Cultivating craft

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Kfir Ben-Ari’s refined cuisine finds a home in Harlem


  • Kfir Ben-Ari, chef and owner of Rendezvous. Photo: Elissa Sanci

  • Rendezvous is at 2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem. Photo: Elissa Sanci

Although it was not obvious to him then, Kfir Ben-Ari was destined to become a chef from a very young age. Obsessed with taste, he spent his childhood in Israel attempting to extract flavors from the most unconventional sources — the first rain of the season and the freshly mown grass, for instance.

“I drank mud — filtered mud,” Ben-Ari said, laughing as he recalled the time he snuck out of bed once his parents were asleep to collect the rain. Ben-Ari, who owns and runs the French restaurant Rendezvous in West Harlem, said he just had to know what it tasted like.

Rendezvous, on Eighth Avenue and 112th Street, opened in January. Following an eight-year tenure as executive chef at Paradou, the now-shuttered Meatpacking bistro, Ben-Ari decided it was time to open his own restaurant.

Ben-Ari describes Rendezvous, also known as RDV, as a modern French restaurant. He explained that, while he uses cooking techniques and flavors from the southeast region of France, he strays from tradition.

Ben-Ari, both a chef and a sommelier, relies on locally sourced produce and meats from the tristate area for his seasonal menus. “In the States, you just need to think about something and you can get it like that without any effort, so I like to put the effort back in by sitting down with my cooks and my general manager to plan purchasing,” Ben-Ari said. “It’s not only fresher, but it’s the right way to go. It’s better for the environment.”

Food isn’t the only thing that’s locally sourced at Rendezvous; the staff is too. “Community is very important for me,” said Ben-Ari, who has had a strong connection with Harlem since moving there nearly a decade ago. “I try to help the community and hire people locally.”

He’s come a long way since eating grass spread on toast in Israel. Ben-Ari’s culinary journey started after he completed three years of military service in Israel; he spent the following nine months traveling throughout South America, where he explored with his passion for food and cooking.

“I offered my hand in every country,” he said, explaining that he worked his way through South American kitchens during his travel. “I didn’t want money — just a place to stay, something to eat and to learn.”

It was during those nine months that Ben-Ari confirmed for himself that he belonged in the kitchen. Shortly after returning from his trip, he enrolled in the Institut Paul Bocuse near Lyon, France, to formally learn his trade.

Ben-Ari made his way to New York in 2003 where he worked as a line cook at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side. Although he had planned to stay in the United States for just two years, Ben-Ari couldn’t turn down the opportunities that came his way following his stint with Boulud.

“Fourteen years later, here I am, opening my own restaurant, which is the biggest dream I’ve ever dreamt,” he said. “I made it a reality.”

But before Rendezvous came Caféine, Ben-Ari’s first small business. Ben-Ari opened the espresso shop, located just two blocks from Rendezvous on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, as a way to “make sure [Harlem] was the right location.” He reasoned that if his European-inspired shop fared well in Harlem, then his French restaurant would as well.

And so far, according to Ben-Ari, Rendezvous has flourished. With 4.5 stars on the reviewing site Yelp, the restaurant has brought in mostly positive reviews from local patrons. “People are coming back and bringing new people with them,” Ben-Ari said.

On Mondays, Ben-Ari spends time with his family; during the rest of the week, he can be found in the kitchen, embellishing classics such as foie gras and beef tartare with unexpected accents, and making an occasional round of the dining room.

But you won’t find mud or grass on the menu — those days are long gone.

“Once you decide to become a chef,” he said, “you look back at the old things you did and it makes sense.”

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