Bar Bouchée Chef Jeff Cave Talks Authenticity
Dressed for early afternoon prep in cargo pants and long sleeve t-shirt, chef Jeffrey Cave launches into a lively chat about one of Connecticut’s best menus—his own. Authentically styled on the “bouchon” bistros that popped up in 19th century Lyon, France, Bar Bouchée in Madison serves French comfort food known as cuisine de grand-mere. It’s typified by dishes like crispy duck leg confit, fig and walnut compote, or shrimp and scallop boudin blanc sauce americaine. Seasoning is a huge component.
The decor is washed yellows and hammered metal bronze, and dim lighting belies the subtle tones. The cuisine is complex and elegant, which is a vibe cultivated by the conscientious chef.
It’s been a long, winding road from Short Beach in Branford. Cave has traveled far to create accessible yet exquisite French cuisine in a quiet shoreline setting. Elegance and sophistication aside, he came up the hard way. There were no fancy schools or training courses on his path. Cave learned his trade in Boston bistro kitchens, then upped his game in places like Oceana, Bouley, and BLT Steak. He’s a worker.
His time as a sous chef at Union League Café in New Haven was the start of a friendship with chef and owner Jean-Pierre Vuillermet. From that relationship came Bar Bouchée. Cave thinks like a jet set entrepreneur, but he has never forgotten the places that formed his identity.
“I’m from here,” he says. “I’ve been a lobster fisherman and I still fish here. I try to use my experience to cook classic rustic French food and present it in a way that Americans will appreciate.”
The menu at Bar Bouchée changes nightly, with Cave basing his selections on what’s fresh from his vendors on a particular day. He’s picky about where he shops, and choosy about the staff that helps him in the small but active kitchen.
Cave learned his management style and menu approach from legendary Oceana chef Cornelius “Neil” Gallagher. He worked for his mentor starting in 2003 at the legendary New York eatery, learning how to bring French dishes into the 21st century. He learned the importance of a visual aesthetic for food, as well as the ability to get that food out of the kitchen fast.
“Neil was just the guy you didn’t want to disappoint,” Cave says. “He wouldn’t accept anything but the best. And he could still cook every night.”
Restaurant management for working chefs is a mysterious art and a complex science. The techniques Cave learned demanded empathy and discipline, among sous chefs in particular. His cooking style is built on exotic flavors, seasoned oils, and esoteric reduction methods. When Cave decided to take a break from the business and tutelage of Gallagher, he traveled across America and the world. One night while eating in a three-star restaurant in San Francisco, he had an epiphany: sitting with a friend through a multi-course meal, waiting for long periods of time between courses, enjoying the food, he was getting impatient.
“I wanted to eat,” he says. “It struck me that the meal did not have to take forever to be good. You could serve excellent food building the aesthetics but taking away the pretense. That’s what I’ve tried to do with Bar Bouchée.”
Like any great chef, he’s a bit stingy with his cooking secrets. However, for home cooks he recommends experimenting with oils and sticking to the basics. Salt and pepper, especially during the preparation phase, are underused by most amateur cooks.
These days, Cave commands the respect of local chefs as well as international experts. His favorite moment came during the summer of 2015. A couple was visiting Madison from a village near Lyon, France—that’s Ground Zero for Cave’s style of cooking, and its residents are food purists. After the patron finished the meal, he called Cave over and said that Bar Bouchée reminded him of the meals his mother used to cook when he was a child.
“I love that,” Cave says. “That’s why we’re here.”