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From Market to Menu: An Interview With Chef Ben Ford

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Chef Ben Ford uses locally sourced produce to create his dishes. Food photo by oranges are not the only fruit via LAist Featured Photos/Flickr

Chef Ben Ford uses locally sourced produce to create his dishes. Food photo by oranges are not the only fruit via LAist Featured Photos/Flickr
By Eli Sussman for LAist

Ben Ford, head chef and owner of Culver City’s Ford’s Filling Station speaks of the farmer’s market and its farmers with great reverence. Chef Ford grew up with his hands in the soil, gardening from a very young age so his respect for the food grown by the farmers comes naturally.

It’s this connection between the grower, the food and the dishes he creates, that he honors by utilizing the farmer’s market products. Ford’s menu can change daily, depending on what he has fresh on hand, has selected from the farmer’s market or has delivered from a select group of trusted farms he regularly visits.

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Ford’s Filling Station led the emergence of Culver City as a dining destination and Chef Ford has been at the forefront of the Taste of the Nation event, held in Culver City for the past 5 years.

On a cloudy “June-Gloom” Wednesday morning, LAist caught up with Ford as he shopped at the Santa Monica farmer’s market. Dressed in Chef pants and a Ford's Filling station T-shirt, the upbeat chef moved through the market, stopping to talk with several of his favorite farmers as he shopped.

Ford spoke about how the farmer’s market influences his cooking style and his process of using the fresh produce he buys when conceptualizing dishes. He let LAist in on where he buys his favorite leeks, his thoughts on organic certification, what drew him to open his restaurant in Culver City and his process for teaching chefs in the kitchen.

When you go to the market, does the market influence your cooking ideas, or do your ideas drive your purchases?

It’s very infrequent that it’s the latter. Most of the time I’m going in and trying to work with what looks good that day. Sometimes in anticipation of certain seasons you might go in there differently with more intent. I’m always there looking for the things that I think provide the most bang for the buck on the menu as far as quality and flavor. Plus there are about 10-12 ingredients on my menu right now that I cant get anywhere else besides at the farmer’s market. They run throughout my whole menu.

Why do you buy items from the market specifically as opposed to having them delivered from a vendor?

Some of the reasons why I buy stuff at the Farmer’s Market is because there is a quality of the product there that you are looking for that you want to hand pick. And the farmer’s market is one of the best ways of being able to do that. The vegetables there are even better quality that what the purveyor can bring you.

Are there certain items you only will buy from the Farmer’s Market?

At any given time there are 10-12 ingredients I use that I can only get through the farmer’s market. I have my core ten (farmers) that I buy from and then another 5 or 6 I keep my eye on. I get these wonderful long leaks from Windrose farms. She really takes a lot of care in how she grows them and they are a thing of pride for her. They are incredible and then they are gone! They just went out of season. That’s an example of something that’s really special at the farmer’s market because yes, you can get leeks year round pretty much, but these, because of the care put in to them and their seasonality and how they are taken care of are just beautiful.

Another example is these red frill mustard greens from McGrath and these tiny red and white onions that I love. No matter how many times you might explain it to a purveyor they won’t understand what it is. Plus the quality is that much better and they are grown with care and consideration.

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We are also getting duck eggs, turkey eggs and pheasant eggs and guinea hen eggs, and chicken eggs, from Peter Schaner at Schaner Farms. And we are using a lot of those in our brunch menu to sort of extend the egg offerings. And that’s been a nice addition.

We are getting most of our lettuce from Coleman Farm. He grows a lot of different kinds of lettuce that you can build salads with. It seems like it’s almost made for building salad combinations.

How much does the personal relationship with the farmer figure into your decision to shop at the Farmer’s Market?

The thing about the farmer’s market is those guys really care about what they are doing. Another farmer, I don’t know them personally and I’ve never been to their farms. These guys, I’ve been to their farms. I’ve seen how much pride they take in the growing.

Does Certified Organic matter to you when you are buying ingredients for your restaurant?

Whether 100% it’s organic or not doesn’t really even really matter that much to me as long as they are taking pride in doing the right thing. There might be a lot of reasons why they can’t get certification. Maybe it’s a family owned business for 6 generations and they’ve always farmed it the same way and they’ve always done a great job at what they do. But that doesn’t mean they were doing the wrong thing or shouldn’t have a place in what we are trying to do as chefs.

So you just purchased about 15 pounds of these beautiful heirloom tomatoes. With these tomatoes, what’s the process of these coming back into the restaurant and then ending up on the menu?

Well first off all I love the three colors together and so I think the fact that they are all tasting really good right now is a unique day for me anyhow. So I really want to combine all of them into a really simple tomato salad. I’m going to totally let it speak for itself. With these guys really…garlic is going to come into play a little bit. I might do a really good bruschetta with them. Or maybe a bulgur salad. And if I marinate them I’m not going to use anything emulsified on these. It’s definitely going to be a very light vinaigrette just seasoned right with a little bit of salt and pepper. Salt and pepper is going to be even more important than the vinaigrette I put on it.

