In Memoriam: Mahaboob Ben Ali – Founder: Ben’s Chili BowlBen Ali departed this world last year on October 7, yet his dynamic presence remains vital in the DC community and beyond. We, his loving family and friends, appreciate him more with each passing day as the immense value of his work and wisdom continue to unfold in our lives. Ben, you were one of a kind, ahead of your time, and truly unforgettable. The world is a better place because you lived, and we deeply thank you for all that you have given us.
December 27, 2009
Ben Ali: Hot Sauce
By ALEX WITCHEL
Ben Ali was a businessman with a plan. He gave all three of his sons the middle name Ben in case one of them ever took over Ben’s Chili Bowl, the restaurant he opened in the de facto segregated District of Columbia of 1958. It turned out that two of them, Kamal and Nizam, did just that, and by the time their father died, they had long ago proved equal to the task, turning a neighborhood haunt for chili dogs and chili cheeseburgers into an internationally known business, with annual sales exceeding $5 million. When Barack Obama dropped in for lunch 10 days before his inauguration — ordering the famous half smoke with chili sauce and asking good-naturedly, “Do y’all have some Pepto Bismol?” — Ben Ali had already seen his restaurant celebrate 50 years in business. He also watched his sons open a satellite in the newly erected Nationals Park stadium and Ben’s Next Door, a more upscale establishment in the building adjacent to the Chili Bowl. It serves dishes like filet mignon and crab cakes. But behind its 53-foot bar,
Kamal says, “there’s a chili-dog grill so you can get one and an ice-cold beer, lickety-split.” Hey, if you’ve got a winning formula, stick with it, advice often repeated to Ali by his longtime friend and customer Bill Cosby. U Street, where Ben’s Chili Bowl is located, was once known as Black Broadway, with artists like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald playing at its clubs or at the Lincoln Theater next door. Virginia Ali, Ben’s widow, said that in those days the busiest time at the Chili Bowl was weekends from midnight until 4 a.m.
Although he founded and nurtured a landmark of Washington’s cultural and culinary history, Mahaboob Ben Ali was born in Trinidad to a family of Indian descent. At Howard University, his plans for dental school derailed because of injuries he had suffered in a fall, but he went on to work in restaurants around town, finally setting up shop in what used to be the Minnehaha, a silent-movie house. “He had been to a lot of lunch counters, and he thought American food was really bland,” Nizam told me. “His chili sauce will burn you up.” That goes on the half smoke, a smoked-beef-and-pork sausage that began as a breakfast food before Ali had the idea of grilling it and putting it on a bun. Ben’s was ranked this year by Bon Appetit among the top 10 places to eat chili in the country. Kamal, who took over running the restaurant in 1982, was joined by Nizam in 1998. They keep the recipes for the sauce and the chili con carne secret, as their father did. But thanks to their online shipping business, both items are for sale, along with the half
smokes, without having to stand in line.
In its first 10 years, the Chili Bowl ran smoothly, while Ben and Virginia had their three sons (the eldest, 10/19/12 The Lives They Lived ‑ Ben Ali ‑ The Chili That Shaped a Family ‑ NYTimes.com www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/magazine/27Ali‑t.html?pagewanted=print 2/2
Haidar, a musician, performs as Sage Infinity). When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, riots destroyed many businesses in the district. Residents fled to the suburbs, and U Street went into an economic decline for more than a decade. In the mid-’80s, the Chili Bowl’s problems were compounded by the city’s construction of its subway system. Gas and water lines were often broken, and access to U Street was regularly obstructed.
Even so, Ali, who bought the building in the late 1970s, kept the Chili Bowl going, scaling back to one employee. “He thought he’d ride it out,” Kamal said. “He was the businessman, and he could make it work at the Chili Bowl no matter what happened. He could either seat 100 people or lock it down and have it be carryout. His second career was the stock market. We had an actual ticker tape in our house ticking all day long.”
Ali’s third career was as a motivational speaker and teacher, certified by the Success Motivation Institute in Waco, Tex. Nizam said his father mentored hundreds of his employees: “He would help them search for places to start their own businesses. He would always say, ‘It’s a coffin working for someone else, because your responsibilities and your salary are capped.’ ” He laughed. “He could also quote Shakespeare like nobody. It was almost annoying.”
Also almost annoying, even though he had ceded daily control of the Chili Bowl, was his insistence on giving his sons directions from afar. “To his dying day, he’d fire us both three times a year,” Kamal recalled. “I’d say, ‘O.K., Pop, here are the keys.’ ”
Virginia said that in the first 10 years of their marriage, she and her husband never vacationed together; he couldn’t leave the restaurant. When Obama came to the Chili Bowl, the couple were actually on a cruise. Kamal said that when his father heard about the visit, he was elated. “The whole last year or two,” he went on, “with the 50th anniversary and Next Door opening and the Nationals stadium opening, it was a culmination, a real crowning moment. And then, to see an African-American president. It was great for him to catch all that.”
Alex Witchel is a staff writer for the “The New Your Times”magazine.