This month, “In the Kitchen,”features chef and proprietor of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, California, Benjamin Ford.
Featured on Around the Cheese Board last February, Ford shared, with us, his love of good food and good Wisconsin Cheese.
The following interview was originally Published on February 16, 2011.
Chef Ford earned his kitchen stripes at distinguished Los Angeles area institutions, including The Farm of Beverly Hills, Opus, and Campanile. Within one month of opening, highly acclaimed gastropub Ford’s Filling Station received two and one-half stars from the Los Angeles Times, and is now celebrating its five-year anniversary throughout February.
Excited about the next five years of Ford’s Filling Station, Ford talks about the beginning of gastropubs in the United States, his newfound skill of foraging for ingredients, his passion for serving cheese, and the many new food trends stemming from out west.
How he started cooking: I grew up in a household where cooking was very important—one of those homes where cooking was inspiring. I was highly influenced by my mother’s cooking and was in the kitchen at a young age. My progression with food was temporarily retired as I pursued my baseball career, after which I quickly found myself back in the kitchen.
On cooking style: My style is indicative of California cuisine, with a Spanish and French influence. But right now at the restaurant, I’m saturating myself in American cuisine and regional food styles.
On foraging for ingredients: I’ve recently begun to learn a lot about foraging for ingredients for the restaurant. I make sure to concentrate on learning about only one plant at a time and am slowly building my arsenal. I am finding a lot of mustard greens, wild garlic, and wild cilantro right now. Foraging in a city is fascinating. There are so many interesting foods to find, depending on the neighborhood and land.
About gastropubs: Ford’s Filling Station was the second known gastropub to open in the United States. As the restaurant industry started growing in the early 1990s, a play on the nostalgia of old London pubs began to emerge in England and eventually made its way overseas. Today, a gastropub can incorporate any style of food and, most importantly, concentrates on embodying the community it inhabits.
On using cheese: I have always enjoyed eating cheese in its purest form. It’s nice to highlight the cheese itself. It’s the best way to enjoy it. Here in the United States, cheese is enjoyed at the beginning of a meal, but I prefer it as after-dinner fare. At the restaurant, the different cheeses are listed behind the bar, along with available charcuterie, and we concentrate on showing guests where the cheese is coming from and how it is made.
On cheese in Wisconsin: I wholeheartedly love pulling cheese from Wisconsin for our menu. It shows regionality in what we are doing here at Ford’s Filling Station; plus, there are so many great cheesemakers in the Dairy State. With my artisanal cooking style, I tend to admire the little guy—the cheesemakers who are busy enjoying the process, the art, and making connections with their community.
Wisconsin Cheese of the Moment: Crave Brothers Petit Frère, Uplands Cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Hook’s Cheddars are all fantastic cheeses.
On food trends: A really interesting trend I’ve noticed is new butcher shops and fishmongers. They’re starting to spring up all around town, which is something. We haven’t had shops like those here in years. Fresh vegetables are still abundant. There are more farmers’ markets here in southern California than any other state. One of the best is right here in Santa Monica. Overall, there has been a big demand for comfort food. People are finding new ways to make comfort food both interesting and approachable. They want to smell, touch, feel, and be connected to the food that they are eating. There’s a lot of real, sensible cooking happening—which is really exciting, and as a chef, it’s nice to be able to cook good, hearty, solid food.
On social media in the food industry: I absolutely adore the marriage of social media and the food community. On our Facebook page, we’re sharing the culture of the restaurant—which is great, because it’s not always possible to do that in its entirety in one sitting in the dining room. We post pictures of the chefs cooking and the new ingredients we’re using. It’s a great way to connect with our guests and let them connect with the food they are enjoying.
Wisconsin Parmesan-Polenta Fries with Tomato Marmalade
by Chef Benjamin Ford
3 cups milk
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cups polenta
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Wisconsin Parmesan Cheese, grated
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, slivered
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying
1 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Sea salt and pepper
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
Bring milk and stock just to boil in large saucepan. Slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly. Stir in salt; turn down heat to low. Continue stirring until polenta becomes very thick and begins to pull away from sides of pan. Stir in cheese; season with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat. Line 9 x 13-inch pan with sides with parchment paper or nonstick foil and brush with olive oil. Spread polenta to 1/2-inch thickness on sheet. Cover loosely and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
Meanwhile, blanch tomatoes briefly in boiling water. Remove to water/ice bath to stop cooking. Peel and cut tomatoes in large dice.
Heat oil to depth of about 2 inches in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat; add onions. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Reduce heat to low; continue cooking about 5 minutes or until softened. Add tomatoes, lemon zest and juice, water, vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until thickened, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Cut chilled polenta in strips, about 4 x 1/2 inches. Heat oil in large heavy skillet to about 365°F. Dredge polenta fries in flour to coat evenly. Shake off excess. Fry polenta fries in batches until crisp and golden brown on all sides. Remove to paper toweling to drain. Sprinkle with sea salt, pepper and rosemary. Serve with chilled marmalade.