Chef Ben Lefenfeld of La Cuchara is a really low-key guy. When you first meet him, he seems quiet, somewhat serious, his mind is always working. You can see it – he’s thinking about how he can be better, be more creative and make the La Cuchara experience even better.
The new addition to the hot Hampden restaurant scene – which serves Basque cuisine, representing Northern Spain and Southern France – was just named one of Open Table’s 100 Foodie Restaurants in the US. (I still hate that F word, I love the other one…) The space is gorgeous, the food is creative. It’s two minutes from my house – I love my hood!
Ben grew up in Ellicott City and graduated from Howard High School. He attended Frostburg State University, but soon realized college was not his bag. While in school, he always worked in food. He went to live at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland to do that whole ‘living at the beach” thing and then returned to Baltimore to attend Baltimore International Culinary College. He made the President’s List and graduated in one year. He was doing what he loved and it felt good. He did his externship in Ireland and he did not enjoy that – not one bit. He returned to the US and worked at Tersiguel’s, Alexander’s at Turf Valley Country Club, Red Coral in his early cooking years.
While at Tersiguel’s he learned the basics of French cooking from Chef Michel and then moved on to Malmaison in DC with Gerald Pangaud, who at the time was the youngest 2-star Michelin chef. When he was just 25, he took over the kitchen at Malmaison when Gerald left. He got burned out quickly at the high-end, high-pressure Northwest DC hot spot. After DC, he was a sous chef with Cindy Wolf at Charleston around the time of Cinghiale’s opening. After a year at Charleston, he was brought on as Executive Chef at Petit Louis, where he stayed for about five years. After that, he helped to open Johnny’s around the corner from Petit Louis – then he felt like he was ready to start working on opening his new place. It took two years to open La Cuchara, along with his partners, his brother Jake and wife, Amy. While doing demolition, drywall, painting in the raw space at Meadow Mill, Ben did everything from catering to driving an Uber to make ends meet. He was determined to have his own place – and on April 18, 2015, they opened. I remember taking a behind-the-scenes tour with Ben in late 2014 and thinking, “Oh my gah. This place is HUGE!” And it is huge, but not cold, not cavernous. Sitting at the bar is one of my favorite ways to dine and at La Cuchara, that’s usually what I do. Snacks, drinks, people watching…it’s the best. “We had a vision of what we wanted to bring to Baltimore”, says Chef Lefenfeld. “We are holding ourselves to it. We want to do things the right way.”
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
BL: Yes! I was really hyper as a kid. In the mornings, I liked to get breakfast set up for everyone – cereal boxes out, orange juice made, side dishes cooked, I loved it. I’ve always loved cooking with friends and family, and especially like experimenting. My mom is a really good cook. I remember she always made pesto and served it with tomatoes in the summer. We did a lot of very simple food, executed well. Oh and she also made calamari with red sauce, I remember that. So good.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, I suppose…) What would be your ‘birthday meal’ now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
BL: I always wanted Chinese food. My brother always wanted hot dogs. Or if we were up in Maine, lobster for sure. Now? I like to go out. I just took my staff up to NYC and we had lunch at Casa Mono. It’s casual, Spanish/Basque – Michelin star, too. I’d love to back to San Sebastian. One day… (smiles)
Do you have a mentor? Any chefs who really helped you find your way?
BL: Mainly, I’d say my cousin Joel. He’s in the restaurant industry in NYC and I always consult with him on big decisions, milestones. I also stop into Tersiguel’s and catch up with Michel. Honestly, my staff here at La Cuchara does a great job keeping me straight, especially Chris Gomas – he’s been with me a long time. We worked together at Charleston and Petit Louis. He’s someone I know I can count on.
What food trend can you absolutely not stand?
BL: Farm to Table, for sure. It’s a responsibility. It shouldn’t be used as advertising. It’s a little harder to do, but we need to take advantage of our amazing produce in the area. I always use local farms first.
How do you balance home and work? I guess days off are big.
BL: It’s really important for me to be here every morning. We change the menu every day. I’m always placing orders, seeing what’s coming in, calling purveyors. I also like to stop by the fish market early (Jessup) to see what’s good. I’m not balancing home and work right now, but I love what I’m doing. I’m all in.
Do you have time to watch any food tv? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you really enjoy?
BL: Chef’s Table on Netflix (I agree and gush…love that show.) If I happen to catch it, I’ll stop and watch Unique Eats. Not really big on Top Chef and Chopped kinds of shows.
What do you love about Baltimore?
BL: I love the people, especially around here uptown. People in the industry at Johnny’s, Louie, etc. The food scene is expanding so quickly. I’m really excited about some of the city markets opening up in the next year. Love seeing markets grow, it’s nice to be able to pick up fresh fish, bread, etc. That’s the way we should be shopping when we can.
What do you like about food?
BL: The versatility. It will never be boring. Keeps you interested, on your toes. I like to see the process of things. Like our veal tongue dish, it’s about 25 steps. So precise. It’s such a long process but all worth it in the end. Every little detail is interesting to me.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the City?
BL: I really like Bottega, Parts & Labor. Petit Louis is one of my very favorites. Azumi is great. Last time I went to Wit & Wisdom it was very good. Also, Cinghiale is such a great place.
Okay…obligatory…when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you have a favorite ‘go to’ meal at home?
BL: Yeah, I cook at home a lot, many times it’s simple pasta with red sauce. But really, I eat most of my meals at La Cuchara, though. It’s just easier. (Laughs…)