Jean-Robert de Cavel was just 26 when he landed a job as sous chef for one of New York’s top traditional restaurants, Le Regence, located in the star-magnetic Hotel Plaza Athénée.
It may have surprised people in the dining world when he ascended to chef a year later, but de Cavel’s experience was extensive for a young man, which included cooking in the kitchens of fine restaurants in France, Monaco and the Caribbean.
De Cavel came to Cincinnati in 1993 to head up Ohio’s No. 1, but now sadly defunct, restaurant, Maisonette, winner of a record 41 consecutive five-star ratings from Mobil Guide.
Today, he is Cincinnati’s best-known and most-visible chef/owner, with three restaurants in his group — Jean Robert’s Table, Downtown; French Crust Cafe, Downtown (but moving soon to Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine); and Le Bar a Boeuf in East Walnut Hills.
De Cavel’s fourth restaurant will feature an upscale menu and will open in the Western & Southern building at Queen City Square this spring.
We asked his wife, Annette, who is Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza hotel’s catering account executive, to help provide a Throwback Thursday photo of her husband that would shed light on his persona and illustrious career. Once we had the photo, we sat down with de Cavel over lunch at “The Table” and asked him a few questions.
What are we looking at, and what was going on in your life when this photograph was taken?
De Cavel: It was taken at Le Regence in 1989, or maybe it was ’88. Drew Nieporent — he owns many restaurants in New York City and was captain at Le Regence when Daniel Boulud was chef and before I came there — said he was cleaning his office and he found this (Crain’s business magazine) article. He sent it to us, and we looked at it and showed it to our daughter (sixth-grader Laeticia). And Annette said, “Did you know your dad was cute before?” I guess I was young once like everybody else was.
Le Regence was the restaurant of the Hotel Plaza Athénée, the No. 1 boutique hotel in New York City. It was on 64th Street between Park and Madison, very Upper East Side, very upscale. Many famous people stayed there. I met Bette Davis once and Elizabeth Taylor many times. … Julio Iglesias, the Spanish singer, and Princess Diana stayed there when she was still a princess. (Other patrons of the era included Johnny Cash, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood and Stevie Wonder.) The restaurant was owned by the Rostang family who had three-Michelin-star and two-Michelin-star restaurants in France. They brought me here. I was what you call the resident chef, following their recipes and hiring staff. I was there every day. It was an amazing restaurant. That’s where I met Annette. It was good times. … I was so young I didn’t realize how big a job I had.
Did you get to meet anyone else famous other than Davis and Taylor?
De Cavel: The GM (general manager Bernard Lackner) would go out to (a celebrity’s) table. You were not allowed to bug them. Twenty-five years ago, only the restaurant owners and GMs could meet them. You could smoke in restaurants in those days, so Bette Davis sat there and (mimics holding a cigarette up to his shoulder). And I did meet (Russian pianist and composer) Vladimir Horowitz a couple of times. He used to come in on Sunday nights and always ordered apple tart and Dover sole meuniére. Yeah, they were kind of cool, those good old days.
What is the latest with your new restaurant?
De Cavel: The (Queen City Square) tower restaurant is a partnership with (former Maisonette maître d’) Richard Brown. We are opening an upscale restaurant, and it will be on the first floor (at Third and Sycamore streets) in the corner facing west. You’ll look at The Banks and the top of the Reds stadium. I’m going to be doing what I’ve been doing: classic French and contemporary cuisine. I don’t like the words “fine dining.” We are opening a restaurant that will be a destination restaurant and a celebration restaurant. (The plan) was a collaboration with (Western & Southern Financial Group chairman) John Barrett and the Western & Southern team. They wanted that space to be dedicated as a dining space, and they came to Richard and me.
What will the new place be called?
De Cavel: I know what the name will be but I cannot release it. I can say the name will have a strong meaning behind it, and we’re working on a logo that could define the location.
You try to go home to France every year, right? What do you miss about France, and what do you do when you are there?
De Cavel: I go back every 12 or 18 months. I do miss my family. But I think being in Cincinnati for over 20 years, I have become a Cincinnatian, and I’ve been a French man in America for over 30 years. What I miss (about France) is what I call the simple pleasure of the French lifestyle. Of course, I miss some of the little things I grew up with, things I grew up eating … country food. But (when we go out to eat in France) I end up ordering some of the most expensive things on the menu — veal kidney, steak tartare, tripe — things you don’t see on American menus, that have no roots in American cuisine. Eating steak tartare is a ritual in France.
Your day off is Sunday. How do you spend it?
De Cavel: I like to start the day by watching “CBS Sunday Morning.” And I try to spend the day with family and friends and go to the flea market and some fun events happening in Cincinnati. That could mean going to an art show, Sunday on Main or a Bengals game. The first live game I saw was after one Thanksgiving. I was staying in Adams Landing, and some residents there brought me to the game on that Sunday. It was very, very cold. I didn’t understand the rules. I did watch some football in New York City (while at Le Regence), but I didn’t have the same understanding I have of football today.
Is running three restaurants and planning a fourth ever overwhelming for you?
De Cavel: I will be in my mid-50s this year … but I still want to be in the kitchen and put a team together that reflects what I enjoy doing with them. I call (all the work) opportunities. People look at Jeff Ruby with all his restaurants and say, “Wow! He must be busy.” But chefs want multiple locations when they have different things they want to do. We hope people will do all four of our restaurants in one week and have a different experience at each one.