Chef Talk: Ben Lefenfeld

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Ben Lefenfeld fell hard for Basque country cuisine after a visit to Asador Etxebarri, Victor Arguinzoniz’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain.

After five years running the kitchen at Petit Louis—and stints at Charleston and Gerard’s Place in D.C.—he has now taken over the Meadow Mill space originally occupied by the London Fog raincoat factory. At La Cuchara, antique red leather chairs, a display of vintage spoons (which the chef collects) and repurposed pine fixtures from the shuttered Smith & Hawken shop in Mount Washington add to the rustic ambiance, all centered around a wood-fired grill.

How did you fall for Basque food? Part of it is the terroir, the ingredients you find there. Part is the grandmother style of cooking: things done simply. I could live roaming the streets of San Sebastian and eating at pintxo bars the rest of my life.

Did you have an “aha” moment? Personally it was at Etxebarri, an asador between Balboa and San Sebastian. It’s consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world. I took a tour of the kitchen and it blew me away. They use different woods for different entrées and appetizers. They do a smoked butter that’s very simple with pane rustica. You smoke the cream from the cow. We’re looking for a raw heavy cream to smoke on the grill. We have a smoked crème fraiche with wild mushroom appetizer on tuille, and have been playing around with smoked vanilla ice cream.

What are the key flavors in Basque cooking? The wonderful olive oil, the seafood—especially the smaller fish, boquerones and sardines. There are a lot of goats milk cheeses in the region. Compared to northern France, where you find more butter and cream, these are leaner foods, but with bold flavors.

How do you decide what’s on the menu? We’re just looking for the best product we can get. We source from local purveyors who go out of their way to give us a good product. Peerless Fish out of Brooklyn, in my opinion the best out there, comes down three times a week. Sardines are flown in from Spain; we have Pacific Northwest halibut and Guinea fowl from Fells Point Wholesale Meats.

Is there anything that people don’t know about you? People always think I’m mad at them, but I’m actually a really nice guy. I’m just focused, trying to get a job done. Even when I was 13 years old, working at Pizza Hut, people asked, “Why are you always so mad all the time?” I’m intense.

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