When he arrived in America the only English he knew consisted of the lyrics to some Bob Marley songs. “When I went into a restaurant in D.C. looking for a job, I was only able to say ‘need job,’” Bennajma recalls. “The manager asked me if I wanted to be a busboy, and I thought, ‘What? Am I going to be working on a bus or something?’” Through working and attending school, Bennajma picked up the language and soon became acquainted with every job in the restaurant business from cook to bartender to waiter. It wasn’t long before he was working at some of the best restaurants in D.C., including Paper Moon in Georgetown and Odeon Café on Upper Dupont Circle.
In working at these restaurants Bennajma began to form an idea of what kind of restaurant he wanted to open. After he chose the spot in Shockoe Slip, he had a lot of work ahead of him — from painting to rewiring — to get the look he wanted. And he still keeps a tight rein on what comes out of the kitchen. “There’s only one way to do it — it’s my way or the highway,” he says. “I joke to the chef, if you want to be creative, open your own restaurant and you can be creative. I give them the full freedom to be creative in the specials, [but this is] my vision, it’s my thing.”
While upscale French/Moroccan and Italian restaurants might at first seem to be exclusive, Bennajma’s vision for the place was far more pedestrian. “The way I wanted to do it was to make it open to everybody and anybody,” he says. “That’s why there’s butcher paper on top of the tables. The idea was that when you look at my restaurant you won’t think that it’s too expensive, and you’ll feel very comfortable when you walk in.”
So what does a connoisseur of some of the finest European foods eat when he’s not working? “I could pretty much survive off of pasta and mussels,” Bennajma says. “Whenever I go to Paris I go to this place that specializes in mussels. They have about thirty-five different mussel dishes there, and they’re just wonderful.” Needless to say, mussels can be found as both appetizers and entrees at Rivah Bistro, and they frequent the special list at 1421.
Bennajma also has a list of favorite Richmond restaurants. “I love Acacia in Carytown,” Bennajma says. “I also like Pomegranate in the Slip. And when I want to be bad and crave a good burger I think T.G.I. Friday’s is the best for that. They have crayons for the place settings and my kids love that.”
When it comes back to his own restaurants Bennajma has gone to some extreme measures to give them an authentic feel — like what Bennajma calls a chef exchange. “On July 15th, I’m sending the chef of 1421 to Italy to work with my friend in Mondovi, and his chef will come here,” he says. The hope is that both chefs will return with knowledge to help their craft and their restaurant.
Bennajma prides himself in offering something a little more than just good food — a sense of being in a different place. “At 1421 you get the sense of Napoli, and at Rivah Bistro you have the sense of the French Riviera,” he says. “It’s about the whole experience.”
— Francis W. DeckerMore cover stories