- Michael Gebert
- Jason Cevallos at the Office
Two deaths from the Chicago culinary community were announced, to general shock, over the weekend. The most shocking was the sudden death of bartender Jason Cevallos, who had just moved to Hong Kong for a job; the cause was said to be typhoid fever, caused by salmonella infection. Cevallos, who was about 35, was a veteran of the Aviary and the Office, part of the team that won a James Beard award this year for Outstanding Bar Program. He had a particular passion for Fortaleza tequila and big bear hugs, to judge by how people remembered him on Facebook. Tributes came in from many colleagues on Facebook (you can see some at 312 Dining Diva); as my friend Todd Lemmon wrote me after seeing the news, “I only went there once but he was an engaging, funny, serious, talented hospitality professional. I appreciated that very much.” Cevallos did the actual on-camera mixing in Craig Schoettler’s Key Ingredient episode in 2012, and just this past August was the subject himself in the Reader‘s Cocktail Challenge.
The other was less unexpected, because news of his ill health had been known for a week or two, but it remains a surprise if you had seen pictures of him in recent years at the awards bearing his name, where he had a Cary Grant tan, salt-and-pepper hair, and a hipper-than-hip lapel-less jacket. This was Jean Banchet, and his death at (apparently) 72 is a reminder that anyone who said Trotter first put Chicago on the culinary map didn’t know what he was talking about. Trotter was in college in the late 70s when both Esquire and Bon Appetit declared that the best restaurant in America was Le Francais. In a distant Chicago suburb called Wheeling, it was founded in 1973 by a chef who had been recruited from France (where he’d worked at La Pyramide and for Paul Bocuse) to cook at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.
In France, situating a great restaurant in a little town in the countryside is common—in no small part because there is usually a hotel attached, and the dining room is full of Frenchmen dining with women who are not their wives. It was more unusual to do that in America, but in a 1981 interview with the Palm Beach Post Banchet explained, with flawless French condescension, why he situated his restaurant far from downtown Chicago: “He didn’t want the convention crowd that orders a ‘martini, extra dry’ and a ‘steak, medium well.'” Instead he had his sights from the beginning on a national and international audience—Wheeling may not be close to the Loop but it was very convenient to what was then Palwaukee Airport, home to corporate jets on the North Shore.
The Palm Beach Post piece sums up much of why Le Francais wowed then, in terms that could have come from a Trotter review a decade later: “The food is the attraction, and it is meant to dazzle the eye . . . the flavor is intense, the identity of the seasonings elusive.” Like Trotter, he was a perfectionist heedless of cost, importing haricots verts (a folly you couldn’t possibly make money on) because American green beans were gauche. He said he was the only one in America importing foie gras (this was before it started being produced in the Hudson Valley, because it was before Americans knew anything).
But just as Alinea was to make Trotter’s innovations seem old-fashioned, once Trotter conceived an American approach to peerless fine dining free of the dominant French influence, beginning in 1987, he made Le Français seem a bit old hat. Banchet left Le Français in 1989, leasing it to Roland Liccioni (Les Nomades), briefly returning a decade later with a lighter menu and more whimsical atmosphere. But by then, like Trotter, he experienced the pain of diminishing reviews from those who once revered him—two and a half stars from Chicago magazine for Le Français 2.0. (Here’s some perspective on that from Michael Miner, writing 20 years ago, when Chicago ruled the fine-dining roost.)
Others ran it (Don Yamauchi, one of Liccioni’s chefs at Carlos’; and later Michael Lachowicz of Michael in Winnetka) before the last of several would-be closings stuck in 2007. By then it was ignored by a city dining scene that had transformed itself from the steak-house era (we still have one or two, I hear); only North Shore locals paid it any attention. Banchet, who was diabetic, semiretired to Florida, consulted, rode his beloved motorcycles, and sometimes turned up at the benefit whose awards were named for him—a sign of the esteem in which he was held for making Chicago a serious food destination in his day. In 2010, the irrepressible Chicago rated the best restaurants in Chicago history—a silly but irresistible exercise. Alinea, of course, is #1; Trotter’s is #3, and together the two Americans bookend Banchet’s Le Francais at #2.