations Society, it was bigger than I could ever expect. I don't mean to be too humble, but felt like I was put in a spot where it was not my place to be there."

He and Annette — with Laetitia in tow in a baby carrier — attended the PRSA luncheon at the Montgomery Inn's banquet center on Pete Rose Way, listening to several speakers who praised him and offered some good-natured jesting. As Jean-Robert came to the microphone to say a few words, he was startled when the doors to the room opened and almost the entire staff of his Fourth Street restaurant poured in to line both sides of the banquet hall. With tears streaming down his face, he was almost at a loss for words.

"We all work together," he says, still with an emotional catch in his voice. "I am the chef, I am the boss, I am the coach. When you're the coach of a winning team or a team that wants to win, that wants to be successful, it's emotional. I was able to achieve that. When the staff came in, it made me very proud of my work. They give me back the credit I was expecting of them, when I was not expecting it."

He pauses for a moment, trying to shape his thoughts more clearly.

"In the restaurant (world), it's always about the chef," he says. "You know, it's 'Jean-Robert.' But it's not about me — it's about everybody. Of course I am the branding, and I want to create something. But it's everybody, from the maitre d' who takes the reservations to the cooks. In restaurants you always hear that line cooks are more important than someone who does the salad. But, no, the salad has to be washed and cleaned.

"It's a team, and as a chef I am the coach of the team, like the coach of a college sports team. My job is to build professionals, but chefs are also players. We also play the game with them. We are not only on the sidelines, we're actually part of the players."

Jean-Robert is stuck in Cincinnati now, soon to be the guiding force behind four restaurants. He and Annette plan to move to a renovated home in Newport this spring. And he knows he's made a difference.

"I'm proud to see that the people we know were part of the tsunami relief," he says. "Everyone from many restaurants, they worked with me on this event. Our relationship is unbelievable. I want them to become successful. I always believe that if everyone becomes successful, then it's a big success. If only one person is successful, that's not good."

He acknowledges that he's probably raised the standards for excellence in Cincinnati restaurants.

"We have a maitre d' and a sommelier (at Pigall's)," he says. "At the beginning, not many restaurants did that. You have to have a very strong team to make the machine work (he stretches out the word, saying 'ma-sheen'). I know a lot of new restaurants are opening, a lot of people are working — they try to form a very solid team to achieve what they want to do. I don't think it was something very popular before. You won't find it here only. People want to make sure they have a team. It's not just one person."

Jean-Robert and Annette plan to remain an integral part of our community and raise their daughter here. Maybe she'll enter the restaurant business someday. But whatever she chooses to do, she'll have the role model of her talented and loving parents.

It's obvious that Jean-Robert de Cavel knows how to satisfy Cincinnati's desire for fine dining. More importantly, though, he has the recipe for good citizenship.

For that, we're proud to recognize him as CityBeat's 2004 Person of the Year. ©

Previous Persons of the Year
2003: Citizens to Restore Fairness

The grassroots organization worked for a year to educate Cincinnatians about the unfairness and inequality behind Article 12 of the city charter. Article 12 subsequently was repealed by city voters in November 2004.

2002: Todd Portune

The Hamilton County Commissioner, locked in high-profile battles with two of the area's most powerful institutions — the county prosecutor's office and the Cincinnati Bengals — had become the standard-bearer for local progressive causes.

2001: Angela Leisure

The mother of Timothy Thomas, who was killed by Cincinnati Police in April 2001, offered the African-American community poise and strength in the troubled days of violence following her son's death.

2000: Victoria Straughn

The HIV Early Intervention/Prevention Specialist at UC's Infectious Diseases Center was beginning to make a name for herself as a grassroots activist for political and social casues.

1999: Sister Alice Gerdeman

The director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center was the calm, thoughtful spokesperson for Cincinnatians waking up to the crucial issues of world trade, corporate domination and individual rights after the high-profile WTO meeting and demonstrations in Seattle.

1998: Broadway Commons Supporters

Led by restaurant owner Jim Tarbell — who later would be elected to city council — a ragtag group of ordinary Cincinnatians pushed the concept that, because they paid the sales taxes to fund a new Reds stadium, they should have a say in where it was built. They preferred the site known as Broadway Commons, but the business community and the Reds got their wish and built the stadium on the riverfront.