13 Questions is a weekly series where we ask chefs 13 questions to get to know them outside of the kitchen. Ford Fry owns the El Felix, JCT Kitchen, King + Duke, Marcel, No. 246, the Optimist, Superica, and St. Cecilia—with more coming.
How did you get interested in cooking?
I would either hunt or fish. And I was in a frat [in college], and late night we would come back and the kitchen was locked, and we would kick the door in and turn on the fryers . . . I also traveled a lot as a kid. One trip that was really memorable was when we packed up from Houston when I was 10 or 11, and we drove all the way up the Southern coast and all the way up the Eastern coast all the way to Maine. It was a really eye-opening experience of seeing all parts of America and what they cooked. What I ate was indigenous to that area, so if I was in New Orleans, it was gumbo, chowder in Boston, boiling lobsters in Maine.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be professional tennis player. I play a little bit these days, but it’s more through my son [who plays now].
What’s one ingredient you can’t stand?
I hate just regular bell peppers, red and green and yellow peppers. I think it was the flavor, and when I first started cooking in the early 1990s, everyone always put tri-color peppers in everything to sprinkle for color.
What was the last TV show you bingewatched?
The Walking Dead. I started watching it two months ago, from the very beginning, and I’m totally caught up now. It was like four episodes a night.
Vests seem to be your signature style. When did that start?
I wear a vest because, honestly, I feel like the past couple of years, I’ve been eating like crazy and playing less tennis, so they help hide my belly. But I’m eating less bread now, so it’s going down. I have a lot of vests because I ski and worked in Aspen. My outfit is shorts, T-shirts, and a vest—I’m just laid-back.
You attended culinary school. Is it worth it?
I think it may be worth it for some people, depending on your personality. My diploma got burned down in a building, so I never got it and no one ever asked for it. If I were starting now, I just would’ve gone to good restaurants to learn from the best possible chefs. But culinary school was good for me: I was a year into college, and I wasn’t going to class; it was paid for, so I didn’t owe anything; and I had never cooked before culinary school.
You’re really into guitars. Do you write your own stuff or play covers?
I just kind of tool around. I’ve done that ever since I was a little kid, and when I started cooking, I didn’t have any time whatsoever. Now that I’m more of a visionary, I play more. My mind is spinning most of the time, so it kind of gets my mind to slow down; it’s kind of my drug. I think I was like in seventh grade when I first started playing. I was in a band in high school, and we played for proms and parties—INXS, U2, Simple Minds. We were called Common Sense.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew how to cook?
When I went to Pok Pok in Portland, it really opened my eyes to true Thai street food—really brothy, big flavors. It wasn’t the typical really thick sauces with the carrot flowers and the curries.
Beer, cocktails, or wine?
Lately, it’s been beer. I typically go to IPAs. Sweetwater IPA kind of stands out as one of my favorites, just the right balance of enough hoppiness. I cannot stand wheat beers.
What’s your guilty pleasure snack food?
Nachos. The ones I make for myself late at night are really simple—just cheese and pickled jalapeño.
Your first Houston restaurant, State of Grace, is about to open. What do you miss about Texas?
I miss a lot of the Hill Country weekend trips. There’s a town called New Braunfels. It got started by German immigrants, so there’s a lot of really cool sausages and great barbecue. I love getting in inner tubes and floating on the river; there’s also a place called the Chute, which is on the Comal River. And the old country Gruene Hall. I used to only go back to Texas maybe once or twice a year, now it’s every week at least for the first three months [of the restaurant].
You’ve done Italian, seafood, Tex-Mex . . . Is there any type of restaurant you wouldn’t open?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t open. But authenticity is also something that’s really important to me. When you start getting into more cuisines like Asian or Indian—any of these things that are using a lot of different ingredients—I would want to make sure I was well-versed and had studied it amply or partnered with someone who was into that to get it going.
Any pet peeves?
At home, my pet peeve is when people leave their dish in the sink—I have a hard time with that. I like to clean as I go, and I can’t really clean my dish if there’s something in the way. Otherwise, I am really laid-back, and if I ever blow up, it’s probably a bunch of different things accumulating, and you’re just the last person. It only happens once a year.