Le Bouchon's Second Act

By Eric Barton | Will Blunt and Bradley Danner

By

Eric Barton
Will Blunt and Bradley Danner
Oliver Poilevey was 24 years old when he came back to work at the family restaurant. After attending culinary school and line cooking all over the world, he was sure his destiny was to bring new energy and ideas to the place. He walked into his father’s kitchen and knew he would be an agent of change.
 
His father, Jean-Claude, opened Le Bouchon in 1993, and the place was largely just as it had been on the first day. With his new job as his father’s sous, Oliver began pushing dishes that he figured would be the restaurant’s new favorites. His father found them overly complicated. “He was like, ‘Oh, you think you know everything, don’t you? Well, I’ve been open for 20 years,’” Oliver says. After these quarrels, they’d still end service with a glass of wine, never stopping the trash talk about who was the better chef. 
 
Leaving service on April 9, 2016, Jean-Claude was on the Eisenhower Expressway when the road went to ice. He died in a 15-car pileup.
 
Now 32, Oliver remembers reading articles describing what his father had meant to so many. The Chicago Tribune called him “a dean of French cooking, whose exacting standards influenced scores of culinary professionals and made him one of the city's guardians of classic bistro food.” Regulars stopped by to recall the special occasions they had celebrated there, and they taped notes to the door. 
 
Reading those articles, seeing those notes, and hearing those stories, Oliver realized just how wrong he had been. “It was kind of a revelation for me to continue what my dad had done,” Oliver says.
 
He then ran the place with his mother, but that continued for just three years. She was fighting cancer during most of it and passed in 2019. Oliver took over as chef-owner of the restaurant that he and his brothers grew up in.
 
The middle son, Nicolas, was 1 year old when his parents opened the place and now serves as wine director. Although the wine menu had always been well-regarded, Nicolas refocused it to concentrate on pairing with specific dishes. The list now features many natural wines but also something rarer: beaujolais, a wine that many diners think about only at its release in early winter. The youngest of the brothers, Henri, is now pursuing music and also works at Taqueria Chingón, the family’s new Mexican place with Chef-operator Marcos Ascencio—the duck a l’orange tacos speak of the family’s French roots. 
 
As kids, the brothers took on odd jobs in the kitchen, washing dishes or cleaning mussels, and Oliver recalls asking line chefs how to cook this or that. “I loved the energy and the camaraderie of the kitchen,” he says. The restaurant still employs some of those same staffers who were there back then, including Executive Chef Waldo Gallegos, who first started working for the family in 1983 at a previous restaurant. Gallegos isn’t just in charge of the kitchen’s day-to-day; he’s family, someone the brothers have known their entire lives. 
 
One update that he and Gallegos worked on is ocean trout en croûte with troisgros sauce. His father made it the traditional way, a large piece of salmon or ocean trout cooked in puff pastry. This method left the fish well-done, so Oliver and Gallegos tinkered with the recipe. They serve smaller versions now, about the size of Hot Pockets. They’re cooked in a very hot oven, and the process yields an en croûte that slices medium rare. Oliver says the dish has gotten the most acclaim on the menu, but it’s still not far from what his father served—an updated version of a classic.
 
“You never can be him, but you have to be that guy who’s like, ‘Oh welcome, we’re still doing it,’” Oliver says. “His spirit still lives on for us.”
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