We sat down with chef Omar Ben-Hammou of Her Name Was Carmen to celebrate the SoHo restaurant’s first anniversary. Ben-Hammou’s pan-Latin menu reflects his world travels and family culinary traditions. His supportive family has visited him from Peru everywhere he’s cooked from New York to Australia.
Interview by Sarah Strong
The Chef’s Connection: How did you end up deciding that you wanted to go to culinary school and pursue cooking as a career?
Omar Ben-Hammou: Well I always liked cooking. In my family it’s a big thing, the way that we show affection is by cooking so my mother cooks, my grandmother cooks, my sister is an awesome baker, so I was always involved with that kind of environment. But I also come from a family that went to college and had degrees and stuff like that, so I always thought that was my path, which I followed in the beginning.
I went to law school, but then after a couple of years I realized that it wasn’t for me. I always kind of refused the idea of being a chef. My mother had a restaurant so I pretty much grew up in a restaurant ,and that was like my last you know choice, but then I made a trip. I met some people, older people than me, and they kind of shared their experiences with me about the importance of doing something that makes you happy instead of following different ideas from family or society. So after that trip I decided to come back to Lima and give it a shot. Obviously it was my second option because everybody told me, “you should cook, you should go to culinary school, you’re always cooking, you’re always eating.” I said, “no, no, no,” I have to be like my sister, I have to be like my dad. So then I came back and did one more semester and then after that I talked to my parents and I switched to culinary school, and my mother told me, “I told you so.”
TCC: So your parents were supportive?
OBH: Yeah, of course,100%, they were even happy that I made that decision. It was pretty natural for me since the first semester of culinary school because, I don’t want to sound cocky about it, but I kind of was more experienced than the rest of the students and I loved it since day zero. My second semester in culinary school I met this visiting chef. He was a new professor of the academy named Jean Marc. He’s a Swiss guy and I speak a little French and he didn’t speak any Spanish so I was kind of helpful in class and we became friends. He saw that I really liked it, I was really into it, like really passionate about it, so he gave me the chance to travel, to go to Switzerland, to Geneva, and work with his chef, who is a MOF, and he had a two Michelin star restaurant, and that was my first experience. Since then I haven’t stopped traveling and being more in love with my profession.
TCC: After Switzerland, where did you go?
OBH: Miami, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Australia, New York.
TCC: Did you leave New York and come back?
OBH: Yes, I came here in 2012 for the first time and then I came back in 2014, that’s how I got the job here. I got a job in 2012, and then I came back to meet the team at Le Bernardin. I had a commitment before, so they said they’d hold the job for me. I was very lucky, they sponsored my visa and everything, so I spent a few years with them – that’s how I ended up here in New York.
TCC: Do you love it here?
OBH: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really hard question because I learned how to love New York. I don’t think this is a city for everybody. You have to be crazy to love it, and I think I’m crazy.
TCC: What makes cooking here unique?
OBH: Everything is challenging, everything is too much, it’s very intense. I always thought that New York City was a city that I wanted to live in. When I first started my career, I always dreamed about being one day in a three Michelin star restaurant in New York, just to see what’s going on. I’m very lucky, I met the right people and I worked a lot to get to my goals.
TCC: Do you feel like you met the right people by chance or by seeking them out?
OBH: I think 80% of my luck was working a lot, being really driven about what I wanted to achieve in my career. When I was a young cook I was always very hungry: I wanted to know everything, I wanted to learn, I wanted to discover. I love to eat, it doesn’t look like it, but I eat a lot. When I go back to Lima my family doesn’t pick me up from the airport, but they book all the restaurants in three days just to take you. My mother doesn’t have a restaurant anymore, now she just eats and travels, but she knows how demanding this is and definitely is really supportive since I started this.
TCC: What are you inspired by?
OBH: I love history, I love anthropology and I love traveling, so when I quit law school I always wanted to see the world and discover. I’m not a person that learns in a classroom; I learn by touching, by feeling, by smelling, by exploring my senses. Traveling allowed me to have a big picture of what’s going on. I spent my whole twenties traveling and living in different countries and learning different languages, too. I speak four: Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, it’s not very decent butI can make it happen. I think traveling was the key to where I wanted to go with my career, what I wanted to achieve, seeing different realities, working with different people with different tempers, with different languages and different ways to show the culture through the dishes. Eating is culture, so I every time I have a young cook and they don’t travel i kind of have a sit down with them, have some beers and say travel, just go.
TCC: Where’s the next place you want to visit?
OBH: I’m going home for christmas and I can’t wait to be there.
TCC: Where’s somewhere that you haven’t been that you want to visit?
TCC: Is there one place that you worked that was a breakthrough or life changing moment?
OBH: Definitely New York City. There is a before and after in my career and in my life since I moved here. I would say Geneva, that was my first job, and it was really tough, you have no idea how tough. I was 19 when I went there. In Geneva, I was a beginner. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to expect, I was just working working and I didn’t know which path to follow. I was really dumb and stupid. Then I would say Colombia, because after a few years I realized that because of all this traveling I was capable of managing a kitchen successfully. I think as a team we did a great job in Bogotá and I kind of started discovering my own path in the kitchen. I started to create things that I can see now, oh yeah, this is me. Now I see my dishes and I know it’s me. I see my cooks, when they cook at home, and I know it’s me in them. It’s funny, it’s crazy, but i can see it, and it’s very rewarding, it’s a very nice feeling to have.
TCC: What’s some good advice you’ve been given?
OBH: Be happy first of all. I’m a very emotional person, so I try to be happy as much as I can. I’m a big dreamer as well, so I would say follow your dreams. I’m living my dream.
TCC: Is there anything that you won’t cook with, that you hate?
OBH: Not really. I use a lot of stuff. I think I respect every single product for what it is. I am picky, I pick the best, but I don’t dislike things. I think that if I don’t like something it’s because I think I haven’t the capacity to see how good it is or how I can use it because I don’t know everything, I’m still discovering every day, even when I walk on the street. I love street food, everything comes from things that I like to eat in the street, and I try to recreate flavors in my kitchen.
TCC: How do you bring street food into your kitchen?
OBH: I recreate those kind of flavors mostly when I do sauces. I like making sauces a lot and I think making a sauce for me is where I can travel a little bit and just let myself go. I can put flavors that I think in my head in a sauce.
TCC: Do you start with a sauce a lot when you’re making a dish?
OBH: Yeah, I start with a sauce and then the process is easy, but sauce is deep. I think almost every single dish that I have has a sauce.
TCC: Did you realize that about yourself or did you create the menu and then see that there were sauces everywhere?
OBH: Well everything comes from Le Bernardin. I was saucier of Le Bernardin for a year and it is a commitment. If you work at Le Bernardin you just go to work on the sautée station to learn how to cook the fish and the saucier station to learn how to make the sauces. You make 25 sauces every day, and it’s not just about making the sauce, it’s about having consistency, every day has to taste the same.When you start that station, you have a really deep talk with [Eric] Ripert and he was a saucier, too. I’m very lucky to be part of that program, and definitely after that, as a head saucier, the way I see things in my career are completely different.
TCC: So when you came on to do this restaurant and you were creating the menu, what were some things you wanted to achieve?
OBH: I didn’t have any expectations. I was like, let’s do it! I wasn’t living in New York at the time, I was just traveling around. I came back to pick up my green card, and summer was over in South America. I was about to open up a restaurant, but the political situation in the country wasn’t the best, so I talked to my family and they were like, “We don’t want you here, go back.” They always say when I leave, you always have a house here and hot food, but you can go. So I came here and met the team and they talked to me about the project, and I said, let’s do it, but no expectations about anything. We didn’t know what was going to happen, to be honest.
TCC: What are some things you learned in the past year here?
OBH: A lot of things, I learned a lot of things.I learned a lot – how in a year my cooking evolved week by week because I change the menu a lot, actually I’m trying not to because my cooks always complain, but they love it anyways. So I learned a lot about managing. I learned a lot about purveyors and New York. I learned a lot about the city through working as a chef and being here every day, interacting with the customers. I think we develop certain flavor profiles on the menu that New Yorkers enjoy.
TCC: Is there anything that’s been on the menu the whole time?
OBH: Yes, the hamachi, the tuna mojama, the jamón.
TCC: Is it because you love them or they’re ordered a lot or both?
OBH: I like my food, I don’t like to eat it. I like to taste it but I don’t enjoy it.
TCC: What do you usually eat?
OBH: I usually eat at home. I cook in the mornings, I cook some Peruvian stuff sometimes. I like to go to other restaurants, but I like to eat family meal, to be honest. I don’t eat anything from the menu, I would rather eat family meal.
TCC: Do you have any tips from the kitchen that you’ve picked up that could be useful to home cooks?
OBH: I don’t know, to be honest. I think cooking is so free and I like to think that I do it because it reminds me that I’m a free person. So you have techniques, you have certain rules, but I love breaking rules. There are no rules.
TCC: What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?
OBH: I like jiu-jitsu, I like to surf, I like to play guitar, I like to travel, I love beer and hanging out with friends having a good time. I love cooking when I’m not working, too. I like to cook what I really want to eat, not my menu.
Her Name Was Carmen recently added Saturday brunch service in addition to dinners Tuesday through Saturday. Be sure to complement your excellent meal with a bold cocktail or selection from their highly curated wine list.