It was less than a year ago when brothers Jake and Ben Lefenfeld, along with Ben’s wife, Amy, decided to open the Basque-influenced La Cuchara in Woodberry. The restaurant features a menu that draws from French and Spanish cuisine, specializing in small plates and fine wines from the Basque region.
The brothers, of course, share a history of growing up in Columbia and attending Howard High School, but then their paths diverged. Ben, 34, trained in French cuisine and served as executive chef at Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf’s Petit Louis Bistro, and Jake, 30, earned a degree in criminal justice from York College of Pennsylvania in 2008. But then Jake decided to re-evaluate his goals in life and spent some time as a bartender to sort things out.
The brothers’ paths converged again when the two opened La Cuchara, and the restaurant has been welcomed with rave reviews. The JT sat down with Jake at the brothers’ restaurant to talk about how things are going so far and where his passion for food lies.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
When I got out of college there weren’t many jobs in the criminal justice field, which was my major, so I started bartending. Later down the road I wanted to team up with this guy (pointing to brother Ben). So I started taking [being a restaurateur] a lot more seriously, [and] this is where I am now.
Did anyone in your family inspire you at a young age?
My parents very much influenced me. When I was 10, they started what became a very successful market research firm in our basement. Watching them work day after day to achieve their goals showed me up close what hard work and commitment to excellence really entails. My mother and father have also continued to be the most supportive and loving parents Ben and I could ever have asked for.
How has it been going at La Cuchara so far?
The day of the week obviously matters a lot. On a busy Friday or Saturday night we do anywhere from 350 to 400 [customers]. On a less busy weekday night we’re looking [at] 80 to 150, and the clientele is wonderful. They’re very receptive to good service and good food, and they show it. They’re very warm and appreciative of having a restaurant that they can come back to over and over again. It’s extremely nice to have a clientele that appreciates what you’re doing.
How did you come up with the concept for a Basque-inspired La Cuchara?
The Basque concept was Ben’s. It fits us great. The Basque cuisine uses many cooking methods that Ben has perfected over the years. As a team, we also felt this concept had not been represented in Baltimore, [and it] allows Ben to use the local farms he’s worked with in the past to provide the best products with the most flavor for our guests. Traditionally in this style of cooking, a great chef like Ben will make sure that the natural flavors from these foods are able to shine through.
What makes a great dish?
I believe [a great dish] makes such an emotional connection with a person that it must be repeated.
Do you have any hobbies?
I haven’t had much time for hobbies, but I do still have many goals in life. My goal at this point is to find new ways to wow the people of Baltimore with their dining experience. That includes La Cuchara and any other endeavors that may arise in the future.
Any advice for aspiring chefs?
Find a fine dining restaurant with a great chef where you can gain employment. The second step is simple: Listen.