Food & Wine: Ben Ford
© Frank Ockenfels

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.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Bestia in downtown Los Angeles. I’ve heard a lot of great things about it. I’m always happy when there’s another great Italian restaurant.

Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I’ve seen the film and would love to go there.

Walter Manzke’s new place, Petty Cash Taqueria, in Los Angeles.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
The Milton Brook porcelain and wood mortar and pestle I bought on a trip to London 20 years ago. I use it all the time. It’s one of my biggest cooking tools. They’re getting harder and harder to find. The really good ones are made for pharmacists. You have to search for them in specialty knife stores.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m a trained gardener. I design restaurants and home kitchens. I’m a forager and master preserver. A lot of my charitable work is in putting gardens into city schools, very directly. Every year I go and visit farmers and we bring back tools and seeds and compost and replenish the school system in Culver City. I’m a big believer in short growing seasons.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
My ideal restaurant is down a dirt road, with wood piled on the outside, like a little shanty. Everything would be wood fire cooked and whole animal cookery. Something like Fore Street in Portland, Maine. I’m always looking to close the proximity between the farmland and the city I live in. We raise our own pigs and lambs and goats. I’m interested in indigenous cooking techniques. We have thousands of years of cooking history to pull from, where we cooked with a wood fire and not in a four-walled kitchen. It’s not written about very much. I’m interested in those unwritten-about techniques.

If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take him to Spain, anywhere in the country where we both haven’t been. He’s got a great sense of history and we have a lot of commonality in our appreciation for the history of food and why things came to be.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
This may be too practical, but rice and beans, and prosciutto. It travels well.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think we’re still going to be working on grains. There’s a lot of discussion about what is gluten-free, what is healthy and what’s not healthy.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
All things I make myself: standing up, it’s pickles straight out of the fridge. For my favorite sit-down snacks: lamb meatballs, and I can’t stay away from the bacon.

Best new store-bought ingredient, and why?
Olive oil is still one of the best things you can buy because there’s consistency in it. We use more California olive oils than we ever have. I particularly like McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil and Dry Creek Olive Co.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
My rituals have more to do with wood-fire cooking, so it’s how I build a fire and how I build my smoke.

Recipes by Ben Ford

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