Ben Ford

F&W Star Chef

RESTAURANTS: Ford’s Filling Station (Los Angeles)

EXPERIENCE: Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA); Skywalker Ranch (Nicasio, CA); Opus, (Santa Monica, CA); Campanile, Eclipse, The Farm of Beverly Hills, Chadwick (Los Angeles)

EDUCATION: California Culinary Academy (San Francisco)

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mother. She instilled in me that flavor was the most important thing, and she taught me about big flavors and lots of love going into the food. She was very nurturing. The neighborhood kids would come over and not want to leave, and a lot of them became important chefs.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I’m constantly tinkering with flavor profiles and I don’t like the idea of having a “specialty” but I’d say our whole pig dinner is what symbolizes what we do here the best. When we started in 2006, we were the first non-Asian US restaurant to do a whole pig at the table. Having to explain gastropubs and whole animal cookery to Los Angeles was a difficult task, but the pig symbolizes my commitment to whole animal cookery.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first thing I cooked myself was a pork chop. I was four. I was inventing recipes by age 5.

Roast chicken is the best thing for a neophyte to try. It helps you understand how things smell when they’re finished and how things should feel, and how to use the oven. I follow the Thomas Keller approach on whole chickens: high heat, quick roast. There’s not a lot of technique in it, but it’s important to train your senses of smell and touch. A roast chicken is a great beginning way to figure out working with your food.

I’m a traditionalist rather than a modernist, and part of it is dumping the sous vide machines and getting down to old-school techniques.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him?
Paul Bertolli. He really taught me that the efforts that go into the food translate onto the plate. That doesn’t mean over manipulation, it means understanding the food you’re cooking and cooking it properly. I’m fascinated by those questions: What turns wine into vinegar? What makes cheese ripen?

Favorite cookbook of all time.
Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand and Gray Kunz’s The Elements of Taste.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pastry, across the board. I have no patience for it. While I like to cook naturally and unbridled, without being tied to a recipe, some of that doesn’t apply to pastry.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Salt. My grandmother once gave me a big tip: “I think things with salt taste better.” It was a good tip. Salt is an underused ingredient and element. In using it, you have to learn to season and layer in flavors, as you go. A lot of people want to season all at once, but you don’t get layers of flavors that way. Salt also expands and travels through the food, so to learn to work with it without letting it dominate is another skill.

What is your current food obsession?
I’m always obsessed with Japanese noodles and noodle shops. I’m also pickling everything right now, including nasturium buds and later this summer, wild radish pods, which look like little peppers but taste like radishes; we forage them in the hills.