When Oliver Poilevey’s mother Susanne was dying of cancer in 2019, Poilevey would cook for her. She loved BLTs, especially in the summer, so he made her plenty while satisfying her craving for stews in the winter, even as she struggled with her appetite, only managing a few bites.
“It helped me knowing that I could help her in some way,” Poilevey says. “Nothing was going to cure her, so I was just kind of escaping that and enjoying a meal. I love to cook. That’s why I cook.”
Poilevey’s mother, who died in September 2019, was Chicago restaurant royalty, along with her husband, Jean-Claude, who died in a car accident in 2016. The couple brought French food to the forefront with Le Bouchon in Bucktown and La Sardine, which closed in 2020 after 22 years in River North. They inspired their son to open Taqueria Chingón and Obelix, the latter a French bistro that simultaneously honors the past while advancing a more modern approach to French cooking.
So when Poilevey read Eater’s 2021 story on Culinary Care, a nonprofit that works with Chicago-area restaurants to feed cancer patients, he immediately connected with the cause and founder Courtney White, who lost her father to cancer in 2006.
“It’s like the community that you hope that no one ever is part of, but we can relate to each other and understand to some degree what we’ve been through,” White says.
Poilevey quickly embraced the community by using the Taco Tuesday guest-chef series at Taqueria Chingón to raise money for the organization. Next week, he’ll be one of 26 chefs providing food for Culinary Care’s annual gala on Thursday, November 10. He’s also hosted three cookoffs for employees of Culinary Care’s corporate donors. Their largest-ever event brought 40 people from four companies to Obelix, where they tried their hand at making beef Wellington, one of the restaurant’s standout dishes.
Attendees nibbled beef tartare and cheese puffs while drinking free-flowing wine poured by Poilevey’s brother and business partner Nicolas before gathering for a demonstration conducted by Obelix pastry chef Antonio Incandela, who Poilevey says has the best beef Wellington technique.
The dish is a variation on the beef Wellington served by Jean-Claude Poilevey at Le Bouchon, where foie gras is used instead of mushrooms. Oliver and Nicolas Poilevey took over both Le Bouchon and La Sardine after their father died.
During the demonstration, Incandela brushed a sizable beef tenderloin with mustard, laying slices of prosciutto on plastic wrap, and spreading finely diced mushrooms on top like mortar. The sheet was then folded over the beef, tied off in such a way that it resembled a meaty hard candy, and the bundle set aside to rest in a cooler. Incandela then guided attendees through wrapping the meat in the house-made puff pastry and painting it with egg wash.
Oliver and Nicolas Poilevey would take over responsibilities for their parent’s beloved restaurants. Losing both parents in a three-year span was difficult for the brothers, including a third, Henri Poilevey. More than 1,000 people attended Jean-Claude Poilevey’s funeral. “It was kind of crazy because my dad was so loved,” Oliver Poilevey says. “Everybody knew him and people would come in crying and telling all types of stories. I was like, ‘Oh shit, what do I do now?’”
Though Oliver Poilevey worked under his father as a sous chef at Le Bouchon for more than six years, starting when he was 21, his brother didn’t join the family business until he was 23, taking over the wine program after his father’s death.
“I learned on the job,” Nicolas Poilevey says. “Every single Monday, I’d have five, 10 reps bring a bunch of wine to me and I would taste it. For three years I was bullshitting. Finally, I can make an educated choice on what kind of wines I want to bring in. I could talk about these wines. I’ve visited these places now. It was a fake-until-you-make-it kind of situation, for sure.”
When their mother was diagnosed with cancer, Oliver Poilevey says, in many ways her illness was even more difficult to deal with: “I saw her wither away. It was just hard for her and hard for me, and at the same time, we had a lot of beautiful moments together. A lot of them involved food.”
Pouring himself into keeping the business running helped Oliver Poilevey deal with the grief. He began making his own mark on Le Bouchon’s menu, changing dishes that his father had served the same way for 20 years. For example, he would add Asian fish sauce to the frog legs.
“When my dad was alive, we used to get into it a lot,” he says. “My dad’s very classic, old-school. I wanted to do new things. I also had too much to prove. After he died, I got a new appreciation for the classics, but I still didn’t lose my rebel streak.”
Obelix is the culmination of that journey, combining French staples with Oliver’s appreciation for Southeast Asian, North African, and Mexican fare, a tribute to Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. At Obelix, chef de cuisine Nathan Kim has the space to show his Korean roots on the menu. Likewise, Taqueria Chingón provided an opportunity for former Le Sardine chef Sotero Gallego to shine.
The culinary teams join up at Obelix, which is used as a prep kitchen for the taqueria. A few representatives from each team crowd into the kitchen to prepare a hollandaise made with fat from Taqueria Chingón’s al pastor that’s so bright-orange it resembles uni. Oliver Poilevey says that if he can hire enough staff, he’d eventually like to open Obelix for brunch and use the sauce on Benedicts.
Since opening, accolades have poured in for Obelix. It has become one of the hottest restaurants in the city, and one of the best new restaurants of 2022. Oliver says he tries not to get too caught up in the hype: “I just don’t want [the reviews] to be ‘that sucks’ or ‘he’s disgracing his father,’” he says.
Back at the Culinary Care event, the beef Wellington comes together, while the crowd gathers to read testimonials from Culinary Care beneficiaries, including a patient with stage 4 cancer who said they didn’t know how long they had to live but that a good meal had brightened their day. Oliver Poilevey says hearing the stories triggered memories of his own traumatic family experience with terminal cancer, but that they were very touching.
“Cooking is therapy,” he says. “I think if you have a lot of stuff going on in your life, you can just focus on the dish you’re cooking or a recipe and cook it with somebody that you love. Sitting down and eating that dish, whether it was cooked for you or whether you helped cook it, and enjoying that with somebody that means something to you, whether they’re going through cancer or not, is a very healing thing.”