Who are you using to screen new dishes before they go on the menu? Entire staff? Kitchen staff only? Select people you trust?

Just me. It goes on really fast.

Are there any ingredients that define your cooking?

It’s always changing. My cooks are always laughing at me because last year it was fennel. This year it’s definitely onions. The onions I am going after because there is a subtle sweetness to them I can use in my food. I can caramelize them a little bit.

Do you fall in love with an ingredient and then try to do as many things with it as you possibly can?

Yeah, because it’ll be gone tomorrow and then you turn around (to the farmer) and you’re like “you don’t have that?”

What do you say to someone who says I can’t afford to shop at the Farmer’s Market or it’s an intimidating place for me and I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m there?

There is a way of life that I think people are returning to and sort of learning how enjoyable it is to forage for your ingredients to build a meal. To go buy bread from the person who makes really good bread, then go to the market and get your vegetables and then go to your meat or fish monger ... those processes are a way of living your life with a little more rhythm. That way of life slows us down a little bit and is good for everyone. You can shop around easily at a farmer’s markets. They are still competitively pricing and if you are buying what’s plentiful at the market, there are lots of good deals to be had.

When you opened up Ford’s Filing Station, you were one of the first to come down to Culver City. At first it wasn’t this vibrant area with tons of restaurants. What drew you to Culver City?

The buildings next to me were vacant. And across the street where Rush and Gyenari are were vacant buildings. When I lived in Cheviot Hills, I’d invite over people who were potential investors for a BBQ and then tell them we were going on a beer run and just whip by (the current location of Ford’s Filling Station), and say hey, there’s the place, want to go look at it? And nobody would get out. And they were all like “no we aren’t interested. Anywhere but here.”

But (Culver City) had the studio, the cool hotel, this great city hall, they had developed the streets and it looked nice. I knew a movie theater was going in, I knew Kirk Douglas Theater was going in, and so in that way, I wasn’t worried about the neighborhood. I thought I’d grow with the neighborhood. When I first developed this menu I developed it for the people that live in this neighborhood. I didn’t expect this to become a destination location for Los Angeles.

So you want to design a restaurant that’s for everybody. My idea was to not overpower them. I wanted to have a concept that had some flexibility so we could evolve with them. Coming in with a high profile restaurant I didn’t want them to think I was trying to change their town. I was sensitive to the people that lived here.

When you are teaching your chefs in the kitchen, is it a process of you letting them run free and reeling them back in if something is not up to your standards or do you begin step by step and have them follow so its all uniform?

I don’t really ever start step by step. I want to see how certain guys will put their arms around a position. (I want to see) if someone understands that area fairly quickly and if you give someone some freedom you can see what they are more capable of.

So in the beginning I’ll throw guys into a station that isn’t that difficult. And then you teach them the salads but you don’t stop them from starting to peek at what the pizza guy is doing. And when they aren’t busy you never stop them from peeking down the line and letting them get interested in that. Because if you see those peeks, you know they are interested. You see they want to get better and you can then nurture that. But if you never give them the chance and only show them you want them to do A-B-C, you may not get those chances to see a glimpse of what potential have there.

Now that this restaurant row has sprung up around you, is there any competition between you and Chef Akasha Richmond of Akasha and Jason Travi of Fraiche? Are you surveying the entire LA restaurant landscape or just doing your own thing?

Well we brought all these new cooks into the neighborhood. And you start off with diner cooks and these waffle house cooks because you are breaking new ground. It doesn’t matter who you are, to a certain extent it was hard to get cooks and waiters to come down here in the beginning so we found ourselves training staff for the whole neighborhood. Now we are kind of trading back and forth and it’s all fun and good. Their styles are different. I think there is an idea that we should all be really good at what we do so we can get more people down here.

What’s a restaurant in LA that you are constantly returning to and why?

I like going places where it gets my wheel turning a little bit. I really don’t eat that much for sustenance and I really am out there for an experience. And it really doesn’t have to be anything crazy. It could be a really good French onion soup.

So places I go to are gonna be places that I believe may be able to help me forward my own concepts. So that’s one way of going to eat out. Another way is to go and eat something I don’t let into my cuisine, which is Asian influence. So I’ll go and have Vietnamese noodles and sushi. Places I go to learn something and get that experience [are] Church and State, Comme Ca, Animal, Grace and BLD. I have an affinity for [those chefs] combination’s and artistry of what they are trying to do on their menu.

Eli Sussman is one half of the Freshman in the Kitchen duo. LAist spoke with him in April 2009 about his own cooking adventures and philosophy. Ford's Filling Station is at 9531 Culver Boulevard in Culver City.