Though Bakersfield has a reputation as a Basque food mecca, one interesting thing about that restaurant niche is how hard it is to break into. I can remember the passionate controversy created by Frankie Maitia in the '80s when he opened a huge restaurant on the north end of Union Avenue. People insisted anything that big, shiny and new was too commercial -- and Maitia wasn't even a newcomer to Basque food, having been the proprietor of a smaller restaurant before his move. Authenticity is everything in Basque food, a trait that seems required for survival.
Yet the Arduain brothers -- Rene and Benji -- were able to branch out and make an enduring success of it with their restaurant, Benji's French Basque on Rosedale Highway, without controversy. Though the building they moved to was newish, in a growing part of town rather than the Basque stronghold of east Bakersfield, they didn't encounter resistance. And the brothers created what is, year in and year out, one of the best restaurants in Bakersfield. Which is why the recent death of Jean Rene Arduain from cancer is a notable loss for the local restaurant scene.
He will be missed.
Rene had been a paratrooper in the French military before moving to San Francisco in 1964 and joining the restaurant business. He moved to Bakersfield in 1992 to help brother Benji, who had opened a restaurant in another location in 1986. They opened at the current site on April 17, 1992.
The brothers were five years apart -- Rene, 70 at his death and Benji, now 65 -- but they were always close, Benji said.
"We grew up in a family of nine kids, eight of them brothers," he said in a phone interview. "That age gap when we were younger was big. I was 12 and he was 17, almost out of the house while I had to stay home with poppa and momma. But when you're older, it's nothing."
Benji said his brother was a "high-class chef, working in many fine restaurants and running a country club kitchen" when he decided it was time to own his own business and come to Bakersfield. Rene was known for his sauces, and his influence helped accentuate the French elements of Basque food. The brothers worked almost 20 years, often side by side in the kitchen, which Benji characterized as "very happy years." He said they always did things the old-fashioned French way, everything from scratch.
"We always made our own stocks," he said. "Some people just want to buy them, but that was never our style. Everything should be fresh. It's the only way."
Benji said cancer first struck his brother seven years ago, and he beat it, but it returned about 18 months ago.
"And it made him pretty weak."