It takes him a minute, but when he gets there, his eyes flash back into focus with manifest excitement.
"It was at this place called L'Artusi in New York," Ford Fry says, recounting the most memorable dish he's had in recent memory. "They had this salad. It was these chicories, and it's hard to do here because everyone always picks out the bitter lettuces and throws them away, but they were chicories in this anchovy and lemon vinaigrette." By now he's grinning, talking fast. "And the plate was really cold and the salad was really cold and the vinaigrette was really cold and it was lemony and it was anchovy-ish and it also had these garlicky breadcrumbs on it and it was just so good." He sighs. "I mean, I couldn't stop eating it."
It's a chef's memory, one that reveals not only Fry's stylistic approach to cooking (classic, simple) but also a food lover's appreciation for the power of one transformative dish. Yes, the man sitting next to me is the ubiquitous chef and restaurateur behind JCT. Kitchen, No. 246, and the newly opened Optimist, but he's also the laid-back guy in shorts and flip-flops, crazy about tennis and good food.
Shortly after he opened JCT. Kitchen in 2007, Fry told StarChefs.com that, to him, success was "running a restaurant that makes people feel good — where people come back week after week." Almost prophetically, he added, "In five years I hope to have a number of new restaurants open." Just a few months short of five years later, that "number of new restaurants" he'd hoped for turns out to be three, and counting.
Last year, Fry formed Rocket Farm Restaurants LLC with partners Daniel Van Loh and Nicholas Fraunfelder. "A chef goes through phases in his career," Fry told the Atlanta Business Chronicle last winter. "As you get older, more seasoned, you get excited in establishing others and helping them with their dreams." Now with access to funds raised from private investors, Fry finds himself in a unique position to provide advice, assistance, and even mentorship to young, emerging chefs in the city.
For example, Fry brought on former JCT chef de cuisine Brian Horn as a corporate-level chef, and then enlisted chef Adam Evans to run the kitchen at the Optimist. Even JCT's current executive chef, John Spotkill, was promoted from within the ranks. "He's definitely been a mentor figure," Spotkill says, "taking me from sous chef to executive chef at one of the busiest restaurants in Atlanta."
Chef Drew Belline, who partnered with Fry to open No. 246, is another chef under the Rocket Farm umbrella. "I definitely learned a lot from him as far as how to run a business," Belline says. "He knows what the customer wants and gives them a great experience with a lot of passion and value behind it, too."
But the most recent chef to join team Fry is Joe Schafer, who has his own theory as to why Fry's restaurants have been successful. Formerly of Parish, Schafer currently occupies the post of chef de cuisine at JCT, patiently waiting for Fry's next project to materialize sometime next year. "He's really laid-back for a chef with so much going on. You gotta be able to deal with all the drama and all the pressure that comes with doing what he does. I feel like that's what you've got to do to be successful. Oh," Schafer adds, "and the guy is a really good cook, so that helps." Schafer was careful not to reveal any specifics regarding the forthcoming restaurant, but he did tell CL that "there's nothing like it in the state of Georgia or in the Southeast." And he hopes Atlanta's ready for it.
These days, Fry admits that his passion has shifted to developing his people and that he's thankful to be able to it do more and more. "I really like my staff," Fry says, "and I really like taking care of them. I want them to make a lot of money and I want their families to be taken care of, too."
As for his future restaurants, Fry reports that nothing's official yet, but whatever it is, he says it will "have the influence of sourcing locally and using local products. It just tastes better that way." Fry also confirms that he has at least three different projects in the works. One in particular, he says, "will definitely be pretty soon."
"If there's anything that I would want to bring to Atlanta," Fry says, "it's something really simple and classic. Something that's always gonna be fun and a place to go once or twice a week as opposed to a glitzy, special night-out spot."
To see what else Fry has up his sleeve, we'll just have to wait for the next installment of his "laid-back takeover of Georgia eats" (as BlackBook New York put it). Till then, Fry is content being the guy in the shorts and flip-flops, tweaking what needs to be tweaked, and overseeing his restaurants from afar. "At some point, everyone asks themselves what they would do for a living if money weren't an option," Fry says. "And this is exactly what I would do."
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