Culinary ambassador Benjamin Ford explains how US cuisine has matured
Although Benjamin Ford has travelled extensively, the California-based chef and restaurateur, and son of Hollywood actor Harrison Ford, has never seen a city like Hong Kong. "It's overwhelming," he says. "I have to re-evaluate what I think of as a city. Here it's very vertical. It has interesting architecture and design, and the reasons for it."
Ford, 48, was recently in Hong Kong as part of the US Department of State's Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Programme, founded last year, that includes more than 100 American celebrity chefs.
This is Ford's first trip abroad promoting American cuisine and products. He created a special menu at The Salted Pig, which is available until Sunday, and presided over the grill last Saturday at the annual Great American Texas Barbecue at The Asia Society. The next day, he cooked brunch at the Conrad Hong Kong, and his dishes were part of the Garden Café's Thanksgiving dinner menu.
Just before he began his official duties as an American culinary ambassador, Ford managed to sample a taste of Hong Kong with a bowl of snake soup. (He enjoyed it, and has eaten rattlesnake before.) "I like to walk around the city and get lost - that's how I discover new towns," he says.
Watch: Harrison Ford's son, Ben Ford, sizzles in Hong Kong
Ford is passionate about American cuisine. The US has developed its culinary identity in the past 10 to 15 years, he says. "We now have a better understanding of what we're cooking. We are a young country that has origins in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, but we have matured now."
He compares the US to Israel, which he visited last year. "Israel is only about 60 years old. The cuisine is even newer and less settled. After the second world war, the restaurants there were Russian and German because they were the first immigrants. The next generation wanted to identify where they were from and to acknowledge their terroir," he says.
Ford has been keen about food since he was five years old. Back then, he helped in the garden. At 12, a trip to Japan opened up his culinary interests and expanded his palate.
"That's where I lost my inhibitions about food," he says. (And while raw fish was prevalent in LA, he ate things such as fish head soup for breakfast.)
During his teens, he started to take over the kitchen in the Ford household, cooking more meals and preparing family holiday parties.
At the same time Ford set his sights on Major League Baseball. "I was a baseball player in college, and so that talent dictated my life from when I was 10 to about 18 years old," he says. "I tried to go professional, but didn't make it. I got injuries which led me to make some re-evaluations, and I decided to pursue my real passion - food."
When he was 20, Ford set off to San Francisco where he says he knocked on doors looking for work in kitchens.
His first job was at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters followed by chef, writer and artisan producer Paul Bertolli. "He gave me the philosophy I carry today," Ford says. "He taught me the effort that goes into cooking should translate into the final plate.
"American cuisine is fast, fresh and made quickly. It reflects the culture. But I want to slow down the pace. I use two to three-day processes to make things like stews. I also return to artisanal products, going back to the fishmonger and bread maker," he says.
This led to the opening of Chadwick in 1999, named after Alan Chadwick, an English master gardener and originator of organic techniques.
The restaurant focused on organic produce. Its seasonal California-Mediterranean menu earned Ford three stars from the Los Angeles Times; it was the first restaurant in the city to receive the highest rating.
By 2004 Ford was eager to do something new, so he travelled around the world analysing cuisines. "I was already at the forefront of the organic movement in LA, and it had enough foot soldiers to keep it going. I decided I didn't want to do fine dining, but something more collaborative."
The result was a gastropub in LA called Ford's Filling Station, which focuses on US regional cuisine such as cured meats and whole animal cookery.
"Two years later we began raising our own pigs, sheep and goats. Butchery is an important craft," says Ford.
"I take the teaching aspect of cooking seriously. I believe in hard work, not shortcuts. You need to learn the craft and old world techniques. Doing your own butchery creates an intimacy with the product. When you have the foundations, you have confidence in your cooking," he says.
Ford's disciplined work ethic comes from his parents and doesn't shy from his father's celebrity status. "My dad is a mid-Western guy - a meat and potatoes guy. He loves food, but as an actor he has to watch his eating habits, otherwise he'd be as big as me," he says.