Ford Fry loves his native South, but when his parents noticed he slacked in class but sparked in the kitchen, they urged him to swap frat life for culinary training up at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. From there, the young Houstonian worked stints at fancy resorts in Florida, Colorado and California before coming to Atlanta to try his hand as a chef for a high-end chain food emporium offering "home-meal replacements, where people can go who don't want to cook."
The city of Atlanta released its full charm on Fry, but he chafed at first at the corporate nature of his new job and "putting stuff in to-go containers." Yet Fry came to appreciate his opportunities: frequent travel and tasting, learning to run numbers. "Everything before was just solely cooking and fine dining. This really taught me a lot about leading people and managing all the aspects of the business." He stayed for nine years, and the skills he picked up would serve him well in his future dining endeavors.
In 2007, Fry opened his own restaurant, JCT. Kitchen & Bar, with a modern Southern flavor. Five years later, the Italian-focused No. 246 was born, and won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence soon after. With that, the seed of a sprawling culinary empire was planted. Today, Fry leads a team of chefs and oversees 10 Atlanta-area restaurants (including fellow Award of Excellence winners Marcel, St. Cecilia and King + Duke) and one glossy eatery, the Award of Excellence–winning State of Grace, in his hometown of Houston.
Fry, 48, isn’t slowing down: He's laying out plans to open 10 more restaurants in Houston, Charlotte, Nashville and New Orleans in the coming years. He spoke with assistant editor Samantha Falewée about his early appreciation for diverse cuisines, his knack for matching talented people with opportunities, and what excites him about the blossoming Atlanta scene.—
Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine and cooking?
Ford Fry: My grandmother and grandfather took us around traveling to Europe and all over the United States, and everything always revolved around food. My grandfather was a doctor and was constantly educating himself on everything. I think he felt it was his duty to take his grandkids because my parents may not have had the means. Say we would go to Paris. He’d say, "Let’s go to Guy Savoy, and while we’re there, let’s go stop by the Eiffel Tower."
I remember one time we packed up the old wood station wagon and drove up the coast from Texas all the way to Cape Cod and experienced the clam shacks and the lobster rolls and lobster dinners. Everything was very educational, and they loved food, loved eating.
But I think what got me going—most chefs are typically ADD and not necessarily academics. Some are, for sure, but most of them, you know, we learn by doing and we’re on the creative side. My mom and dad knew that I came home and cooked all the time. They saw that I was in college and I was in a fraternity, and I wasn’t really waking up going to class. So they encouraged me to go off to culinary school, which pretty much spurred everything.
WS: How do you manage so many different concepts in your restaurants?
FF: I had this passion for younger chefs who don't have the business skills or capital to really do their own restaurants, but they’re super-talented chefs and great friends of mine. So I’m like, why can’t I—hopefully—facilitate and bring them to their own restaurant, and build the parameters around them? Say, “This is the model, stick to this, [and] you cook the way you cook.”
It’s a lot less micromanaging, and allows them to stay on track with what we’ve started. And because they own it, it makes it very easy to manage, because they’ve got skin in the game, in a way. Some of them have equity, some of them don’t, and they have passion for it. I like to hire people and utilize them for their strengths and put them in an area where they’re strong, and not really worry too much about their weaknesses, because as long as I can put a team around them that supports their weakness, it works really well. We as a corporate team support each restaurant and teach [the chefs] how to run their own restaurant.
WS: How have you seen Atlanta evolve as a food and beverage destination?
FF: It’s really cool because when I first moved here, Buckhead was the center. Buckhead is where the malls are, it’s the most wealthy neighborhood in the city, and it’s where everyone went. What’s happened is, over time, restaurants have started sprouting back up in the neighborhoods, which in turn allowed chef owner-operators to open their own restaurants.
Everyone is migrating to these different pockets, whether it's the Westside or Inman Park, to really experience cool, innovative one-off restaurants. Over the past 10 years that’s really what happened. It’s totally converted from a kind of corporate restaurant scene to a very chef-driven restaurant scene. It’s flipped from the front of the house—maître d’ person being the highlight with the double-breasted suit, greeting everybody—to the chef being the focal point.