In the first part of our interview with Ben Ford of Ford's Filling Station in Culver City, Ford had just been discussing parsley — specifically, the beautiful plating of it at Chez Panisse, where Ford worked in his early 20's — and life on the line at Campanile. Today, Ford gets us up to date. Turn the page to learn how Ford wound up in Culver City, the definition of the gastropub, and why one day you might wander in to Ford's own version of one and find that the chef has turned it into a Mexican place.
Squid Ink: So what happened after you left Campanile?
Ben Ford: After that I went to Eclipse, probably for about 6 months, when Govind [Armstrong] was down the street. We both left on the same day. I guess I was looking for the promotion that I didn't get. Anyhow, it was time to go; it had been 3 years. So we [Ford and Armstrong] kind of kept our friendship going. He went to Jackson's Farm, and when he left I came in and opened The Farm in Beverly Hills. We were still close, and we'd also been very collaborative at Campanile. We had a very good cooking relationship. So when I opened Chadwick [Ford's now-closed Beverly Hills restaurant] I really wanted him to be there with me to do it, and we found Angela Hunter, who's an incredible pastry chef, and we opened a great restaurant. I thought it was a great restaurant, in '98, I think, and hung around for a few years. We were very idealistic. I sold the restaurant thinking that we would move it. We retained the liquor license and the name; it just wasn't possible. I got a very good offer on the lease, so it was painless for my investors.
SI: The focus of that restaurant was organic. How much has the organic scene, as it were, changed since then?
BF: I used to think of it as spoon-fed organics there. Because you'd kind of feel out who was interested and you'd have to be careful of how you sold it to people. Ultimately we were selling great tasting food that just happened to be organic, you know. I think that the movement is healthy and strong. I mean, I'm a little concerned: I'm seeing two different things. You see large farming becoming larger, then you're seeing healthy farms at the farmers market. Once a year I do my trip up the coast, and I visit all my farmers and I spend time with them on the farms for a day or two. You know, generally I get the feeling that the industry is doing pretty well. People are obviously a lot more hip to it now. I guess I don't really have a barometer for it other than maybe how effective we've been getting organic gardens into city schools now.
SI: You helped open the one at Farragut Elementary School, here in Culver City?
BF: Yeah. That used to be a lot harder to do. I've done other city schools before that, earlier in my career.
SI: Any connection with Alice Waters' school gardens?
BF: We've talked about getting involved in the one in Larchmont. It's a very difficult garden, a 3 campus garden. I don't need to put my name on a garden to give it support. But I like the involvement in the project we have here right now. I can go out and weed in the garden any time I want to. When I first attempted to put these gardens into schools, in the late 90's, I found that the teachers were much more apprehensive and stand-offish. They were afraid about how it was going to change their curriculum. And I think probably across the board their curriculums have been challenged in a lot of ways the last few years. All that has been made a little bit easier. Younger people coming up. So I think it's become bigger and better in that sense. I do worry about our food sources though.
SI: So, the gastropub.
BF: When I came down here initially, in 2004, we had an abandoned building on one side of us, an Entenmann's outlet on the other, then another abandoned building. There was San Genarro on the corner; that was our big restaurant. I looked around, and I don't really like parasitic behavior, but I saw this was a place that was in need, and I liked to use that more than a place that was primed for it. We had two studios over here, a city hall; they were building movie theatres but they weren't done with it, a little hotel, which was cute. It had a great layout. I just didn't see why it wasn't doing better. Also, I'd been at Campanile earlier, just after they'd first opened, early enough to understand how they were on the way to everywhere but not necessarily anywhere. They kind of settled that area in some ways.
I kind of thought with the development of downtown, and with the shifting thoroughfares from the Eastside to the Westside, how they'd shifted south — when I was a kid, it was Santa Monica, and then it just kept going down and down. Then it was Venice and Washington. I drove down here one day and was like, wow, look at this rush hour, it was crazy. And I think Culver City was the easiest town to drive around for the longest time. It was kind of just sitting here. They didn't need somebody coming in and telling them what to eat and how to eat. They didn't need a big fancy restaurant that didn't appeal to them, that wasn't for them. So I'd just read about this gastropub concept. The Spotted Pig had opened maybe three months earlier, maybe they hadn't even opened yet. I just stumbled upon it and kind of liked the idea. I was coming from fine dining, I still wanted to be sort of innovative, I didn't want to get trapped into a concept, and so this gastropub concept came about.
So the gastropub concept came out of London in the 1990s, in reaction to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in London deregulating the breweries, saying you can no longer own your own pubs. They also started changing regulations in the pubs so that they were harder to own. So there was a massive sell-off of all these pubs. Now there was also this proliferation of young culinary talent the same way there was here. These young kids could grasp up these little corner pubs really easily, but they didn't want to sell the same yucky pub food in a dark, dingy location. But they still had all of this nostalgia that was built into these areas, you know, they were the centers of their communities. So whether Father Murphy got into a fight with your uncle in that corner, or some poet wrote in that corner; those corners don't change.
