"Hell's Kitchen" winner Rahman "Rock" Harper Readying Menu for New D.C. Eatery

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

Ben's Chili Bowl probably isn't the first place you think of if you're craving ravioli stuffed with turkey, sweet potato and mascarpone. But that might be on the menu now that the Washington institution's new venture, Next Door, has a new chef: Rahman "Rock" Harper.

The "Hell's Kitchen" winner and Alexandria native is leaving Las Vegas after his one-year victory stint as head chef at Terra Verde at the Green Valley Ranch Resort. "The new atmosphere here, the inauguration and working with a powerhouse food provider in D.C. -- it was a no-brainer," Harper, 32, said.

Next Door initially was intended to be a neighborhood bar with the same low-key vibe that has lured celebrities such as Bill Cosby, local politicians and late-night revelers to U Street for the past 50 years. The original plan called for a small selection of beers and cocktails to match Ben's revered chili half-smokes and nachos. Ninety seats and a 50-foot bar would accommodate the nightly overflow from the Bowl.

All that changed on Dec. 12 when Nizam Ali, who runs Ben's with his brother Kamal, had a serious conversation with Harper about taking over the kitchen. On Dec. 14 he made Harper a formal offer. On Dec. 17 Harper was on a flight to Washington. He arrived just in time to celebrate the birthday of Ben's matriarch, Virginia Ali-- her 75th -- and his own. "That he and Mom share the same birthday was another sign," said Nizam Ali. "It's all coming together."

Harper's career began here in Washington, where for six years he served as executive chef at B. Smith's at Union Station. In 2007 he won a spot on the third season of "Hell's Kitchen," a Fox reality TV show on which British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay verbally abuses young talent to "show them the ropes" of the restaurant business. After a brutal battle in the season finale, Harper defeated then-26-year-old nanny and personal chef Bonnie Muirhead. The prize: a $250,000 one-year contract at Terra Verde and B-level celebrity status that won him coveted spots at food festivals around the country.

Working the line in a glorified bar may seem a step down for Harper. But he is well aware that a reality-TV chef's cachet can disappear faster than a slice of gourmet chocolate cake. To date, no contestant has gone on to take over a three-star Michelin restaurant -- though Spike Mendelsohn, a runner-up on "Top Chef," has opened a popular burger joint on Capitol Hill. But Harper says Next Door offered a way back home and a chance to help build a new Washington landmark.

Next Door is slated to open in time for the inauguration -- and there's much to be done over the next two weeks. The Alis are ordering more dishes, deciding whether to include a host stand and installing 20 more seats and a "chef's table." Harper is working straight through the holidays to put together a list of dishes that take Ben's comfort food up a notch, without raising prices too high. Wings, crab cakes, steamed mussels are all possibilities.

Ben's signature nachos are a definite.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company