Chef Ford Fry has a restaurant empire built on delicious fare and helping others get what they want
IT’S EARLY NOVEMBER. I am waiting for Chef Ford Fry inside his Decatur restaurant no. 246. Since I am a few minutes early, I take a look around. The restaurant [it’s actually Fry’s smallest restaurant] boasts the same charm and inviting ambiance that all of his restaurants have. Exposed white brick walls adorned with bunches of tied greenery are to my left, and towards the back is an open kitchen. Large metal pendant light fixtures hang above tables appointed with white tablecloths and black chairs.
Five minutes later, the Houston, Texas-raised, Atlanta-based chef arrives wearing a Graduate Knoxville camo baseball cap and a navy-blue puffer vest over a white short-sleeved polo, paired with light-colored jeans and brown boots.
The making of Fry’s Atlanta empire
If you’re an Atlantan, you’re likely familiar with the name Ford Fry as this city is bursting with his restaurants – there’s JCT. Kitchen & Bar, no. 246, The Optimist, King + Duke, St. Cecilia, Superica, Marcel, Beetlecat and Little Rey.
As Fry’s restaurant empire continues to grow, it’s easy to see how he builds those who cheer him on as well as indulge in his delicious fare.
Fry’s restaurants are renowned for using the freshest, local ingredients in the most flavorful dishes. Take Marcel’s perfectly cooked Beef Wellington and unrivaled, herby, pan-fried bread or Beetlecat’s succulent, Instagram-worthy lobster roll or Superica’s sizzling steak fajitas with that incredible Mexican butter. Or perhaps you recognize Fry from his appearance on Netflix’s first season of The Chef Show.
Fry is kind of a big deal. He is a fourtime James Beard Award semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur, the winner of Eater’s Empire Builder of the Year, has made Esquire’s Best Restaurants in America list, a cookbook author and the winner of Georgia Restaurant Association’s Restaurateur of the Year award.
Actually, Fry is a really big deal – though he would beg to differ. “I think people have some sort of preconceived notion that I probably have this celebrity chef vibe to me or ‘He’s probably really busy.’ And they’d be surprised to know that that is not the case. I’m busy – most of the time, I’m not. [Staff comment] ‘Mr. Fry, you’re the man!’ No, I’m not the man.” He laughs. “I’m just a dude. I’m just really laid-back and down-to-earth and very approachable.”
no. 246 begins something even bigger
Fry, who studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, worked as a chef in fine dining in Florida, Colorado, California and Georgia before opening his first restaurant, JCT. Kitchen & Bar in 2007. Early on, Fry knew he would open more than one restaurant, but never thought he’d have the restaurant empire he has today. “What happened was I got passionate… I knew a lot of chefs in town that maybe didn’t have access to capital or maybe were overly creative but didn’t understand the business side of things. So, then I had this thought, ‘What if I help those chefs or brought them on with us or partner with them?’”
This is how no. 246 came to fruition. Fry knew Drew Belline and heard about a space that fit his style of cooking. Today, Belline is
V.P. of Culinary, a partner in the restaurant and has equity in the whole company.
Recently, the restaurant experienced a “10-year switch” and transitioned to oldschool Italian. “no. 246 really fits Decatur. For me, it’s the right size for the city. The [exhaust] hoods aren’t necessarily the best, that’s a good thing for me because you come in, and it smells like someone’s grandmother is cooking. 246 just has that spirit of Decatur – that square, that small-town feel,” he says with a smile.
MORE WITH CHEF FRY
Do you still cook or are you more of a restaurateur?
You always ask yourself, what would I do if money didn’t matter? That’s pretty much what I do – the fun stuff. So, anything that’s not fun or I don’t want to do, I don’t do. But to hone that down, I am more of the visionary. I love the whole restaurant creative aspect; it definitely starts with the food, because that’s my background. But for the most part, I love all aspects of bringing it all together, so that’s really what I do. Then, I try to look at the restaurants that we have and try to make sure they stay fresh or if they need a refresh, they get refreshed. Not too much cooking, cooking more at home, a lot.
Do you visit your restaurants frequently?
Everyone always asks, “Where are you?” I’m in my car, usually, going back and forth. We have a new office on the Westside. It’s cool – it’s got iced coffee because I drink seven of those a day. That’s where some of our corporate people are, so I’m usually there.
I prefer to be in the restaurants and kind of bounce around. Sometimes, I’m just coming in to eat and experience it. Sometimes, just coming in, sitting down and talking philosophically. “Hey, where do you want to go with this?”
When I opened JCT., for four years every day, I looked at everything as, “How can we make this better?” That was just my mindset. I guess I just kind of hope that everyone else has that same mindset. How can you make it better? What are you looking at? What’s inspiring you? A lot of times, I can tell by people’s Instagram. What are they posting pictures of? I just try to understand – are they happy? Inspired? Because if they’re not happy or inspired, sometimes we’ll just do a switcheroo. “Hey, what about this restaurant?” and put them there and they’ll just lighten up. Sometimes, they just need new scenery.
Are you posting on your Instagram?
I do mine. I feel like I’m addicted to it a little bit now, but I think it’s fun. I like to learn what happens when I post something.
Which one gets the most engagement? It’s just interesting to me to see how it all works. I’ll go to Geotags of all the restaurants, and I’ll see all the pictures of the food people are posting, so I’ll know that’s how it really looks. It helps me stay in tune with what’s going on.
Chefs who are doing things super simple are what’s inspiring me. When I was younger, I liked a lot of ingredients. Now, I like very few ingredients. I guess when I recognize someone doing something that I’m really passionate about as well – letting the food of your childhood inspire your current self now. What do I want to eat versus how do I display my artistic ability on a plate? How do we make the best burger ever? What inspires me is things I like to eat.
What do you like to eat?
Oh my gosh, steak frites. Who is going to cook an amazing steak and just the technique of that with homemade French fries? If you can nail those two items on a plate and do it really well, as opposed to just slapping it on there– I love that. The simple pastas, where you actually taste the pasta and there’s not a lot of stuff in it.
What are you cooking at home during the holidays?
I do two kinds of turkey and the gravy. I put most of my effort into that. I brine them both. I smoke one turkey, then I cook one turkey in one of those clear roasting bags – I call that the leftover turkey and the gravy turkey. Cornbread stuffing is always big. There’s something my mom made that I like making, it’s called pineapple dressing. It uses white Wonder Bread, crushed pineapple, and a custard. It is so good. It’s just one of those things, if you grew up having it as a kid, you’d probably like it. But if you had it now, you’d be [thinking] “this is disgusting.”
Does your family leave all the cooking to you since you’re the professional?
They do now and every time there’s holidays coming, everyone pretends that they know nothing about cooking. I’m like, “What happened the last 40 years?”
For more information on Chef Ford Fry’s restaurants, visit fordfry.com.