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Ford Fry on Expectations, Expansion, and His Next Atlanta Restaurant: King and Duke

Chef Ford Fry is on pace to dominate Atlanta, Georgia's dining scene. Over the past five years, he's opened three extremely popular restaurants. His most recent venture, The Optimist, launched in May to rave reviews and earlier this month earned Esquire's best new restaurant of the year. He is also one of the ten chefs who'll be participating in Eater Eve, an exclusive preview of the Eater Awards, on November 11th in New York City.

Already on the horizon for Fry is a new March opening for a project whose main claim to fame will be a 24-foot wood-burning hearth. The chef promises rustic cooking — game birds roasting on top, with ingredients sitting beneath to soak up the juices — and flavors you can't find at too many other places. There, too, might be a Mexican restaurant and a project in his hometown of Houston, Texas. In the following interview, Ford reveals the new restaurant's name, King and Duke, talks about the road he's taken so far, and explains how he has build a restaurant group while being soft-spoken and kind to a fault.

Before talking about The Optimist, explain the two concepts you opened leading up to it.
JCT, which is on the west side in Atlanta, is right in an old meatpacking building. Now it's the designer district. That restaurant's basically what we call "Southern farm-fed cooking," where we are using as much local food as possible. There's lots of classic Southern stuff on the menu, but with elevated technique. I opened that in 2007.

Five years after we opened that, we seized on the opportunity to do a small Italian-inspired restaurant in Decatur. That one is called 246. I'd say it's New York in style, since the tables are cramped together.

Not even a year after that, we opened The Optimist.

Which is now the buzziest one. What was the idea behind it?
Everyone asks that question of what you would do if you didn't have to worry about money. And for me, it's honestly developing restaurants. I can honestly say that I have the least ego of any chef, really, and a really laid-back temperament. Over time, as your career grows, you get excited about different things, and I've gotten to the point where I really like to develop younger talent. I like relating with those guys and building them and giving them opportunities.

So how does that relate to The Optimist?
Most chefs want to open their own restaurants, but most of them can't manage that because they don't have the PR, the temperament, or the money for it. So I like finding guys and giving them those chances. In the case of The Optimist, it was Adam Evans, who came highly recommended and used to be at Craftbar. I didn't know what I'd have for him until the landlord of the building came to me and presented me with this space.

So I immediately thought of doing a high-quality seafood restaurant and oyster bar, because I had always wanted to do that, and the building really fit the idea. I like things simple, classic, approachable, and technically sound. Adam was already on staff, because I wanted him to be. Taking these guys and working with them has become my passion. Once they get going and understand what the restaurant should be and what the neighborhood needs, that's when things start getting really fun.

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[Photo: The Optimist]

It seems like you're a chef in the larger sense of the word, which I suppose owes a bit to your experiences as a corporate chef.
Someone asked me what my job was this morning, and I didn't know how to answer. I think I'm a chef in the big sense of the word now — I'm a chef/restaurateur who has come to understand that I can't cook in every one of the restaurants every night. I used to be scared of front of the house and the servers, but I've come to embrace and love what they do. I'm loving the complete picture.

Talk more about what you mentioned about ego and temperament. How effective is it? Does it sometimes make cooks used to another style feel odd?
When I was working as a corporate chef and started moving up the ladder, I would have people tell me that I needed to be harder on my cooks and chefs. It wasn't my personality, because when I would try to be a little harsher, it would just come off as an act. I know that people are going to have natural weakness — that's how they are made — and that I won't be able to improve their weaknesses as much as I can impact their talents and potential. I've always had that mentality. People do find it a little odd sometimes, but the two times a year when I get pissed off, it's almost like the staff scatters like mice. Ego-wise, for some reason I have a hard time owning the good things that come my way. I want the chefs that work under me to get that credit, and I don't want to mandate every single thing that they do.

I used to work for a few chefs that were extremely rough. We had a gathering where the chefs and cooks brought their wives and kids, and it really struck me: what I say to these guys will affect that family dynamic — how I treat them at work will carry back to their house, whether in a financial or psychological way. I'm not willing to mess with that, and I think my staff realizes that and respects that. And those who don't and want to abuse it, this might not be the right place for them. I do get a bunch of emails and resumés now because of that, I think.

Does it seem a bit absurd to you that a self-described casual seafood spot gets called out as the best new restaurant in the country? Does that lead to unrealistic expectations from the diners?
It's ridiculous. It does add pressure and it means that we're just getting started, because the expectations are so high. If you see the restaurant, with the low-ceiling oyster bar with a wood-burning oven, and then the high-vaulted main dining room, it just makes you feel comfortable and like you're on vacation. You've got these really relaxing wooden chairs, palm trees, and you have to deliver on that experience and that vibe. I think we're getting back to simplicity as a dining nation, but you have to do it extremely right. The number one goal we had with The Optimist was cooking everything properly. So many fish restaurants get local, great product, but they don't follow through on the execution. But the praise is unquestionably surprising.

What does the restaurant lack? What do you want to achieve moving forward?
The restaurant was doing well before the awards, and now it's even better. My goal was always to have the oyster bar be a destination in itself. I want it to be the most casual option, and I want them to learn about the shellfish and just chill out. The next step to The Optimist is definitely to make that oyster bar something that stands on its own. The fact that it's getting impossible to get into the dining room helps.

What can you tell me about the new project?
We haven't told anybody the name yet, but it's going to be called King and Duke [renderings here]. People keep asking me what the cuisine or the concept is. It's more about the technique, though. It's a 24-foot wood-burning hearth, an actual fireplace, where we've got tons of coal and burning wood moving around. It's primitive but exacting food. We may have ducks spinning or hanging from the hearth, and beneath it we'll have potatoes or other ingredients catching the juices of the proteins roasting above. They're going to be simple flavors, but you won't be able to find that kind of taste at other restaurants.

That technique brought to mind elements of classic literature. I wasn't a huge reader as a kid, but I loved Huckleberry Finn. I remember the Duke and the King, who put on the façade of being royalty but were actually hillbillies. It's going to have an awesome patio. The location is just perfect, basically Main and Main.

When will it open?
Early March.

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The Optimist

914 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30318

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