Chef Spotlight: Ben Lefenfeld

Chef Ben Lefenfeld has spent the past 15 years rising through the ranks in the culinary industry working alongside Chef Michel at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City and Michelin two-star Chef Gerard Pangaud at Malmaison in Washington, D.C., where he became the chef de cuisine. In Baltimore, Lefenfeld started as a sous chef with Chef Cindy Wolf at Charleston before becoming the executive chef of Petit Louis Bistro, a position he held for five years. Inspired by his trips to the Basque Country, Lefenfeld opened his first restaurant, La Cuchara, in April 2015 with the help of his partners; his brother, Jake; and wife, Amy.

Get to Know Chef Lefenfeld

Culinary contributor Amy Langrehr sat down with Chef Lefenfeld to chat about food, family and what’s great about Baltimore.

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 go 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 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.

OK, obligatory question – 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.)

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