Close to the Heart: Interview with Jean-Robert de Cavel

June 11, 2010

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Seven years ago, Jean-Robert de Cavel and his wife, Annette, lost their baby girl to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Seated on a stool, in the midst of construction in his new restaurant, five-star cuisine is the furthest thing from JR’s mind. Cincinnati’s most famous chef talks about how he helped turn his own personal tragedy into a triumphant annual fundraiser, Seven Days for SIDS.

“For Annette and me, it was really based on the knowledge that it can happen to anybody. There’s no why or how. (Our baby, Tatiana,) was at the doctor two weeks before.” Jean-Robert shifts in his chair and swallows a gulp of air. Though visibly choked up, he bullies his way through a stream of consciousness, his eyes wide and glossy.

“You realize you can go into depression, you can lose your job, your whole life can be completely… (his voice trails off) … because this happened to you. We are very lucky because we were able to have another daughter. It doesn’t make us forget the first one, but it can help us to move on.”

As he finishes this thought, two workers carrying a large wooden panel try to pass through the room. “It may be better to go through there,” Jean-Robert says, pointing to a different section of the dining room. Meanwhile, ten feet away, a man rolls another coat of fresh paint on the wall. Jean-Robert himself wears the expression (and the clothes) of a man who has been lifting a lot of heavy things lately. But this doesn’t seem to distract him now, as we talk about Tatiana.

“Love your baby every day,” he says. “It’s not like parents don’t. But this is a reminder not to take people for granted. People who lose a family member in a car accident feel this same way. You see the person now and then they are not there anymore. Sudden death is something that, as human beings, we have very hard time understanding.”

Which is why, eight years ago and with the encouragement of close friends, Jean-Robert and his wife founded Seven Days for SIDS to raise money and awareness for SIDS — a syndrome that affects more than 5,000 families every year. During this week-long event, participating restaurants donate portions of their proceeds to the foundation. The week is capped off with a brunch catered by top local chefs. (Restaurants include Cumin, Daveed’s and Orchids at Palm Court.)

“I realized one thing––the most important thing we have is time,” Jean-Robert says. “And when we give that time away to be part of a charity event, that is the most beautiful thing a human being can do.”

Even so, planning an event that is flexible and convenient for other chefs is important to him. During the week, chefs contribute what they can, when they can. And Sunday brunch is a deliberately planned, family event.

“On Sunday mornings, chefs are usually off,” he says. “Most restaurant people don’t wake up before 11:00 a.m. and the late brunch gives every chef the opportunity to be with their family. Also, I didn’t want my colleagues to try to work hard or impress anyone. This is just brunch. Still, it is amazing what people have done … the twists on brunch they have created. Most of these restaurants don’t typically do this meal and so for them it’s a chance to do something very different. I have seen duck confit and waffles and pancakes with fois gras and truffles …”

Of participating chefs, Jean-Robert says, “They want to show me the respect of being there for me. I can never be more thankful to David Cook (of Daveed’s). Of course, he was my Sous Chef at Maisonette for many years and we have a friendship. But it’s young chefs too … one who worked with me at one of the restaurants called and said he wanted to be a part of this event. He did it because he wanted to show respect.”

The proceeds for Seven Days for SIDS goes towards helping grieving families who have been affected by the loss of a child. These family members may require medical help or need to take time off from work.

“People don’t always see that,” Jean-Robert says. “But the money helps with the aftermath. And the rest of it goes to research. We talked to a doctor — the main doctor in Boston — and he was very thankful because the money they receive throughout the year is not very much. The doctor is very thankful because everything helps. Ten or twenty thousand dollars a year is a huge amount of money to be able to learn more about the symptoms of SIDS.”

“What touches me the most is when I see new parents of children who have died from SIDS. For them, it’s a way to be able to show their love.” Jean-Robert, eyes filled with tears, wipes his face and snaps his fingers sharply in the dust-laden, emerging restaurant space. “With SIDS, it can be gone just like that.”

The Seven Days for SIDS brunch is this Sunday, June 13, 2010 from 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. Entry is $65 for adults and $15 for children under 12. Click here to purchase tickets. All proceeds go to the Seven Days for SIDS foundation.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen June 11, 2010 at 5:41 am

Best feature you’ve done yet. Thanks to John-Robert for sharing!

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Owen June 11, 2010 at 6:12 am

I cannot remember being more touched than I was by Jean-Robert’s story. He exposed his heart through your story. All of us parents know about SIDS, but it’s kind of intellectual. Now it’s in the heart. Now it is more real. Please let him know he has done an incredible thing by sharing his story with all of us!

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npenny June 11, 2010 at 1:22 pm

RT @Epiventures: My intimate interview with Jean-Robert de Cavel: http://epi-ventures.com/interviews/close

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Nathan June 11, 2010 at 6:23 am

Very touching… can’t wait to meet him, now even more.

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Brad June 11, 2010 at 6:29 am

Holy moly Court, well done! This is top rate, and touching.

On a lighter note, why didn’t you mention Bruce Springsteen was there playing with JR’s daughter during the interview?

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Mark June 11, 2010 at 6:37 am

I’m really, really touched by this story. I had no idea Jean Robert had this experience with SIDS and am even more impressed with him now.

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Jill June 11, 2010 at 7:24 am

Wow, I cannot even fathom that kind of loss. I had no idea he experienced that. You’ve expanded the topics on here to show exactly why you love food bringing people together. Thanks for showing and not just telling. xo

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Courtney June 11, 2010 at 9:24 am

You’re right Jill. Just another way that food can save the world!

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msdapore June 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm

RT @Epiventures: My intimate interview with Jean-Robert de Cavel: http://epi-ventures.com/interviews/close

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Small Girl June 11, 2010 at 7:52 am

Absolutley Beautiful. You captured Jean-Robert’s family and loving side perfectly.

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Courtney June 11, 2010 at 9:25 am

Thank you. Jean-Robert was candid about his experience and his vulnerability helps bring to light a very serious syndrome that deserves attention.

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Kate June 11, 2010 at 8:45 am

Really lovely blog post. As a family that has grieved and coped through the loss of a baby, I can identify with much of JR’s sentiment. Thanks for sharing… this is really such a special and important effort in Cincinnati.

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Courtney June 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Ah, thanks for sharing, Kate. I hope his story continues to comfort and inspire.

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Barb Cooper June 11, 2010 at 9:41 am

Such an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing.

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Matt June 12, 2010 at 4:39 am

Wow, incredible story. It really makes you thinking about how we need to cherish the time we have together. This is your best work yet Courtney!

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Marin June 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm

beautiful courtie! It’s amazing to hear how such a powerful and well known name survived that moment of loss and extreme sadness that follows and yet moved on to do something wonderful. You really told his story well. I’m sure you don’t know of the impact your writing has on people, but you make us smile while staring at a computer and yes, I even cried while reading this one. Thank you for putting your thoughts out there for us to read and for giving us insight into all things food. lots of love and pride!

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Courtney June 16, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I can’t believe you commented on a blog. This is big. Thanks for the kind words.

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