Chef Benjamin Ford is a Los Angeles native who grew up with a famous actor for a father (Harrison Ford) and who has cooked with some of California's most celebrated chefs such as Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli and Nancy Silverton before opening Chadwick (since closed) in Beverly Hills. He founded Ford's Filling Station in Culver City, Los Angeles in 2006; a hearty, community-oriented gastropub that now has a branch at Los Angeles International Airport, with another set to open in downtown LA by the end of 2014.
He's a huge fan of big flavours, nose-to-tail cookery, whole pig dinners, skillet-fried chicken, five-alarm chillies, blueberry pie, carpentry, hard work and getting your hands dirty. We spoke to him about his most famous creation: cauliflower couscous, aka cauliflower rice.
Q: We're all nuts about cauliflower rice in Australia. My research into the subject led me back to 1998, when you created your cauliflower couscous by whizzing cauliflower florets in a food processor. Can you tell us briefly how that happened?
A: I debuted cauliflower couscous on our opening menu at my restaurant Chadwick in 1998. Chef Govind Armstrong and I were working on a lamb dish. Like all great ideas it just happened spontaneously. We both like to play with the perceptions of each dish and give it a little twist. This was our way of blowing people's minds but still keeping the dish real.
Q: You call it cauliflower couscous, but the paleo darlings seem to call it cauliflower rice – same thing?
A: I have never heard of cauliflower rice.
Q: Why do you think people love cauliflower couscous/rice so much? (Apart from the fact that it's paleo-friendly, low-carb, vegan and gluten-free. And apart from the fact that it's so light and fluffy and AMAZING!)
A: In contrast to the modernists (chefs who use advanced technology and chemistry to create new dishes), we kept it real. And it tastes like cauliflower, although our first version incorporated truffle butter to finish it. And it looks like couscous, and even feels like couscous as well, if cooked properly.
Q: I have been experimenting with different cooking techniques, and find the best flavour comes when there is no water involved, ie. gently cooking the cauliflower in a fry pan with a little oil. Some recipes call for blanching the cauliflower quickly in boiling salted water, but it can get mushy. Have you tried different cooking methods yourself, and which do you think is the most successful?
A: I tried many different approaches before we perfected it. We now sauté it in a pan with a little oil or butter, cover it and allow it to steam until tender.
Q: Apparently the idea really took off after famous New York chef Eric Ripert came across it and asked you if he could reproduce it on one of his television shows, Avec Eric. How did that happen?
A: Word just spread. Chadwick was a very respected restaurant and we were definitely on the radar.
Q: Do you find that the blitzed raw cauliflower has a very particular, gassy smell? I stored some in the refrigerator overnight, and got the shock of my life when I opened the fridge door the next morning.
A: As a chef, I am immune to those things. But I understand. Cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower are all kind of in the same boat. They eat good though!
Q: Your new book, Taming The Feast, is a field guide to adventurous outdoor cooking, grilling and smoking. It includes step-by-step instructions, drawings and timelines for constructing your own outdoor ovens, smoking sheds and backyard roasting boxes. I love it! Do you have plans for another one, and if so, with what focus?
A: Thanks! I am currently working on two other concepts for books. Can't say though.
Q: Is there anything else you have come up with that has the same break-through ability as cauliflower rice?
A: Grilled avocado is a new thing I am introducing. It's awesome! It brings out all the qualities you would imagine are inside an avocado, and the grilling really makes it nutty.
Ben Ford's cauliflower couscous
Reproduced from Taming The Feast, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 whole small cauliflower
2 sweet red peppers, roasted and diced
2 Jalapeño peppers, roasted and diced
1 tablespoon mint, finely sliced
1 tablespoon basil, finely sliced
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Shave the cauliflower florets with a knife. The smaller the better since it will help us avoid having to overwork the cauliflower in the processor. Process the cauliflower until it is a consistent size that resembles couscous, the grain.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the spices and gently heat until the mustard seeds pop. Add the onion and garlic and let them soften. Add the cauliflower and diced peppers to the onion. Cover and allow to steam until tender - 5 minutes or so. Finish with mint, basil, parsley, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Taming The Feast by Ben Ford is available from bookworld.com.au