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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
Jean-Robert de Cavel is a first name-basis kind of person. There is a welcome, collective affinity in Cincinnati for the man even more people refer to, most appropriately in the service industry, as “Chef.” A mainstay in the local culinary world since his arrival in 1993, Jean-Robert’s rapid ascent through his adopted home city has truly made him a Great Living Cincinnatian. But he is quick to give credit to everyone he met along the way.
“That’s something I got very lucky without realizing, the support of everyone,” said Jean-Robert. “People adopted me very quickly and I think when people adopt you, you feel comfortable. It was easier in Cincinnati to become more myself than it was in New York City.”
Born in France and trained at Le Feguide culinary school in Lille, Jean-Robert made his way to the states as Chef de Cuisine at La Regence and La Gauloise in New York City before joining the Maisonette the day after Thanksgiving in 1993, taking over as chef de cuisine before leaving in 2003.
“I did the same thing I would have done anywhere else, which is not try to make the city better, but being proud of what Cincinnati is,” he said.
Jean-Robert’s dedication to the art of food means he has always been ahead of his time, and indelible markers of his personable restaurant legacy remain all across the city. Following his time at the Maisonette, over the years his portfolio of acclaimed restaurants has included Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, Greenup Cafe, Restaurant L, La Bar au Bouef, Jean-Robert’s Table and French Crust, among others. Just this year, Seventh Street at the corner of Seventh and Vine downtown, was renamed Jean Robert de Cavel Way. So what is his secret to success?
“What I do is very simple: You have to be a little bit of a perfectionist, you have to be consistent,” he says. “Consistency is one of the measures of a successful hospitality business. Because then people understand what you want, people understand what your visions are, and then they want to be part of it and help you.”
When Jean-Robert and wife Annette’s infant daughter Tatiana died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, in 2002, titans of the local service sector (including chefs David Cook, Jimmy Gibson and David Falk) pulled together for a commemorative brunch, raising SIDS awareness and funding for a scholarship in her name. The de Cavel Family SIDS Foundation now annually hosts the Friends & Family brunch at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College.
In 2018, Jean-Robert was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive soft-tissue cancer. In 2019, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Cancer Foundation
Strider’s Ball. He fights with quiet grace and determination, just two of his many virtues.
“It’s another challenge in life,” he said. “It’s something like what we went through with our daughter – what are you going to do? Are you going to give up? Why? You cannot. Giving up is not part of me. You have to take your challenge and do the best you can.”
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization