Breaking the Mold

Jean-Robert de CavelDon’t tell Jean-Robert de Cavel you can’t make it big in medium-sized market. The 46-year-old native of Roubaix, France, came to the U.S. at age 26 to be executive chef at Le Régence at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in New York City, where he immediately earned three stars from the New York Times. He moved to Cincinnati in 1993 to become chef de cuisine at the much-honored Maisonette, leaving in 2001 to open his own French fine-dining palace, Jean-Robert at Pigall’s. Its success led him to open three less-formal restaurants: Bistro JeanRo, Pho Paris and Greenup Cafe. Jean-Robert at Pigall’s is one of 11 restaurants in the country to earn a 29 (out of 30) score in the 2008 America’s Top Restaurants guide from Zagat.

We love these ceramic figurines. Where are they from?

All over. I’ve collected them for 25 years—anything with a chef’s hat. There are 500 items, primarily salt and pepper shaker sets. Some cost 75 cents; one pair from Japan was $500. Most are on display at Pigall’s.

Do you enjoy much down time here at home?

A little. I get up at eight and spend an hour with my two-andone- half-year-old daughter, then take her to school. Then I leave the house about 10:30 a.m.

Do you go straight to Pigall’s?

It depends. My wife, Annette, manages our group. She gives me a schedule of where I have to go and what I have to do each day.

Four restaurants must keep you on the run.

They do, but I’m back at Pigall’s by mid-afternoon. I cook and spend time with guests in the evening. I usually get home by 11:30. Weekends are easier.

So you cook at home...?

Rarely. We have great staff meals here, so my wife puts some of it into plastic containers and brings it home and eats it with our daughter. Weekends we eat simple meals—the cheeses, meats, and condiments you see in this fridge.

Most Americans know your hometown, Roubaix, from the great Paris-Roubaix bike race.

Paris-Roubaix was a great holiday! As a boy, I’d go and watch the famous riders—Eddy Merckx, all of them. I was crazy about bicycling then.

Still a fan?

It’s different now. Then the racers would finish and we’d ride along with them back to their hotel. Today they just jump into limos; you never see them up close.

We understand you’re involved in humanitarian work.

We do a lot for the SIDS Foundation— that’s Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—because of what we went through. Our first daughter left us in 2002.

And the town has responded?

It has. After a while, a market like Cincinnati almost adopts you. They want you to be a success.

Are you surprised you ended up in Cincinnati?

Coming from France and New York, we didn’t think we’d stay. But we have very good partners, Marilyn and Martin Wade.

So what’s next for your group?

We just opened a lounge, Twist.

Sounds like a club that needs bouncers to break up fights.

No. It’s a 30-ish crowd. It’s a Eurostyle lounge next door to Pigall’s.

Now that seems more your style.

photo: Jim Callaway/ReduX plus