Atlanta Chef Ford Fry thinks it’s time to give his city a little breathing room. “We’ve had a long run of restaurant openings,” says the chef/owner of nine Georgia eateries including JCT. Kitchen & Bar. So he’s expanding to Houston, where he grew up. “We found a location in my hometown, right across from the school I went to. There was like a 7-Eleven there that I’d ride my bike to and steal candy. So I thought it was perfect spot for my first one outside of Georgia.”
But Fry is, of course, not done with Atlanta. Last night he opened a Royal Tenenbaums-themed bar in the Four Seasons hotel in Midtown, and his tenth Atlanta restaurant, Beetlecat, will open in Inman Quarter later this year. State of Grace, his restaurant in Houston, will open in October. We talked to Fry about how Atlanta diners’ tastes have evolved, how he’ll handle the jump to Texas and how he can possibly juggle all of these projects.
You like to have fun with your restaurant themes. Why is Bar Margot in the Four Seasons Royal Tenenbaums-themed?
It’s just food. I try not to take it too seriously. I think Atlanta, or at least Midtown, was looking for a really cool hotel bar that kind of had this air of fanciness to it but wasn’t taking itself too seriously. I grew up in Houston and I went to St. John’s, the same school as Wes Anderson. There is this sense of humor that carries on through his movies. Margot was a quirky, funky character who was a little rebellious. So this isn’t your mom and dad’s Four Seasons’ bar. This is a little bit more edgier. We have two complementary bar snacks: Georgia peanuts roasted with Thai chiles, Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, and pretzel bread crackers with beer-cheese spread.
How have Atlanta diners’ tastes changed since you opened JCT. Kitchen & Bar back in 2007?
Diners have gotten a lot more adventurous in what they’re eating. Nothing is really a hard sell anymore. Our restaurants are fairly big, so for the most part we’re not trying to be experimental. We try to not word things on the menu to scare the diners away. We’re educating them quietly.
State of Grace will be your first restaurant outside of Georgia. Why are you expanding outside of Atlanta and why now?
I think it’s time to give Atlanta a break. We’ve had a long run of restaurant openings. And in my mind, Houston’s dining scene is kind of where Atlanta was five years ago. My family’s still there and my business partner’s there. He wanted to have a restaurant down there right by him. We looked at a few different locations and this one is in my hometown, right across from the school I went to. There was like a 7-Eleven there that I’d ride my bike to and steal candy. So I thought it was perfect spot for my first one outside of Georgia.
Does opeing a restaurant in your hometown market make it a more welcoming environment?
Exactly. Most people say that out-of-town chefs always struggle coming into the Houston market, as they do in the Atlanta market, but we’re lucky because the media is saying ‘Ford is from here! He’s a hometown boy!’ We’re looking at this one as like hey, let’s go to Houston, do a badass restaurant in the neighborhood I grew up in and have fun with it. Especially with our first one. I’m going to spend a lot of time down there, which is one of the differences between me and other chefs who just pop into their restaurants, check on things and then they’re on to Cleveland or Phoenix or wherever they’re going next.
How will you approach Houston diners compared to how you approach Atlanta diners?
I’m a little nervous. Atlanta is more equivalent to Dallas. Houston has always had a great economy, but it also has strong ties to Louisiana. So from a food perspective, I’m definitely trying to source from the Gulf. Also there are some restaurants in Houston that have a different pricing structure than Atlanta. They price their wine really low and their food really high. They’re fooling the guests into thinking they’re getting off really good with wine, but they’re turning around and sticking it to them on the food. We’re going to try to be legit to what we normally do; reasonable on all fronts. So we’ll see how that goes.
Why is Southern cuisine so hot right now?
The South has so many different regions within it and there have been a surge of notable chefs coming out of the South. That helps with the national media, but at the end of the day, most Southern cooking is rooted in poverty; you’re forced to cook with a lot of love to bring things alive. I don’t look at Southern food as black-eyed peas and collard greens, but more as what all ingredients I can get from this region. A lot of people are infusing European technique into classic Southern cooking, which is making it sort of new Southern cooking.
Why does Charleston dominate the conversation about new Southern food?
Per capita, Charleston’s probably got better restaurants than Atlanta. But I think it’s because chefs want to live there. People just want to live in Charleston. But a lot of Charleston chefs are envious of Atlanta because Atlanta’s a lot busier and there’s a lot more people.
How can you juggle all these projects?
My passion was never to open a bunch of restaurants. I mean I really enjoy the process of opening restaurants and the creative process, but my passion is developing people and watching them go from a sous chef to a chef who oversees a couple of different restaurants. We have three openings in a sort time frame, so I’m going to bounce back and forth, flying between Atlanta and Houston. I’ve got five or six chefs who are super high caliber, capable of not only cooking really well but also understanding the business side of things. We try to teach them how to be an entrepreneur and how to run their own restaurant. So eventually we can put them in positions of equity where they’re an owner with us. I really have to rely on all our people. That’s the only way we can do this right now.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep