By Karla Wall
Before Ben Herrera, owner and executive chef of 121 Artisan Bistro, came to Lake Charles in 1998. A native of Boulder, Colo., he was working as a chef in Aspen when he “met a Southern girl” from Lake Charles. The couple soon decided to move to Lake Charles to be near her family.
After working at Pujo St. Café, then Vanchiere’s Catering, he and partner Richie Gregory opened D’Angelo’s Pizzeria, a casual Italian franchise, on S. Ryan St., which would later become Michael Debakey Drive.
“D’Angelo’s wasn’t a culinary aspiration for me. It was just a business opportunity,” he says.
But despite that, and the fact that other D’Angelo’s locations weren’t doing so well, the Lake Charles location was extremely popular. “It became a household name,” Herrera says.
That ended in mid-April of 2008 when the restaurant burned almost to the ground.
Not long after, the partners decided to demolish what was left of D’Angelo’s and build a new restaurant on the property — something more upscale.
“I wanted something more high-end, but I didn’t want to take away what people loved about D’Angelo’s,” Herrera says.
The result was 121 Artisan Bistro, and in the 10 years or so it’s been open, it’s become every bit as iconic as D’Angelo’s was.
“The response to 121 has been phenomenal,” says Herrera, who now owns the restaurant himself. “It’s become an icon. It’s one of a handful of places in Lake Charles that when you visit here you have to try.”
The restaurant does have an unusual name, and Herrera’s asked about the story behind it.
“D’Angelo’s, before the fire, had changed the franchise name to D’Angelo’s Casual Italian Dining. The city had just changed the street name from S. Ryan to Michael Debakey Dr., so we wanted to name the restaurant something that couldn’t be changed. The street address is 121, and that’s the one thing we knew would never change.”
Herrera says keeping the restaurant thriving in an area where a new restaurant seems to open each week hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve survived a lot,” he says. “It’s been tough, with a multitude of new restaurants opening; with the casinos opening.”
But the instinct to survive in the industry runs in Herrera’s blood. His great-grandfather owned a restaurant in Louisville, Colo., named the Blue Parrot.
“It changed ownership, but the name and concept were kept until just a couple of years ago,” Herrera says.
His grandparents also owned a restaurant in Boulder, and it was there that Herrera was introduced to the industry.
“I bused tables, washed dishes and did whatever needed doing,” he says.
But he got his first real cooking job at age 15, working at a “greasy spoon” diner. He started out busing tables, he says, and then was moved to the cooking line when one of the restaurant’s cooks quit.
Herrera finished high school, and enrolled at Colorado State University, majoring in nutrition. After two years, he quit and enrolled in the culinary program at the Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver.
After graduating, Herrera “worked in everything from greasy spoons to high-end restaurants,” including a stint at the Westin Hotel in Denver, before coming to Lake Charles.
Herrera says that, having grown up in a large Italian family, he comes by his love of food naturally.
“My parents loved food, and got me to try new things, like calamari and beef tartare,” he says.
The Aldovina dish on the 121 menu, braised spareribs in red ragout, is his grandmother’s recipe. It’s still a staple in his repertoire, and one of the dishes he most enjoys cooking and eating. It’s also one of the most popular dishes at 121, along with the parmesan crusted shrimp and beef tips and grits.
But 121 is probably best known for its steaks. In fact, 121 took top honors in the Best Steaks category in Lagniappe’s Best Of contest for the past two years.
“We take hand-cut steaks and cook them in a cast iron skillet in a ceramic deck oven,” he says. “This way, the steak is cooked on all sides and from every angle equally. It results in a juicy, tender, flavorful steak.”
Herrera says what he enjoys most about his profession is the artistic expression cooking provides. He also sees cooking as a great social event.
“Food brings people together,” he says. “People sit down for a meal and they enjoy each other’s company.”
And, he says, there’s nothing better than seeing people enjoy his food.
“I love seeing the happy, smiling faces of my customers,” he says.
He also enjoys the fact that as a restaurant owner he’s able to be such an integral part of the lives of his customers — to share in their special events and milestones.
“A couple came in just recently to celebrate their 30th anniversary,” he says.
Herrera says Lake Charles is home, and he’s proud to be an integral part of the dining scene here.
“I’m truly grateful to Lake Charles for adopting me.”
And he shows his appreciation by giving back in any way he can. 121 sponsors numerous sports teams, and has also hosted charity fundraisers, most recently a four-course dinner to raise money for St. Luke Simpson United Methodist Church mission trips.
“Lake Charles is our home, and we’re very involved in the community,” he says.