Guitar Aficionado

Chef's Specials

Since building his restaurant empire, Ford Fry has found time to rekindle his love of the guitar with some fine vintage axes.
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From the sound of his name, you might imagine Ford Fry was destined to spend his life in a kitchen. In fact, the 49-year-old Texas-born chef currently has 15 restaurants under his belt, including popular outposts like the Optimist, JCT. Kitchen, and King + Duke in Atlanta, La Lucha and State of Grace in Houston, and Superica in Charlotte, North Carolina. Fry says he once opened five restaurants in a single year and reports that he currently has “another six or seven in the works.” Clearly, he loves food and he loves cooking.

But this is a magazine for musicians, not cooking. So, as you’d expect, Fry has another passion, namely guitars. He not only plays them (very well, in fact), he also collects them. His current crop of instruments, which he keeps at his house in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, includes a plethora of new and vintage six-strings, among them a 1960 Gibson ES-330, a variety of Fender Custom Shop Strats (’56 and ’59 reissues among others), a 1968 Telecaster Custom, an all-original 1954 Martin D-28 and a 1964 Gibson SG Junior. There are also other Gibsons, and Elliott and Collings guitars, not to mention Marshall, Vox and various ’60s-era Fender amps.

“I’m kind of addicted these days,” Ford admits. He estimates his collection has more than two-dozen pieces. But as much as his gear brings him joy, he also argues that those guitars and amps are therapeutic. “Going into my guitar cave, that’s kind of my time to recharge, even if it’s just for 15 or 20 minutes,” he says. “Or maybe an hour, if my wife and kids aren’t home. But it gets my mind off work, and I can be focused solely on learning a song or trying to practice and get better. It’s re-energizing.”

In fact, the guitar has been Fry’s support for most of his life. He recalls first wanting to play the instrument as an eighth grader after watching some older classmates at his school perform in a talent show. “I just loved the shapes of the guitars and seeing all the amps onstage,” he says. He soon convinced his parents to buy him an acoustic and quickly graduated to electric, cutting his teeth on a steady diet of “rock, blues, Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top.” An older cousin who had experience as a studio musician taught him his first song, the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” including Elliot Easton’s iconic solo. Fry then spent his high school years playing in bands, performing tunes by popular artists of the day, like U2 and Simple Minds, at formals and proms.

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But like many people who find a professional calling as they get older, Fry had less time for guitar playing as he became more immersed in cooking. As he tells it, however, a life in the kitchen was not predetermined, though he did grow up with a healthy appreciation for restaurants and food. As a kid, Fry had the opportunity to travel all over the world with his parents and grandparents, and there was always an emphasis on fine dining. “We would go on a lot of trips,” he recalls. “And if we were in, say, Paris, it was like, ‘Well, let’s go eat at Guy Savoy. And while we’re there, let’s also see the Eiffel Tower!’”

Fry loved dining out, and by high school he had developed some cooking chops of his own, including grilling quail and frying catfish. “That kind of ‘hunter’s backyard cooking,’” he explains, “where you cook up anything you catch or shoot.” But it wasn’t until he was in college and read an article in the Wall Street Journal about “fast-track careers” that he began to think hard about his future. “This article listed chef as an option, even though there’s nothing fast-track about becoming a chef,” Fry says. “But I figured I love cooking, and I’ve worked in restaurants busing and waiting tables, so maybe I’ll try it out.”

He subsequently enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and following graduation he cooked in the kitchens of fine-dining establishments all over the U.S., including at Ritz-Carlton hotels in Florida and Colorado. A corporate chef job in Atlanta brought him to the East Coast, and while the position didn’t suit him, he fell in love with the city and decided to make Atlanta his adopted home. In 2007, he opened JCT. Kitchen, his first restaurant, featuring a menu heavy on local meats and fresh fish, and boasting a live music stage. It remains an Atlanta hot spot to this day.

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Fry’s career was taking off , but his guitar playing had been — pardon the pun — pushed onto the back burner. “There wasn’t really time for anything else,” he says. “From the time I went to culinary school until I opened my first restaurant — and this was about 1991 to 2007 — I was working probably 90 hours a week.” He laughs. “There’s your fast-track career for you!”

But when he opened his second restaurant, the Italian-inspired No. 246 in Decatur, Georgia, things began to shift. “At that point I had a chef in each kitchen, and I like to empower my chefs to explore their own creativity. So I was able to step back a bit,” Fry says. “And things were also getting better financially because we were having some success. So it freed me up to start doing things like buy a guitar and an amp, and get back into music.”

