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Harrison Ford (the movie star) and Ben Ford (the star chef) step up to the grill to see who can produce the best chicken dishes at a friendly Father's Day cook-off.
Harrison Ford looks at a piece of chicken the same way he looks at everything. You know the look: one eyebrow slightly cocked, mouth curled at the edge, an expression that's habitually cool, lightly sardonic and more than a little intimidating. The chicken in question is a curry-marinated skewer that Ford is grilling on a Weber, and as he beams his skepticism its way, you've gotta feel for that piece of chicken.
It's only when Harrison's son Ben Ford approaches that the famous look breaks into the (just as famous) smile. There's an easy camaraderie between the two, especially over an open flame. The unspoken synchronization as the Fords work the grill, set the table and assemble their dishes speaks of a long history of cooking side by side.
Ben is the owner and chef of Ford's Filling Station in L.A., a restaurant specializing in New American comfort food and whole-hog dinners. An enthusiastic griller both professionally and privately, he is the author of Taming the Feast, a cookbook dedicated to adventurous fire-cooked meals for large groups. His father is also an avid griller. "My dad was always most comfortable on the grill," Ben says. "I don't know if it's because it was something that was away from prying eyes, but he likes things where he can go and spend a little quiet time."
Today the Fords have accepted a Food & Wine challenge: to compete in a friendly chicken-versus-chicken grill-off. Harrison keeps things simple. "We do meals in minutes at home," he explains, describing domestic life with his wife, the actress Calista Flockhart, and teenage son. "If I can't get it done in 20 to 25 minutes, I'm not going to do it. Everything we do has to fit in around work schedules, homework." Today he grills irresistibly sweet and sticky chicken drumsticks in a classic barbecue sauce. Ben lent him the recipe, which calls for roasted tomatoes, onion and garlic spiked with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.
As a cook, Harrison is meticulous, washing up as he goes. "I love the satisfaction of keeping the kitchen clean as I cook, I love the economy of it," he says. "Ben is like a tornado; it drives me nuts." Ben doesn't disagree. "I think that for me, food's more about a sense of freedom," he says as he grills lime-and-garlic-marinated chicken thighs to serve with lettuce wraps and a crunchy pickled watermelon rind slaw. "My whole philosophy of cooking is based on that."
You get the feeling that growing up with a famous father requires strenuous exertion of one's independence, and that this is a driving force in Ben's career. "After I'd spent some time working at Chez Panisse, I came home, and Dad was trying to tell me how to shell green beans," Ben says with a laugh. "I told him, 'Yeah, well, that's not how Alice Waters shells green beans.'"
As they stand by the grill, sampling each other's dishes, Ben tells the story of asking his dad for help with a furniture problem (among his many talents, Harrison is a master carpenter). "I called him up and said, 'Dad, can you help me fix this chair?' And he said, 'Sure. But I charge the same for carpentry as I do for acting.'" Harrison looks at him steadily, eyebrow arched, mouth curled. "But then he helped me fix the chair," Ben says. And the Harrison Ford look breaks into the Harrison Ford smile.
Harrison's way: "We ate a lot of Thai, Indian and Chinese food when I was a kid," Ben says. "My dad took pride in formulating the perfect combination of dishes. These skewers, or a variation of them, were a favorite."
Ben's way: "I think my father and I share a love of exploration when it comes to food," Ben says. "What better way to explore than to fill a table with lots of small plates to be shared, like my lettuce wraps?"
Harrison's way: Ben says, "My dad grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the '50s, when backyard barbecues were trending. Of course he loves a classic barbecued drumstick. What red-blooded Midwestern kid doesn't?"
Ben's way: "I don't mind buffalo chicken wings, but I especially like the spicy sauce on drumsticks," says Ben. "My five-alarm version is hot but balanced enough to show off the flavor of a good piece of chicken."
Harrison's way: "My dad made a lot of films in London during the late '70's," says Ben. "There were a few hole-in-the-wall Indian places that we frequented. Turns out, Indian food isn't so hard to make at home."
Ben's way: Says Ben, "My wife is from Texas Hill Country, and I've spent time there. I know I'll never be a real cowboy, but I can have a killer pair of boots and a chicken wing recipe that may be remembered in song."
Harrison's way: "This is an update on one of my dad's feel-good dishes, and it's quick to prepare," Ben says. "He used to make it along with other Ford staples like rice pilaf, broccoli and a great salad."
Ben's way: "Using bricks to press down chicken on the grill has found its way into my restaurant several different times with slight variations," Ben says. "The technique is actually good both on a grill and a stove."