Ford, who recently left Ventana to start his own catering company, grew up with a ready sense of using what was at hand for that day's menu. A native of British Columbia's Vancouver Island, he and his siblings grew up fishing for Dungeness crab and salmon, picking wild huckleberries and chanterelles, and roasting oysters over beach campfires as a matter of course.
"Most of the cooking was functional, but it was good food, and it was the most affordable way to cook," recalls Ford, who trained at North Island College before moving to California to seek his culinary fortune.
But his childhood eating adventures left their impression. Ford's passion is still for the freshest, most available foods, pre-pared simply to bring out their true flavors.
The Monterey resident was named executive chef at Ventana just before the re-opening of its restaurant in the fall of 2009. The inn turned an unfortunate event into an opportunity for an upgrade — a structural fire in August 2008 ultimately became a plus, because it made it possible for the Restaurant at Ventana to add an all-new wine room and interiors, as well as upgrades to its legendary outdoor dining terraces, which overlook 50-mile views of the shimmering Pacific.
Not only was Ford responsible for lunches and dinners at the restaurant, he also watched over all culinary production at the inn, which included room service, weddings, special events and executive retreats, all handled by a kitchen staff of 24.
Ford has become used to such juggling acts, first in his past experience working for a catering company in Los Angeles, and more recently as executive chef at Portola Café.
While at the aquarium, he had to organize sustenance for a variety of special events, and also served as host chef for "Cooking for Solutions," the annual food and wine event that promotes environmentally sustainable seafood choices.
At the Portola Café, he had to serve up a menu to please a diverse crowd — tourists from near and far, locals out for a day trip, and kids of all ages.
Ford seems to specialize in these busy operations, handling a number of tasks with aplomb. He credits his past experience in catering for his ability to adapt easily.
"It makes you ready for and anticipating any situation, "he said.
Ford worked for one of Los Angeles' premier caterers and event planners, Gai Klass, before holding positions at the Huntington Museum and Chez Mélange in Redondo Beach. Before coming to the Aquarium, he served as executive chef at the prestigious Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica.
In addition to sustainability concerns, Ford said it just makes good economic sense to buy from local farmers and fishermen, supporting them and ensuring that he has wonderful ingredients for his dishes.
As well as focusing on what's fresh and in season, he looks for foods that are raised organically and naturally, such as his osso bucco, which he makes with free-range veal. Ford also likes to throw in menu items that are a bit unusual for California, such as braised rabbit.
"I'm a great believer in diet diversification," Ford said. "And it's delicious.
CHANTERELLE MUSHROOM & TRIPLE CRÉME CHEESE STRUDEL
Meyer Lemon-Tarragon Crème Fraîche, Frisèe and Fuji Apple Salad, Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette
Yield - 8 servings
2 fresh chanterelles, cleaned and torn (can substitute other mushrooms)
4 ounces triple crème cheese, cut into 8 1/2ounce strips.
1/2 cup shallots, minced
1/4 cup butter
2 oz chardonnay
2 Tbsp herbs, minced - parsley, thyme, chives, chervil
4 sheets phyllo pastry
1 Tbsp breadcrumbs
Melt butter, sauté shallots until translucent. Add chanterelles, sauté 5 minutes more. Add wine, sauté until liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and stir in herbs, season with sea salt and fresh black pepper.
Working with the phyllo in the landscape position on cutting board, layer phyllo pastry. Ensure an even coat of olive oil and alight sprinkle of breadcrumbs between each layer. Cut in half lengthwise, and into quarters widthwise. You will have 8 strips. Divide mushroom filling equally across the bottom of each strip of phyllo, placing 1 strip of triple crème cheese in the middle. Roll each one into an open-ended roll. These can be made in advance and stored up to 8-10 hours before use.
Arrange on baking sheet, and bake at 400°F until golden brown. Cool 5-10 minutes before plating.
Meyer Lemon-Tarragon Crème Fraîche
2 Tbsp fresh Meyer lemon juice
4 oz crème fraîche
1 tsp tarragon, minced
Salt and White pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until of thick, pourable consistency. Mixture will thin and then re-thicken like whipping cream.
Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette
1 small shallot, diced
1 vanilla bean
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp canola oil
Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise and, scrape out the soft inside and seeds. Combine all ingredients in a pint glass. Blend with hand blender until smooth. Season to taste with sea salt and white pepper. Can be made in advance and stored in refrigerator up to 1 month.
1 head baby frisèe, picked, washed and spun
2 each Fuji apples, julienned
Place greens in bowl. Just before service, julienne apple and drizzle with vinaigrette. Toss lightly.
Place 1 tablespoon of crème fraîche in the center of each of 8 plates. Place a strudel on top. Toss greens, apple julienne and vanilla vinaigrette together and place a small handful on top of each strudel, allowing it to spill down either side.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.