Remembering Jean-Claude Poilevey, French chef

Good-natured tableside manner, hearty food executed with grace and finesse

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By David Hammond


Jean-Claude Poilevey – born in a Burgundian village, long-time resident of the Village of Oak Park – died early Saturday morning in a multi-vehucle crash on the Eisenhower Expressway.

Many of us probably had our first taste of French food at places like his now closed La Fontaine on Chicago's north side. We first met Poilevey at Le Bouchon in Bucktown, a type of bistro typical of the French city of Lyon that focuses on hearty food, conviviality, and a gregarious chef who might frequently be seen in the dining room, chatting with guests, full of joie de vivre, enjoying his life and helping his diners enjoy theirs.

In 2013, when Carolyn and I last dined at Le Bouchon (1958 N. Damen), Poilevey explained to us that "'bouchon' means 'cork.'" As corks sit tightly in bottles, so do the Lyonnais squeeze into these usually petite boîtes with, as he described them, "tables on top of tables." And squeeze they did into Poilevey's Le Bouchon (and at his perhaps suggestively named La Sardine). Walking past Le Bouchon just last Thursday evening, we peered in, happy to see many of tables full of wine and conversation, knowing Poilevey was likely in there somewhere, cooking, serving and being the bon vivant host we'd met years ago.

Of our last dinner at Le Bouchon, I remember in particular the frog legs. We were enthusiastically gobbling them, when his chef-son, Oliver, sidled up whispered to us "I put fish sauce in the frog legs." Oliver (who once delivered for Jimmy John's in Oak Park) was fond of fish sauce and Asian food in general, unlike his father who admitted, "I'm uncomfortable in most Chinese restaurants…except Shanghai Terrace at The Peninsula."

Le Bouchon's frog legs carried the unmistakably delicate funk of the fermented fish condiment – and it worked beautifully! Still, when we mentioned his son's admittedly unorthodox approach to this classic preparation, Poilevey père shook his head and his finger before wakling away briskly, declaring "Fish sauce? In frog legs? No, never. Tsk, tsk. Nevvaaahhh."

Assuming the role of a by-the-book French chef, Poilevey was likely just messing with us, well aware of his son's tinkering with the classics. It's fair to say, though, that for traditional French chefs, there are right and wrong ways to do things. The right way, perhaps needless to say, is the traditional French way. Although few would probably say Poilevey was rigidly doctrinaire, he seemed to adhere to the old ways of preparing a meal – and that was just fine with us. Perhaps his respect for the rules was a result of his time as a cook in the French army. European military structure, after all, shaped the French kitchen's brigade system, from chef de cuisine, through sous-chef, saucier, down many ranks to garçon de cuisine, the kitchen's buck private.

At our Le Bouchon meal of three years ago, we started with tartare, a medium-chop of raw beef, mixed with sauce and herbs, topped with a quail egg, flanked by frisee and toast points, a beautiful example of a bouchon's classically substantial, meat-centric dish, executed with grace and finesse. There was also foie gras, with a simple sprinkle of coarse salt and a sweep of raspberry sauce, followed by a duck breast with carrots, lightly cooked in the French tradition, with just the right amount of tooth. Finally, a saddle of rabbit in a light, clear sauce, dusted with fine herbs. How, I wondered, did Poilevey keep the meat of this lean springtime animal so moist; I was told his "secret," well known to any French chef, "butter, butter, butter."

Such food, of course, explains why Poilevey's bouchon was usually packed, sometimes more than others. After a 2001 "Check, Please" segment featured then-Senator Barack Obama chatting about dinners with Michelle at Le Bouchon, Poilevey smiled as he remembered "Lines…out the door …round the corner…for days."

About the man who would be President, Poilevey recalled "Obama was a handsome, charming young man, but he was no great gastronome: he liked his steaks well-done."

We'll remember Poilevey's good-natured tableside manner, his Gallic humor, but most of all his immensely satisfying food, prepared in the old ways, that though it may come in and out of style, remains for many of us a touchstone of what it means to eat well.




Click through the gallery above to see some of Poilevey's dishes; they tasted even better than they look.



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