Jovan Trboyevic

June 1996

Food Arts presents the June 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jovan Trboyevic, the enigmatic and energetic chef/restaurateur who raised the banner of fine dining to dynamic heights in the 1970s at chicago's groundbreaking Le Perroquet and Les Nomades restaurants.

Trboyevic, 75, now retired but still pontifical and unsparing in his wide-ranging pronouncements, was regarded as the spiritual heir to Henri Soule, the legendary martinet of Le Pavillion who imprinted incorruptible standards of food and service upon haute cuisine restaurants in this country. Le Perroquet operated according to Trboyevic's own rules of refinement, which, in part, were predicted upon an intolerance for frivolities and distractions. Hence in return for demanding that his patrons confirm reservations, dress properly, and keep their babies, cigars, special food requests, table hopping habits, and loud behavior at home, Trboyevic cosseted guests with transcendent dishes culled from an imaginative repertoire, precision tableside service, and a setting of serene civility. At Le Perroquet, a table was forever—or for at least as long as the evening lasted.

"Sure, they say I'm tough, cold, belligerent, but I couldn't care less," Trboyevic once told a writer. "What matters are my guests and my own self-respect."

The imperious Tryobevic was formed in the crucible war ravaged Europe. The son of a well-to-do Serbian lawyer and a landowner whose family was "pilfered and plundered" mightily by the Nazis during World War II and then by communist who followed them, Tryobevic lived enough war stories to fill a John Wayne double feature. War's end found him in Geneva studying economics and political science, with no hope of returning to his Stalinist-dominated homeland. "I decided to go blue-collar to survive," he recalls. Through arrangements made by an aristocratic English woman, he attended the famous hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland.

His training and facility with language landed him a number of front-of-the-house jobs around Europe, where he became involved with a loosely organized band of activists dedicated to fomenting subversive activities inside the Iron Curtain. The CIA recruited him in 1953 as an operative based in France and Switzerland, then brought him to the United States in 1954. "I liked the idea of going after Eastern Europe, but I Was not ready to become a worldwide agent of the United States," he says of his decision to leave the spy business in 1955.

The nomadic Trboyevic accepted a job as maitre d' at Jacques, a well-known Chicago French restaurant, and then moved to Sardi's in New York City in 1956. At the urging of his first wife, he opened a restaurant in suburban Larchmont, New York, in 1957, where "I was always trying to beat the limitations of foods' availability." He sold the restaurant to his wife in 1961 as part of a divorce settlement and let his peripatetic spirit carry him from job to job until he found five backers to Jovan in Chicago in 1967. "It was very new, very unusual in Chicago in 1967," he says. "We started with no menu, just explaining what we had. We had a fixed-price dinner, and we did a lot of vegetables, which were hardly being served anywhere. We also had an espresso machine, and I don't recall any other restaurant having one at the time. I had to fly an Italian man in from New Jersey to install it.

"Jovan's was successful, but I have a tendency to get restless," he continues. "I was in Europe, mostly in Paris, where I became fascinated with nouvelle cuisine. I wanted to give it a home in the United States, so I managed to reshuffle some partners and open Le Perroquet in 1972."

Le Perroquet and Les Nomades, which he opened in 1978 as a private dining club, were designed and decorated by his second wife, Meg Abbott, an artist and printmaker, with whom he shuttles between home in Chicago and France. Before he old Le Perroquet in 1984 and Les Nomades in 1993 Trboyevic nurtured some of the most accomplished chefs of the past 20 years—Alain Sailhac, Gabino Sotelino, Hans Rockenwagner, Mary Sue Miliken, and Susan Feniger, among others.

As the progenitor of so many of the protocols that inform present-day American Restaurants, Tryobevic's cautionary note for ambitious chefs warrants attention. "There's a limit to pretentiousness in cuisine," says the grande cuisinier. "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether comfort of the diner is more important than the ego of the chef The main function in our lives is to restore peoples happiness, like in the same name, 'restaurant,' not just to grab them and impress them."