Have You Dined at Ford’s Lately?

JCT Kitchen. The Optimist. No. 246. With his eyes now on Buckhead, Atlanta’s restaurateur of the moment gives up his recipe for success, explains why he’s not interested in “Top Chef,” and insists, “I am not building an empire.”

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.”

He relished the nuance over the science.

“Previously I had thought of cooking as a big chemistry experiment, of mixing oregano, thyme, and butter to see what happens,” he says. “What I learned is that you get a jumbled mess of nothing when you do that. What really turned me on was the simplicity of good cooking. I loved refining it to its purest and most basic techniques for maximum impact. Long, overly fancy tasting menus bore me.”

From there, he made the rounds of five-star resorts, working at Ritz-Carltons in Naples, Houston, and Aspen, and then at the Snowmass Lodge in Colorado for the Crown family (owners of the Chicago Bulls) and at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in California. He met his wife, Stacy, at the Ritz in Houston, where she worked in human resources, and they had their first of two sons in Colorado.

In 1998 EatZi’s recruited Fry as a corporate chef for its marketplace of gourmet “home meal replacements”—a local precursor to Whole Foods Market—and stationed him here during a time when the city’s food world was undergoing tectonic shifts that have grown more seismic in recent years. Glitzy Buckhead Life establishments dominated the see-and-be-seen society pages then, but in the last decade new restaurants have started assuming a more local, seasonal sensibility—a trend already in full force on both coasts. It was as if, all at once, some key Atlanta players ventured outside the Perimeter and noticed the rural, agricultural countryside where farm-to-table was known simply as “dinner.”

Fry enjoyed his own locavore epiphany when he sampled some homely looking tomatoes in Napa Valley and could not stop eating them. “That was a turning point for me because I realized that ingredients don’t have to look beautiful to taste good. That’s when I got serious about getting seasonal.”

During this time, Buckhead’s glitz, like its revelers on the morning after a binge, was starting to look a little worn and tired. “For a while, the scene really shifted toward these industrial pockets of town, and places started popping up along the BeltLine,” says Kevin Rathbun, who had cooked at Bluepointe and Nava before striking out on his own with Rathbun’s on Krog Street in 2004. “When I started, there were only three major restaurants in this Inman Park area. Since then, thirty-five have opened. And right now, Buckhead is starting to come alive again as a fresh restaurant frontier, too,” he says, noting that he is planning a new restaurant in the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center building in Peachtree Hills. “Ford’s new places are a sign of that area’s revitalization.”

So Fry emerged along with other chef-entrepreneurs at the moment when Atlanta, the proudly progressive and often pretentious boomtown, started to revel in the surrounding red-clay terroir that it once had worked so hard to shake off. His Proustian associations with tomatoes, travel, and oysters have been influencing the city’s gastronomy ever since. Fry launched JCT Kitchen as a bastion of Southern-inspired cooking in 2007, and under its flag he established what has become a juicy rite of summer, the annual Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival. Farmers at the time were struggling to sell a glut of the produce; now chefs and mixologists come from other states to see how boldly they can transcend the boundaries of marinara and Bloody Marys.

At Floataway Cafe, Drew Belline was putting fresh twists on classic Mediterranean dishes. Fry took note and recruited him to develop No. 246. One of the perquisites for Belline: food pilgrimages.

“It’s a ritual Ford has before he opens a new restaurant, to travel around and check in on what’s going on in other cities,” says Belline. “It’s not like we copy a dish or recipe exactly; we’re just looking for inspiration for our own thing.”

For No. 246, Fry and his entourage grazed around San Francisco, eating at Italian heavyweights like Flour Water and A16. For the Optimist, Belline says, executive chef Adam Evans and others explored several places in New York, like the John Dory Oyster Bar and Mary’s Fish Camp. “Ford is very deliberate and methodical in his approach to things, but very creative, too,” Belline says. “He gets passionate and excited about food, but he’s also disciplined in his approach to it.”

With Fry’s track record of success, property owners are coming to him with prospective locations, which he sizes up for “soulfulness.” “I don’t want to start anything in a strip mall,” he says. “First and foremost, I try to imagine a place I would want to go that doesn’t already exist.”

His accolades attracted investors, and he brought in an old friend from Houston to form Rocket Farm Restaurants, the economic engine of his new ventures and a wordplay on the spaceship and another name for arugula. “I also envision what I do as a ‘farm of people’ where we are growing great chefs,” Fry says. “I envisioned a plowed field with all of these retro-looking rockets, like the old cartoons, blasting out of the ground.”

Monikers are important to Fry. “I don’t like names of restaurants that involve food, like ‘Basil,’ for example, because that can feel limiting, and I certainly don’t want my name out front,” he says. JCT is an abbreviation for “junction”; No. 246 is the historic lot number in Decatur that the Italian hot spot occupies; and the Optimist is named for a kind of small sailing boat. It is also angler slang for someone awaiting a big catch, which Fry got with the rave from Esquire. Critic John Mariani gushed that it “is far more than a resounding local success: It is an overnight totem of all that is wonderful about American food today,” and “Right now, the Optimist is American dining at its best.”

The dishes he cited reflect Fry’s typical collaborative approach with his executive chefs—in this case, Adam Evans.

“I do the most cooking when I’m opening a place because I devise a menu and then ask the other chef to do the same, and we get together and cook,” Fry says. “Then I finalize that first menu. So one dish in that Esquire article was 100 percent me—the she-crab soup—while one was 100 percent Adam, the snapper in lime broth. [The spicy glazed Spanish octopus] was a combination of both of our ideas.”

He encourages his chefs to follow their own muses. “Once I know he ‘gets it,’ he can develop his own recipes based on the seasons and what’s locally available. He doesn’t even have to run a new idea by me,” Fry says. “I want people to associate the great pizza at No. 246 with Drew, not with me, and I want people to associate the changing, sustainable seafood dishes at the Optimist with Adam, not with me. The menus essentially become theirs, but I make sure to set the initial tone and kick it off the way I want it.”

Evans did not attend culinary school; he studied psychology at Auburn but, like Fry, gravitated to kitchens at august resorts such as the Grand Hotel Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Mobile Bay.

“Ford doesn’t micromanage at all in the kitchen, but he’s very detail-oriented in other ways,” he says. “For example, the playlist. He puts a lot of thought into the music that plays in all of his restaurants. Now, he’s open to suggestions if people start getting tired of it, but you can’t just stroll in and pop your stuff in the player without asking first—that’s a no-no.”

Fry explains, “I figure most of my diners are around my age or younger and I play a lot of eighties music for my own nostalgic associations, so, yeah, I come up with all of the playlists because I’m focusing on the overall experience for a diner walking in.”

He takes a similar approach with the designers behind his interiors. Smith Hanes, who is known for lighting a restaurant with the flattering precision of a movie set, brought his in-demand flourishes to the Optimist, which feels like some laid-back but well-heeled haven on the Outer Banks where good-looking people might erupt into shag dancing at any moment.

“It’s been refreshing working with Ford because he tells us what he envisions, down to details about the kind of wood or tablecloth or layout, and he’s so excited about it that we get inspired,” says Meyer. “But he gives all of us plenty of leeway in making decisions. There’s a real Southern feel to his projects, not only in some of his cuisine but also in the modest and respectful way he treats others.”

Fry grins. “I’d much rather inspire than manage,” he says.

The books for Rocket Farm’s projects stay “wide open” to chefs, he notes, to teach the commerce side of the culinary arts. “I had always been superfocused on cooking, not business,” Belline says, “so I learned more from a month of looking at our invoices and receipts with Ford than I did in the previous eight years.”

Fry clearly takes pride in the avuncular-
mentor role he plays with Belline and Evans, and with Kevin Maxey, formerly of Craft, who is slated to play a leadership role at both of the new Buckhead establishments. “My goal is to hand over a kitchen and access to capital to other chefs, to empower them to make names for themselves, move up, and eventually strike out on their own with their own places,” Fry says. “I’d rather be excited for them than hold them here if they feel like stretching.”

Lately, along with real estate proposals, the emails from hopeful would-be protégés are pouring in.

“There’s a lot of talent out there, but there has to be the right personality fit, too,” he says. “What I won’t tolerate are ego and temper tantrums—there’s no place for it here, and I will not maneuver around that. People keep urging me to go on Top Chef, but that’s just not my thing, not a fit for my mentality. I get energized watching other chefs succeed. And watching my diners enjoy themselves. It’s fine with me—preferable, actually—if my name never comes up in any of that. My hair may be turning gray, but I’m still just that kid who wants to try every single thing on the menu.”