Los Angeles chef Ben Ford brings together his two passions, organic food and nature, for a splendid lunch in a tepee at his friends' Jackson Hole ranch.
Ben Ford is half city boy, half cowboy. Co-chef and owner of Chadwick, in Beverly Hills, the 35-year-old Ford's roots lie both in Hollywood, California, where he was raised and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That's where his father, the actor Harrison Ford, bought a ranch 20 years ago and where Ben spent many summers.
"I've been doing dinners at my father's ranch since I was in my early twenties," Ford says. "It used to be really hard--it took two days to shop." He once drove for hours from town to town, looking for the perfect tomato. Now, he reports, seasonal ingredients are easier to come by in Jackson Hole, and he can also order exotic ingredients, like chanterelles, through local chefs. It is astonishing how cosmopolitan the once-sleepy town has become. Strolling along the few streets, with their charming restaurants, you might forget you're in Wyoming--until you look up and see the Tetons looming green ("for four months," Ford laughs) behind the clapboard houses.
It's just as well Jackson Hole has become such a mini food mecca, because fresh ingredients are essential in Ford's cooking. As he readily admits, he didn't name his restaurant after Alan Chadwick, the late British-born education pioneer and guru of organic gardening, just because of the all-organic menu. Ford was lucky enough to know the man personally, since Ford's uncle, Paul Lee, helped bring Chadwick to the University of California at Santa Cruz to do agricultural research. Chadwick was a Renaissance man: He studied painting and worked professionally as a violinist and--for several decades--as a Shakespearean actor. In the 1950s, when he was in his early forties, Chadwick became deeply involved in theories of gardening. He combined the ideas behind sustainable organic agriculture with French intensive gardening techniques to grow more produce in limited spaces--and to form the basis of a larger philosophy. "He believed in the garden as a place of contact, an arena that could inspire people in different ways, a teaching tool," Ford says. "For instance, he'd have people learn passages from Shakespeare there."
Now Ford runs Chadwick restaurant following the principles of its namesake. For example, about 10 percent of the produce served comes from a 5,000-square-foot garden that he cultivates according to Chadwick's methods of organic gardening. He and co-chef Govind Armstrong often wait until 4 p.m. to plan the evening's menu according to what ingredients are freshest.
This is exactly what Ford always wanted, except for one thing: "Because of the restaurant, I've lost my connection a bit with this place," he laments, indicating the great open landscape. Horseback riding is one of the things he says he misses most. Ford learned to ride, not, as you might expect, at his family's place in Wyoming, but at Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz's home in the English countryside. Ford was 12 and his father was busy playing his now legendary role of Han Solo.
When Ford does come to Jackson Hole, he often visits family friends Stephen and Enid Koffler down the road from his father's ranch. Helping them throw a party in a tepee they love to use for entertaining, he grills salmon to accompany a baby artichoke and sunchoke salad with fennel vinaigrette. He grills beef tenderloin as well, then serves it with Tuscan kale, a narrow-leafed, nearly black variety that he sautés with olive oil and garlic. Ford brings out the salad--made with oak leaf lettuce, grapes and pungent Cabrales cheese--after the main course, in the European style. The Cabrales is so intense it's like having a cheese and salad course in one. Ford likes to cook simply at the ranch: He uses a shallot confit both as the base for the vinaigrette on the salad and as a topping for the tenderloin. The dishes are quite similar to what he and Armstrong produce at the restaurant, though there they like to experiment with more unusual ingredients, such as sea bream and frog's legs.
"We don't think people should have to go to Europe to stretch their palates or lose their inhibitions in ordering food," Ford says. And that about sums up the attitude of this country-loving city boy, who enjoys his garden and his horses, yet knows the tastes of the Beverly Hills crowd--surely some of the world's most demanding diners--better than they know them themselves.