Local restaurant brings Basque flavor to Baltimore

By Chaz Brown
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Ben Lefenfeld’s love for cooking began as a child, when he would prepare breakfast for his family before school.

Today, he owns his own restaurant.

Lefenfeld, 37, is the executive chef and co-owner of La Cuchara, a Basque region inspired restaurant located at 3600 Clipper Mill Road in Baltimore. La Cuchara opened in April 2015 and is the first Basque-style restaurant in Baltimore City.

Lefenfeld said his early inspiration for serving food comes from his first memories sitting around the table during breakfast in his childhood home in Ellicott City.

“In the mornings, I would get breakfast set up for everyone – cereal boxes out, coffee made, side dishes cooked,” Lefenfeld said. “I loved it.”

Since the age of 14, Lefenfeld has been working in kitchens across Baltimore. After a stint at Frostburg University, Lefenfeld attended Stratford University, formerly known as Baltimore Culinary College, where he further honed his skills as a chef.

After graduation, Lefenfeld worked in some of Baltimore’s most prestigious kitchens, most notably Charleston in Harbor East and Petit Louis. It was at Petit Louis where Lefenfeld developed his love for Basque cuisine.

“I always wanted to do that sort of thing at Petit Louis,” Lefenfeld said, “but there were always traditional French dishes we had to keep on the menu.”

Ben Lefenfeld, the executive chef and co-owner of La Cuchara, a Basque restaurant in Baltimore, puts together a plate of food for one of his customers. Photo by Chaz Brown.

Ben Lefenfeld, the executive chef and co-owner of La Cuchara, a Basque restaurant in Baltimore, puts together a plate of food for one of his customers. Photo by Chaz Brown.

Basque cuisine refers to food prepared in the northern Spanish area, País Vasco. The cuisine is well-known for pinxtos (Basque tapas) and meats and fish grilled over hot coals. Basque food gets its unique flavor profile by using tomatoes, choicero peppers, onions and garlic.

Now that Lefenfeld has his own restaurant, he gets to curate his menu exactly how he wants — the way he wants.

Lefenfeld’s preferred method of cooking is over a real flame. The chef said he enjoys using simple ingredients with bold flavors.

“Some of the most exciting cooking in the world has been executed over a real flame,” Lefenfeld said. “I use a range of ingredients, including seafood, wild mushrooms and game.”

Lefelfeld has also stated that he’s a proponent of locally sourced ingredients.

“We’re out to find the best ingredients,” Lefenfeld said. “Most of the time it’s local, but that isn’t always the case.”

La Cuchara routinely features cured meats and imported cheeses, but Lefenfeld isn’t afraid to think outside the box.

One of the more adventurous dishes is Mussels Escabeche, or pickled mussels served in a tangy sauce with house-made fingerling potato chips.

In addition to serving the Baltimore area Basque-inspired cuisine, La Cuchara features an open bar that serves as the centerpiece to the restaurant.

Since La Cuchara opened in Spring of 2015, Lefenfeld has learned a lot about what it means to run and operate a restaurant.

He works closely with his brother and co-owner Jake as well as his wife, Amy Lefenfeld, who provides the business with human resources, accounting, and design solutions.

“We had always talked about doing something,” said Jake Lefenfeld, 33.“Once we both realized we were in the service industry for the long haul, it kind of just made sense.”

The chef-turned-owner states that one of the biggest difficulties thus far on his journey is having to be an expert on a variety of strategies. Lefenfeld has learned everything from public relations to marketing in his business endeavors.

The Lefenfeld’s next project is opening a neighborhood seafood restaurant in the Federal Hill area of Baltimore. The new restaurant will feature fresh fish and local beers

“Minnow” will be located at 2 E. Wells St. and is currently slighted to open in May 2017.



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