CHEF BEN FORD has always thought outside the oven. Ford started cooking holiday dinners for his family when he was 12. He recalls the year he made salmon in the dishwasher. "It was a recipe that was going around in the '70s," he said, "I remember wrapping it in foil and putting it in the top bin and turning it on some cycle or another. My family seemed to like it."
Always a culinary tinkerer, the future chef was forever devising kinetic doodads that would turn the oven on and off or set some foodie notion in motion. "I ruined more phones, cameras and small appliances for my parents than I can dare to imagine."
Indiana Jones' kid
Ford grew up in the Hollywood Hills in the '70s, a kind of hippy-dippy time when the nabe was Boho and artsy instead of industry swank. His family lived in a circa 1900s former ranger station that was in constant need of fixing.
The fixer-upper suited his dad, Harrison, who, before he became a famous actor (you know, Han Solo, Jack Ryan), was a carpenter who instilled in his son a love of DIY projects and fearless construction. That same MacGyver (Indiana Jones?) can-do spirit that animates Ford's new book, "Taming the Feast: Ben Ford's Field Guide to Adventurous Cooking" ($34.99).
"My dad always had a workshop next to our house," said Ford, who is expanding his Filling Station gastropub brand with a location in the downtown L.A. Live entertainment complex this month. "There were always stacks of wood around, and he is very resourceful. We were always taught basic trades and how to be self-reliant in that way."
The family summered at a Wisconsin lake home with his mother's folks, where big family meals were how they ate. "There's something magical that happens when you bring together friends, family, food and music. I love the banter, the energy - that's what the book is about," he said.
Cooking big, or not
Ford trained with Alice Waters at the famed Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, and worked at Campanile and Eclipse, in L.A. He offers step-by-step illustrated instructions for nine menus with meals. There's a box-roasted spring lamb for 40, and a cedar-planked wild sturgeon that feeds 50.
Besides whatever it takes to roast or grill outside - building a wood fire, creating a clambake barrel, making a roasting box for lamb - Ford includes other key feasting components: side dishes and drinks, and suggestions for both dinner music and leftovers.
He also offers scaled-down (and cooked-indoors) versions of each main event. So, if a whole lamb isn't your thing, there's a recipe for leg of lamb. Same goes for the fish fry, whole brisket and paella with rabbit, mint and pork confit. The recipes are mouthwateringly delicious - clearly Ford has a handle on Technicolor, show-stealing flavor combinations. He hopes readers will consider moving a little outside their comfort zone to create a memorable holiday feast.
For those of us outside L.A. - who can't extend our kitchen outdoors year-round - the book offers principles to pull off large-scale dinners inside.
Man with a plan
"The timeline is the most important thing," said Ford, who introduces each feast with a schedule that works backwards from service. The prime-rib meal, for example, begins a week out with buying essential ingredients, then moves to three, two, and one day ahead, through the night before, with nearly hour-by-hour instructions for the day of. A timeline "gives you a sense of control, being able to cross things off your list."
Oven management is a very big deal when it comes to serving a crowd. Using an outdoor cooking source, even a grill if weather permits, or an outdoor fire, is a huge help. Ford is also a big fan of recruiting human assistance. "When people ask to help, it's because they want to be involved. It makes it more fun."
If you're planning to cook a turkey, he recommends brining and giving the bird a long resting time, thereby freeing up the oven for other jobs. "I'm a fan of smaller, 12-pound turkeys," he said. Typically he'll use two, breaking one down into a foil pan and covering the other one whole. "Turkey doesn't have to be served piping hot. Room temp is fine as long as everything else is hot," he said.
To those initimidated by the prospect of cooking over flaming hardwood, Ford offers demystifying, easy-to-follow instructions. "It's not as hard as it looks. It's a life experience that once you get the hang of it, connects you to the cooking process much more organically."
Same goes for working with a whole animal. "It's the ultimate way to pay respect to that animal," said the chef. "People have an initial reaction, an emotional response. I pay attention to that moment. It becomes very clear that this is a referential process with a lot of integrity. Ask a hunter who feeds his family with animals he kills in the wild, and you'll hear the same thing."
Ford contracts with farmer Lefty Ayers at Reride Ranch, north of L.A., for his pigs, and suggests that sourcing a local pig is something just about anybody can do. A 100-pound hog feeds 50 to 70 people. For the faint of heart, a 14-pound bone-in roasted pork leg feeds eight to 10.
Still, Ford really hopes that readers will push past their comfort zone and embrace the snout-to-tail, slow-food approach to feasting now - and any time of year.
"The holidays are the one time that people do really expand their reach past the norm," he said. "Dad gets the itch to fry a turkey, there's just a real push and effort that people put into their meal. If you can extend your kitchen to the outdoors, it really makes things easier in every way, from cooking to cleaning up. And it's a lot of fun."