The first purchase he made at that point was one that had a connection to his childhood in Texas — an Eric Johnson Stratocaster. “Growing up in Houston, I used to go see him play in small clubs all the time,” Fry says of Johnson, who hails from Austin. “My cousin, who was the studio musician, turned me on to him. He said, ‘You need to go check this guy out.’ And I just loved Eric. His [1986] album Tones could be my desert-island disc.” Along with the Eric Johnson Strat, Fry picked up a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb and a few effect pedals. “And that,” he says, “was my re-entry.”

Ford and friend Benji Shanks check out a couple of Les Pauls in the chef’s guitar cave

Ford and friend Benji Shanks check out a couple of Les Pauls in the chef’s guitar cave

As Fry tells it, at that point he became afflicted with what could only be described as GAS — Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. “I started to have the mindset of, ‘All right, I’ve got a Strat… now I need a Tele!’ ” he says with a laugh. “Everything was just, Now I need… now I need… now I need!”

Up next was a black Bill Nash T Model equipped with a Bigsby, and an ’80s-era Les Paul that Fry picked up for cheap from a guitarist who had played with Lady Gaga. He also began to seek out some nice vintage pieces. In 2016, while opening a new restaurant — State of Grace, in Houston — he popped into Rockin’ Robin, a local guitar store he would frequent as a kid, and a salesperson turned him on to an all-original 1954 Martin D-28. The clerk did a great job (although it’s not hard with such a stellar model), and Fry now owns that same ’54 Martin. The 1960 Gibson ES-330 came soon after, and Fry acquired his 1964 SG Junior in a trade with a sous chef who worked at one of his restaurants.

But more than just purchasing guitars, Fry got back into playing them. In 2008, he founded an annual Atlanta fundraiser called Attack of the Killer Tomato, which is now in its 10th year. In addition to celebrating chefs and local farmers, the popular event features a music component, and Fry has been known to take the stage to play with a variety of fellow chef-musicians. Sometimes, he even brings in a ringer: In addition to several cooks, his former band Chef Zeppelin featured one of Fry’s musician friends, namely Sheryl Crow guitarist Peter Stroud. “He was part of the Chef Zeppelin thing, which only played one time,” Fry says. “But a bunch of us will get together and do shows dedicated to different bands. So one time it will be Zeppelin, the next time it will be the Rolling Stones, and the next time it’ll be someone else.”

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As much as Fry relishes the chance to play with other musicians, he also values the opportunity to cook for them. “I’ll use food as my way to meet bands,” he admits. “I got to know people like Eric Johnson just by saying, ‘Hey, I’m a big fan. Let me come backstage and cook for you and all your guys.’ And they’re usually like, ‘Really? You mean no Papa John’s tonight?’ Recently I did that for [Christian rock band] Needtobreathe. And what happens is I end up doing some cooking, and then we get to talking. They’ll start asking me about food because, usually, these guys are all really interested in that stuff . And I start asking them about music. And before you know it, we’re having this amazing conversation.”

It’s always been about finding that sweet spot between food and music for Fry. And he’s constantly devising ways to straddle both worlds effectively. To that end, he’s currently in the midst of launching a trio of restaurants in Nashville, one of which will be a dedicated live-performance venue and dining destination.

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“We’re calling it Star Rover,” Fry says of the restaurant, scheduled to open in spring of 2019. “It’s kind of our version of a classic Nashville honky-tonk, but instead of the usual snack bar with frozen chicken tenders and burgers, we’re doing a cool taqueria menu with margaritas rather than PBRs. There’s a great stage and sound system, and the design is based on a vintage-looking recording studio, but with some nice little touches, like having amp grille cloth covering the acoustic panels on the walls. It’s a little more of a personal approach, and just a fun idea.”

For Fry, the concept of creating a restaurant also ties into music. “I feel like a producer,” he says. “It’s similar to how musicians produce their music and albums, only I’m producing restaurants.

“There are so many parallels between musicians and chefs,” he adds. “We’re very much the same breed. Most chefs I know, they’re not the type that could just sit down behind a desk and work. They’re creative, not academics. They’re typically kind of rebellious. And it’s usually the same for musicians. Chefs and musicians — we’re all black sheep, you know?”

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