Here that's kind of one of our hardest challenges, is how to build that nostalgia. New York it's a little bit easier to gastrophy, quote unquote, a restaurant.
SI: Is that a word?
BF: Yeah, I think so. If I get credit for it, you know it happened here. So Spotted Pig's understanding of the concept was sort of elevated pub fare. And I understand why they did it that way for the first one, because that was kind of the restaurant that I think they intended to do first, anyhow, they wanted to do a British restaurant. Mine was more about everything comes from Old World to New World, sort of the freedom and innovation aspects of the concept. The reason why it's creative and innovative is that when these kids started opening up these restaurants they opened Indian gastropubs, Thai gastropubs, American gastropubs; it's really not tied into any sort of food.
So when you think of brasseries, you get this idea of oysters; when you think of trattorias, you think of pizzas; when you think of gastropubs, you're free. You can do anything you want. What's better than that for a guy like me. Alright, my three-generational families that live back here aren't going to be afraid to come in here, and my executives from the studios can come over any time they want. It's for everybody. I'm not going to build it for the entertainment community. Gastropubs are by definition sort of anti-restaurants.
So we don't have the $100,000 maître d'. We don't have the valet parking. We don't need it; we don't want it. We slap whole animals with their heads on them on big platters in the middle of the table. It's a really fun, playful concept when you look at it intellectually and try to do something like that. I think there's a lot of gastropubs out there — and I consider myself a curator now for it on the West Coast — Spotted Pig has been emulated a lot on the East Coast. I think when you're first, sometimes you're in that position, you know, to curate it. When I see certain ones that open up, you know, it needs massaging, the concept, constantly. You don't want to see a menu that never changes, where there's no craft to it. There's several places that I'd like to throw a flaming spear down.
SI: Don't suppose you'd say which ones?
BF: No, no. I think the community needs to make you a gastropub, is what I'm saying. I came here and looked at the neighborhood and said, What do they need? I didn't say, Okay, I've got a gastropub, I'm going to open it here.
SI: This is a real restaurant row now. It wasn't when you started. Has it changed what you do?
BF: You know, it's easier to get talented cooks. When I came down and negotiated my deal with the redevelopment here, I also negotiated to bring Taste of the Nation down, because I was the chair at that point, with Mary Sue [Milliken]. By bringing it down here we were able to walk chefs through the neighborhood, they had their after parties here, and I think that's one of the reasons why it grew so darn quickly. Incredibly quickly. Everybody could see it; it was right under their noses. Still, there were a lot of people who were apprehensive. I remember I was trying to get Sang [Yoon] from Father's Office to invest in a gastropub in Culver City. Hey, I've got a great idea; you're the bar guy. I know you're kind of a chef, but you know, you're not really a chef anymore. I'm a chef, we can do this together. He's like, I'm not going to Culver City ever. He wouldn't even look at it.
SI: And here he is down the street.
BF: Uh huh. But I'll tell you, if Kazuto [Matsusaka, of Beacon] hadn't been down here, I probably wouldn't have come. That was the last piece of the puzzle. And he deserves the props too. Most of us knew that there was a community in need here, and most of us are on the same page, as far as that's concerned. We all get along really well. We all support each other. It's very kum-ba-ya.
SI: There is valet parking now, but it's for the whole street. I guess it's not the same thing.
BF: Yeah, no. And you notice how everyone's all in front of Fraiche?
SI: So are you going to open another place?
BF: Well, I'd like to further the idea of what the gastropub concept is. I'd like to do one that pulls a little bit my background. So similar feel, vibe, design, but maybe like Northern African, Indian, with more grains and vegetables. Go I can go back to my background a little bit more.
SI: You mean the organic vegetable garden?
BF: Yeah. And bring some of the stronger ethnic profiles to that. There's certainly an incubator for Indian food really along this area, from here to Venice, but nothing that's been elevated at all. So that might be something. Then I want to do another gastropub that would be more barbecue. More reflective of the culture that I grew up with here, sort of Mexicali, you know, I hate calling it that, more of a Southern California type of restaurant with lots of Spanish influences.
SI: You'd open another one around here?
BF: Yeah, because you can see how playful the menu is. I mean I could just as well have pho on there along with all this other stuff; you could very easily bring in a lot of ethnic dishes. I don't know how it would work, if it would look like I'd added a sushi bar to a Mexican restaurant or not, but I think it would work. I love the idea of doing a Mexican restaurant. There's never too many good Mexican restaurants out there. Either that or I'm just going to turn this into a Mexican restaurant, because I keep adding those kinds of dishes to the menu.