Ben Ford's Culver City gastropub Ford's Filling Station has been open for about 4 1/2 years now, during which time the neighborhood has changed from a rundown outpost dominated by Sony Pictures and the ghosts of munchkins (the cast of the Wizard of Oz stayed at the old Culver Hotel during the movie's filming) to one of L.A.'s busiest restaurant rows.
Ford, who grew up in Los Angeles, took some time the other day to talk about his love of butchery, what the recession has meant for his operation, and his time on the lines of some of California's best-loved kitchens. Check back later for the second part of our interview and for the chef's recipe for charred leeks with green harissa.
Squid Ink: So, you used to work at Chez Panisse.
Ben Ford: I did. That was my second job in the restaurant business. Initially I didn't get the job. I had to write a letter and sort of stick around more than was comfortable for them. I was about 20 years old at the time and I talked my way in there, basically. I ended up staying for two years. It was great.
SI: Who was there at that time?
BF: David Tanis and Paul Bertolli. They both were huge influences, actually. You know, they both were crazed about product. Paul had this sort of poetic way about him, he was very articulate, he was a good teacher. He was very inspirational, you know, getting you to understand what it means to really translate your efforts into the food. And then Suzanne Goin worked next to me, which was fun. There's been a history of us tripping over each other the rest of our careers.
SI: Would you date your interest in nose-to-tail cooking, for lack of a better phrase, to that time?
BF: Yeah, you know. Also that kind of came organically through the process of opening this restaurant. Because Chadwick [Ford's Beverly Hills restaurant, now closed] was a much different restaurant. Chadwick had its own organic farms, but what I learned there was that by having the staff have to work in the garden as part of their routines, they had more reverence for the things that they sold. And here, in the process of coming up with a concept that people could really understand, in terms of what a gastropub should be and what I wanted my vision of a gastropub to be — because that's a whole other question — they're somewhat connected. It can be a very edgy concept, you know. Gastropubs are restaurants as much as they are bars in a way, and I wanted that edge to the place.
And then there's enough foot soldiers out there promoting the organic farmers movement, and you know the snout-to-tail seemed the reasonable extension of that to me. We're all interested in well-rounded farming, some livestock, small farms, that kind of thing; if we're interested in that, then we should probably reflect that in our reverence for the animals we're working with. I also found that there was a need to reconnect people to their food sources. The organic food movement was part of that. Anybody who has a garden understands the connection.
But there wasn't enough people out there promoting the extension of the farm, which is the livestock. There also is sort of a loss of craft in my business. Even restaurants have perfectly filleted fish sent to them, deboned and you know. There's no connection to the food, and the cooks don't feel the connection to the food. But when you bring in whole animals with their head and their eyes, much of it as intact as possible, you do the work there; there's a connection that's made that translates to the food that you cook. In the beginning when we first opened, it was hard to fully realize all of our commitments, and really the recession has been a really good opportunity for us to get down to doing as much of the things by hand as we possibly can.
SI: Can you save money doing that?
BF: Not really anymore. One of the reasons why butchery is being lost — incidentally I've heard that some of the major culinary schools aren't even teaching it any more, or it's going to be dropped from the curriculum — the middlemen got very good at understanding where the profits were for the chef, and the more they understood the more they were able to get in the way of that profit margin. And rising labor costs, and also restaurants are affected by the culture around them as well, so chefs aren't immune to that.
SI: So what do you mean that the recession helped?
BF: Well, we were so damn busy when we opened here. There wasn't an opportunity to do all the butchery teaching that we wanted to do. In a weird way, it's kind of like a halfway house for fine dining, you know? Where people come to get real again and enjoy cooking and connecting with the food they're working with. We get a lot of people from restaurants you wouldn't think. We also have an intern program. We bring a few students through each year and we generally hire one of them. We also try and promote from within. One of the reasons why I got involved in restaurants in the first place was that they're great ways to get involved in the community, effect people in a good way. One of my mantras is that people who come to work for me are better off for having worked for me. Some of the guys in the kitchen, the dishwashers, are really acclimating. We try to help them along and nurture the progression, so they can more effective in society. I want them to learn English, to get their drivers license, to acclimate. And hopefully we help in raising some you men. And ladies.
SI: Apprenticeship in the old school way?
BF: Yeah, and restaurants are kind of set up like that. So there's a good opportunity.
SI: What's the biggest whole animal you've ever brought in here?
BF: Well, the idea is not to bring in something we can't handle. Probably the largest pigs we've brought in here were 120 pounds, although generally we work with 15-20 pound pigs. And then deer, those are pretty large. I have to clear room, but there's room back there. This week we'll bring in whole rabbits, whole chickens, whole pigs. You can't bring in whole cows, just because of the size of them.
SI: So how did you get into food in the first place?
BF: My mom was a very good cook. Neal Fraser has her in his bio too. She really inspired a lot of young men, young people. Yeah, I grew up with Neal; my brother used to race bicycles with him. We always had a garden in the back yard. My uncle had this huge garden; I just grew up around people who had their hands in the soil. And that kind of translated to food, to cooking.
SI: You always cooked?
BF: I always cooked. My mom has multiple sclerosis, and she wasn't diagnosed until I was in college, but the symptoms were starting to affect her when I was probably like 12, 13 years old. So in hindsight, maybe I started to cook more because of survival than anything else, as she started to slow down. I think I also always had a passion for it. I played baseball through college, and I had aspirations — for a millisecond — of playing professionally, and I hurt myself yet again and I decided to not do that anymore. And food was something that I was passionate about so I packed my bags and drove to San Francisco. That was where the cooking began. Went to culinary school in San Francisco. About halfway through the time working at Chez Panisse I started my classes there.
SI: And then you came back here?
BF: Came back here to open a restaurant called Opus. Eberhard Mueller was the original chef at Le Bernardin, that was when Eric Ripert came in. Eberhard was really well known for his raw fish dishes; nobody else had really done carpaccios and tartares, other than sushi restaurants. He was really interesting to work with. He did a lot of different twists on those things; his food was very subtle. I left there to take a money job, a job I probably shouldn't have taken at the time. That was my first, and only really big mistake, as far as taking wrong jobs. I ran seven restaurants from Pasadena down to San Diego. It was a big territory, and it was an old restaurant company with an old hierarchy. And I was way too green to be telling old line cooks who'd been there for 35 years what to do. And I was in a position of having to make it better. It was a very frustrating job. It almost chased me out of the business. But then I found a job at Campanile, back on the line, and stayed there for as long as I could. It was a great job.
SI: Who was there then?
BF: I consider that its heyday. Although I'm sure they had many other heydays both after and before. This was '93, '94, '95, around there. Govind [Armstrong] was working there, and Suzanne Tracht, Corina Weibel, Suzanne Goin.
SI: All at the same time?
BF: No, in and out. At one time, the line we had there was Mark [Peel], myself, Govind, Suzanne Tracht, Corinna Weibel. It was pretty crazy. And so that was really inspirational. Mark had also been a Chez Panisse chef, he came from there, and I really learned how to be a line cook there. I'd worked in restaurants where the cooks had been fairly protected, and this was a hard-working kitchen. You know, Chez Panisse is great, but it's like, Oh, how's that parsley look. Should we switch it over a little bit to the right? Ah, look at that, everyone. Parsley, look! You know, this [Campanile] was like, Pick up 12 ducks. I feel it was a fairly difficult kitchen to work in. I learned a lot there. Probably my biggest learning experience.