CINCINNATI - On a June morning in 2002, Jean-Robert de Cavel held his four-month-old daughter, Tatiana, as he made preparations to open Pigall's. It was to be a premier restaurant of the time in downtown Cincinnati.
"I was meeting with the potter who was making custom sinks for the restaurant," Jean-Robert recalled. The potter remarked how beautiful Tatiana was, and took a picture of her.
"I was holding her when he took the picture," Jean-Robert added. It was the last photograph Jean-Robert would have of his baby. Later that afternoon, he learned she had died.
It's been more than 10 years since Jean-Robert and his wife, Annette, lost Tatiana to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The shock and lack of explanation surrounding SIDS cases often leave families spiraling in grief with no answers.
"You just don't forget something like this. You just have to accept that's how life is sometimes and keep going," Jean-Robert said.
Brunch unites top local chefs
Today Jean-Robert runs his own restaurant, Jean-Robert's Table, and the de Cavels found the strength to turn their devastating loss into a positive force. In 2004, they brought together a small group of chefs, restaurateurs and volunteers at the Cincinnati Museum Center in what was the first local brunch to raise money for SIDS research.
Ten years and nearly $700,000 later, the annual brunch to benefit the fight against SIDS is still going strong. This year, the list of participating chefs, restaurateurs and local producers read like a who's who in the local area food scene.
"We have over 30 participants this year," said Amy Hunter, the chair of the annual brunch, eat.play.give. Hunter estimated that the participation level has doubled since the first brunch in 2004.
Cristian Pietoso, the chef and owner of Via Vite restaurant in downtown Cincinnati, has been on board since the very first brunch in 2004. While his participation has been steadfast and constant, his life and perspective have changed drastically. He is now the proud father.
"When I first participated, I could not comprehend the full meaning of all this," Pietoso recalled. "At that time, some of us looked at it simply as an opportunity to showcase our food. Now that I have two girls, I'm just beginning to grasp the enormity of the de Cavels' loss."
Pietoso said he feels good about the greater purpose he and the other chefs are serving. This Sunday, Pietoso will be making a simple and classic brunch dish: spicy Italian sausage with white corn polenta, served with creamy Parmigiano Reggiano sauce.
"I'm doing this to support my friend"
On this tenth anniversary, Jean-Robert wanted to mark the brunch in a special way.
"He wanted 10 chefs who have worked with him before, and who now have their own restaurants, to be there," Hunter explained. "It's an absolute delight to watch how some of the cooks in the first or second brunch have since achieved success, and are now coming back as chefs of their own restaurants."
Jean-Robert, whose name is synonymous with fine dining in Cincinnati, is regarded by many as a mentor and friend. Paul Liew, one of the participating chefs, worked at Jean-Robert's Table before striking out to open his own Malaysian restaurant, Straits of Malacca in Mason.
"Jean-Robert is a generous person," Liew said. "I'm doing this to support my friend."
Liew will be serving sup kambing (spicy goat soup) with apple wontons.
"Jean-Robert loves apples. He eats at least an apple a day," Liew chuckled.
SIDS: A medical mystery
In spite of extensive research, SIDS continues to baffle the medical community, and remains the leading cause of death in infants up to a year old. SIDS claims approximately 2,500 lives each year in the United States.
The de Cavels' initiatives have become a major source of funding for the SIDS Network of Ohio. The money goes toward community education, promotion of infant health and wellness, medical research and supportive services for families impacted by SIDS.
Michael Florea, the chef and co-owner of Maribelle's eat + drink restaurant in Oakley, did not hesitate when Jean-Robert approached him to participate in the brunch.
"I'm very proud to support the cause," he said. Florea will be cooking up goetta quiche, served with raw kale salad, pecorino cheese, pumpkin seeds and lemon mint vinaigrette. "I want to be there to support Jean-Robert."
In 2010, the de Cavels made the strategic decision to form The de Cavel Family SIDS Foundation, to acquire greater discretion over the disbursement of the funds. The foundation includes a local focus to benefit families in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
According to Hunter, the foundation has "most recently awarded grants totaling $54,000 to Hamilton County’s Help Me Grow, Tri-Health’s Cribs for Kids, and the Tatiana de Cavel Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.
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"The Cribs for Kids program helps families in need to purchase cribs and practice safe sleep with their infants," Hunter explained. She added that when families cannot afford to purchase cribs, they sometimes co-sleep with their babies, or situate their babies in unconventional places.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warns against the practice of co-sleeping, citing increased risk of suffocation and strangulation to the infant. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies share the same room but not the same bed as the adults.
Jean-Robert is glad the annual eat.play.give Friends and Family SIDS Brunch has become a tradition for people to connect in the fight against SIDS.
"Last year, I met a father who had just lost his daughter a couple of months earlier to SIDS," he said. "There is solace in knowing you are not alone."