Q & A With Ben Ford: Snout-to-Tail Cooking, Recession Food + Still Life with Parsley at Chez Panisse
Ben Ford's Culver City gastropub Ford's Filling Station has been open for about 4 1/2 years now, during which time the neighborhood has changed from a rundown outpost dominated by Sony Pictures and the ghosts of munchkins (the cast of the Wizard of Oz stayed at the old Culver Hotel during the movie's filming) to one of L.A.'s busiest restaurant rows.
Ford, who grew up in Los Angeles, took some time the other day to talk about his love of butchery, what the recession has meant for his operation, and his time on the lines of some of California's best-loved kitchens. Check back later for the second part of our interview and for the chef's recipe for charred leeks with green harissa.
Squid Ink: So, you used to work at Chez Panisse.
Ben Ford: I did. That was my second job in the restaurant business. Initially I didn't get the job. I had to write a letter and sort of stick around more than was comfortable for them. I was about 20 years old at the time and I talked my way in there, basically. I ended up staying for two years. It was great.
SI: Who was there at that time?
BF: David Tanis and Paul Bertolli. They both were huge influences, actually. You know, they both were crazed about product. Paul had this sort of poetic way about him, he was very articulate, he was a good teacher. He was very inspirational, you know, getting you to understand what it means to really translate your efforts into the food. And then Suzanne Goin worked next to me, which was fun. There's been a history of us tripping over each other the rest of our careers.
SI: Would you date your interest in nose-to-tail cooking, for lack of a better phrase, to that time?
BF: Yeah, you know. Also that kind of came organically through the process of opening this restaurant. Because Chadwick [Ford's Beverly Hills restaurant, now closed] was a much different restaurant. Chadwick had its own organic farms, but what I learned there was that by having the staff have to work in the garden as part of their routines, they had more reverence for the things that they sold. And here, in the process of coming up with a concept that people could really understand, in terms of what a gastropub should be and what I wanted my vision of a gastropub to be -- because that's a whole other question -- they're somewhat connected. It can be a very edgy concept, you know. Gastropubs are restaurants as much as they are bars in a way, and I wanted that edge to the place.
And then there's enough foot soldiers out there promoting the organic farmers movement, and you know the snout-to-tail seemed the reasonable extension of that to me. We're all interested in well-rounded farming, some livestock, small farms, that kind of thing; if we're interested in that, then we should probably reflect that in our reverence for the animals we're working with. I also found that there was a need to reconnect people to their food sources. The organic food movement was part of that. Anybody who has a garden understands the connection.
But there wasn't enough people out there promoting the extension of the farm, which is the livestock. There also is sort of a loss of craft in my business. Even restaurants have perfectly filleted fish sent to them, deboned and you know. There's no connection to the food, and the cooks don't feel the connection to the food. But when you bring in whole animals with their head and their eyes, much of it as intact as possible, you do the work there; there's a connection that's made that translates to the food that you cook. In the beginning when we first opened, it was hard to fully realize all of our commitments, and really the recession has been a really good opportunity for us to get down to doing as much of the things by hand as we possibly can.
SI: Can you save money doing that?