All of Bakersfield's famed Basque eateries are clustered on the city's east side, with the exception of the youngest of the crop, the much-loved Benji's French-Basque Restaurant on Rosedale Highway. The restaurant is named for its proprietor, 67-year-old Basque immigrant Bernard "Benat" Benji Arduain, who first established the French-style dining destination on Union Avenue in 1986.
When Arduain moved to Bakersfield, he worked as a cook for his then-wife Jenny Maitia's family's restaurant, Wool Growers. He made the name change from Benat, the French Basque spelling of Bernard, to Benji out of necessity.
"We had too many Bernards there at the time, so we had to change my name and I told them I didn't care what they came up with," he recalled with a laugh.
Benji it was, and the names stuck.
Arduain was born in Osses, France, in the Pyrenees Aquitaine region in the southwest part of the country, one of eight boys and a girl born to Eugene and Marie Arduain. His brother, Jean "Rene" Arduain, a paratrooper in the French military, moved to San Francisco in 1964. Benji followed four years later, and sister Bernadette joined them in 1971. They brought with them their favorite French recipes.
At one point, six of the eight Arduain brothers lived in the U.S.
Rene had worked with some of the finest chefs in the Bay Area, including President John Kennedy's former head chef. In 1992, when Benji decided to relocate his restaurant to what, at the time, was the growing northwest, Rene moved to Bakersfield and joined him as a partner.
Rene and Benji were five years apart in age, but as close as any two siblings could be, often working side by side in the restaurant's kitchen for nearly 20 years, preparing the same recipes their mother had fixed for them at the family home of Etcheparia in Basque country. Rene Arduain was renown for his sauces and prepared meals the old-fashioned way, fresh and from scratch, his brother said.
Rene lost his battle with cancer in 2012 at the age of 70. Sister Bernadette Duhart retired six months ago, but other family members are still involved in the eatery's day-to-day operations with Benji. Today Rene's sauces, the Arduain frog legs and racks of lamb continue to lure diners from across the globe.