This story originally appeared in our February 2013 issue.
Several architects, interior designers, and restaurant conceptualists swivel their heads to look around the room, and a couple of them thoughtfully clear their throats. They are surveying the cavernous space that, until 2011, housed Bluepointe, the trendy Asian fusion restaurant in the Pinnacle building at the corner of Lenox and Peachtree roads. The room’s walls and futuristic fixtures curve sinuously in some spots and then angle abruptly here and there, in a split-level arena of bold colors and large, daunting art installations best classified as “nonrepresentational.” Just finding the restrooms in this over-the-top topography practically requires a GPS.
“I would call this postmodern,” says Tim Nichols, an Atlanta architect. “High pomo,” adds his collaborator, William Meyer, who flew in from New York for this meeting. During its heyday in the late 1990s and early aughts, when Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown were rambunctious regulars at the bar, Bluepointe showcased the excesses that characterized Atlanta’s preening, in-your-face aesthetic of dining and club-hopping. Today a few tables have been pushed together to hold stacks of drafts, sketches, and photographs from European bistros. The soon-to-be tenant, Ford Fry, shakes his head and says, “I’ve never liked this space, and I think the same designer must have done all of Buckhead.”
Fry, arguably Atlanta’s most celebrated chef-entrepreneur of the moment, is two days away from signing a lease on the property and transforming it into a radically different kind of restaurant that will serve coastal European fare prepared using time-honored curing, salting, and pickling methods. The interior will be revamped and softened into a more symmetrical sanctuary with wood, bricks, and other natural materials and finishes, and diners will be greeted by a large hearth rather than Cubism-inflected sculptures. As of now, Fry has not yet settled on a name for this restaurant, which is slated to open in the autumn.
So members of his support staff have their work cut out for them, bringing flashy Buckhead’s most conspicuous high-rise down to earth. Meanwhile, they also are beating a path down Peachtree Road to work on Fry’s other project, King Duke, scheduled to open in April where the Southwestern eatery Nava used to anchor the intersection with West Paces Ferry. Specializing in “smoked proteins” prepared using a twenty-four-foot hearth, it is named for two of Fry’s favorite rascals in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“The King and the Duke are these grifters who put on airs and pretend to be hoity-toity royalty, when in fact they’re a couple of hillbillies who live in the woods, so I think it’s exactly what Buckhead needs,” Fry says, raising his eyebrows. “It’s not what Buckhead is used to, and whether it’s what people want or not remains to be seen. In any case, I didn’t think this area needed another traditional steakhouse.”
Meyer likens K D to a bookworm’s cozy lair, crammed in spots with shelves of classic literature. “It will feel more comfortable and residential, as a sort of ‘refuge’ from the busyness of Buckhead,” he says, “with definite textures—lots of houndstooth, tweed, and corduroy. [Fry] brings a certain honesty and straightforwardness to his cooking and everything he does, and we’re working to capture the beauty of that honesty.”
In this recession-tempered era, there’s talk of the “New Sincerity” movement, and no high-profile chef better exemplifies it than Fry, who is emphatically not “high pomo.” In fact, his enterprises—No. 246 in Decatur and, on the Westside, JCT Kitchen & Bar and the Optimist (the latter was anointed by Esquire magazine as the nation’s Restaurant of the Year in 2012)—unabashedly celebrate classics, tradition, and a highly refined but unassuming simplicity in both preparation and presentation. His rustic-chic aesthetics are calculated to function as soothing refuges from the horn-blaring gridlock just outside their doors. At a Fry restaurant, you won’t find bold red walls, sniffy servers with attitude, or stunning murals of arty odalisques that make your pulse race.
With the popularity of the Food Network and television’s various Iron Chef–inspired knife fights, along with a more educated and exacting foodie culture, chefs more than ever enjoy bad-boy “rock star” status, swaggering through their hype like Anthony Bourdain on a bender of Oriental virility herbs. Fry, in contrast, has a cherubic face, a legendarily mellow temperament, and those “raised right” manners that are instantly recognizable in a certain caste of Southerners. He doesn’t have a tattoo. (Not even of a french fry, which he describes as his totem food because of his surname and his overwhelming cravings for them cooked in duck fat.) “Chef tattoos are so common that it’s becoming a joke,” he says. “I don’t want to explain a pig, radish, or, God forbid, a knife on my sagging skin to my grandchildren. Plus, my dad would have a heart attack. My fraternity brothers used to call me C.C. for ‘country club,’ because I grew up playing tennis and shopping at Polo.”
Now that he is expanding his territory into Buckhead and thinking out loud about a casual, Austin-style Tex-Mex joint in Alpharetta and other possibilities in his home state of Texas, the forty-three-year-old Fry is the low-key general leading the vanguard of the rising generation of chefs. “People keep saying I’m the next Pano,” Fry says, referring to Pano Karatassos, the restaurateur whose Buckhead Life Restaurant Group has dominated high-end dining for more than thirty years. That both of Fry’s forthcoming additions previously were occupied by BLRG’s erstwhile hot spots Bluepointe and Nava reinforces that heir-apparent mystique. Not so fast, says Fry. “I am not building an empire. I am not looking to be the next Pano or the next anybody else or to stamp my name, ego, and personal cooking style all over some big chain or restaurant group. I’m just a guy having fun with food, and I try to surround myself with people who share those priorities.”
Still, the industry chatter about Fry usually includes some speculation about whether he is more savvy businessman than innovative chef, though he inevitably gets respectful nods for both skill sets. “He’s a great chef, first and foremost,” says his contemporary Shaun Doty, who, like Fry, is opening more casual restaurants these days. “But he also knows the market and the business side better than a lot of people and can anticipate—or set—trends with great success.”
Fry, too, is quick to point out that he is not wearing a suit under his toque. In fact, he usually strolls around the Optimist in shorts and flip-flops.
The middle child bracketed by two sisters, Fry grew up in Houston in a family of genteel women and accomplished business leaders in insurance, real estate, ranching, and medicine. Granddad was a doctor and an omnivorous diner.
“Ford was never a picky eater, to say the least,” recalls his eighty-eight-year-old grandmother, Minnie Grace Ford. “At family dinners, he would go around the table tasting everything and hovering around my spice rack, fascinated with what each seasoning did. When we ate out, he didn’t just stick to hot dogs or macaroni and cheese the way most kids do; he would always order the most unusual thing on the menu. Ford loved to eat strange things.”
His family also took vacations that deliberately intertwined food with education. Says Fry, “We would travel up the East Coast to see Paul Revere’s house and eat clam chowder at Durgin Park, and in Paris we ate at La Tour d’Argent. My grandfather would pay us $100 a day to write one page reporting about what we learned. There was a lot about tournedos of beef in mine.”
Fry enrolled at the University of Arkansas to study business, but it didn’t hold his attention. “I was more interested in breaking into my fraternity’s kitchen at night to cook for everybody,” he says. After Fry read a Wall Street Journal story about how culinary schools were becoming a hot ticket in the career world, his father suggested he give it a try. Fry chose the New England Culinary Institute simply because the literature featured a photo of a guy skiing. “I think I only skied for half a day, though, the entire time I was there. Once I tried cooking, my mind didn’t wander anymore.”