This is an interview with my good friend, Katie Bell, the General Manager for Ford’s Filling Station in Los Angeles. An “accidental” restauranter with a passion for food, Katie talks about the ins and outs of managing a restaurant, her favorite food and drinks and the makings of her book as a raised vegetarian and her journey in understanding our country’s relationship with eating and preparing meat.
1. Tell us about what you do as a newly appointed General Manager?
Ford’s is a small restaurant and the owners have really given me an amazing opportunity – I get to touch every single part of the restaurant. I am in charge of the daily operations of the front of house including hiring, (occasionally firing) and training staff, scheduling, and staff education.
Staff education is huge in a restaurant like ours where the menu (both culinary and bar) changes daily. I am constantly working with the staff on new wines, new beers, new spirits and our daily specials.
We really want our staff to not just know what’s in a special, or where a gin is from – but the story behind it as well – knowing what’s in season, who the farmers are, where the botanicals for the gin are grown and why the distiller starting making gin… all those little stories are so important, so it takes a lot of research and time to help them be educated and in love with our offerings.
I also run the bar program so I do all inventory and ordering for our wine, beer, and spirits and a lot of research (read: drinking) to keep us working with the best local breweries and wineries. I also plan and execute all in house events.
The not-as-much-fun part of my job deals with lots of numbers and paperwork and working closely with the restaurants accountants and lawyers. It’s not as much fun as talking with guests about what has just became their new favorite beer, but it is very important and the area where I have learned the most about really running a restaurant, staying within California’s (very strict) labor laws, and making money without compromising the brand or your loyalty to staff.
2. Where did you get your start in food?
I grew up in a very international little house in Southeast Iowa. My family is from New Zealand and my mum’s side is from Germany and I was blessed to be constantly traveling throughout my childhood.
I think my parents really taught my brother and I to use food as a way to appreciate and remember a place.
Germany to me will always be hot breakfast rolls and pommes frites with spicy ketchup. New Zealand is avocados the size of softballs, fejoas off the tree, vegemite toast, and chips drenched in vinegar. Beyond that, I’m not sure… all I know is for my brother (a chef, with French Laundry) and I to have a conversation where food doesn’t come up at least once, is a very rare thing.
3. Did you see yourself falling into this career/position?
No, not at all. I always knew I loved food and the hospitality industry but I had this strange idea that I needed a “real” career first. So I worked in events (I was managing a restaurant on the side) and then advertising for Apple. It was awesome but not me at all and when I started writing my book I decided to go back to being a server and focus on the book and it immediately felt right, and managing was a quick and natural progression.
5. What do you love about the restaurant industry?
I love taking care of people.
I have a unique experience because not only am I in the industry but so is my brother and boyfriend – so we get taken care of really well by virtue of having lots of friends in the industry. I say that because every time I walk into a restaurant and champagne glasses are on the table before I’ve taken off my coat, and when menus disappear, or special dishes appear – I am inspired – like up all night, rambling and squealing and scrawling notes inspired. That is what I love about this industry and why I will never tire of it, I love the ability to give people an experience where the rest of the restaurant and world disappears and they are fully immersed in just enjoying and being taken care of.
I don’t think that this take double or triple digit meals to achieve, the most recent experience I came home raving about was at a tiny little dive bar in San Francisco called Dirty Thieves with amazing bartenders. One of the reasons that I want to own a restaurant, and aspire to obscene levels of hospitality, is to guarantee my friends, and most importantly my parents, a corner of the universe where they will always be completely taken care of and where they will just eat and drink and enjoy and laugh.
Another thing (there are many) I love about this industry is the people I get to work with. I adore the people and culture of restaurants, I have worked with such amazing and diverse people and especially getting into beer this past year, I have met some of the most fascinating and passionate people. Farmers, ranchers, butchers, truffle guys, winemakers, mushroom foragers, brewers, coffee roasters, servers, bartenders, chefs, cooks – I feel so lucky to share time with these people every day.
6. You have a book in the works, can you tell us a little bit about it?
The book is about my decision process to start eating meat after 23 years. It’s a collection of interviews with chefs, food writers and restaurateurs about their views on vegetarianism and meat – what meat they eat, where they source their meat, and how they view vegetarians, all tied together with my story.
I really began the project out of the frustration of eating at amazing restaurants and having the same salads and pastas and veg plates so often, and I spend a lot of time around chefs who seem to unanimously chant “BACON!!” whenever I sit down to eat.
I thought the book, and decision process, would be very straightforward but it’s really been anything but. One of my early interviews was with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal Restaurant here in LA, who are known for their love of all things meat, and I was expecting to walk into a gospel lesson from the church of fat and flesh but instead we had this amazing conversation about the politics of raising and procuring good meat and they commented on the sanctity of what I had as a 23 year vegetarian and the emphasis they put on the vegetables they serve.
Conversely, I spoke with Dan Barber after dining at his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley, where I was amazed at the attention and innovation they paid to my many vegetarian courses. I expected Dan to be an advocate for a vegetarian diet, however Dan’s philosophy was the opposite – that a diet, to be sustainable and ethical, must be operate as a part of the ecosystem…
…and to be a vegetarian in the dead of winter in New Hampshire is neither sustainable or even possible if acting within that ecosystem.
7. What makes your restaurant special?
Stories are what make our restaurant special and I feel so strongly about that that my staff is probably collectively rolling their eyes reading this.
Our menu is comprised entirely of craft purveyors, mainly local and organic and always seasonal. Our wine and beer list is 100% domestic and mainly West Coast. Our staff knows stories about every farmer and brewer (and they’ve met lots of them), they know the funny story about how a cheese got it’s quirky name or they see the farmer bring in whole pigs before they’re butchered.
These stories help the staff sell our products, but more than that – these stories show transparency. A staff that knows the names of the winemakers and has waited on them, has met the farmers who grow our salad greens, and who have drank beers with local brewers who’s beers we pour – they know a lot about how our product is made, and also how it’s not made.
Our restaurant is special because we are all passionate – and at times definitely nerdy – about food, beer, wine, and spirits, and we love to pass that onto our guests and make them fall in love with farmers, ranchers, cheese makers, brewers, distillers, and winemakers.
I think by aggressively supporting the farmers that are changing the American food system and by educating our guests about why it is so important to support them, and how much better that support tastes – that I am making a difference in my own way. That’s what I like to think anyways.
8. Finally, what is your favorite beer? Wine? And dish?
How about this – my favorite beer, wine, and dish for early December in Southern California:
Beer – The Bruery’s Gunga Galunga. It’s a black ale brewed with kaffir lime leaves and thai ginger, it’s ink black in colour but light in your mouth and just ridiculously delicious for the cold nights by the beach.
Wine – Judd’s Hill Burke’s Barbecue Old Vine Zinfandel. This is what I’m bringing home for Christmas. Judd’s Hill is an amazing winery in Napa who we’ve become close friends with and this was a special edition wine they did for their wine club in honor of their director of hospitality, Pat Burke, who also happens to be a national award winning barbeque master. It’s an amazing, big, gorgeous food wine. Side note – apparently one of Pat’s winning BBQ tricks is that he uses old wine barrels to build his fire.
Dish – It’s been cold here and I ride my bike so I’ve been needing warm-to-the-core food lately. My latest obsession is a chickpea stew with greens, cous cous, spiced yogurt & harissa. It’s hot (temperature) and hot (spicy) and warms you up perfectly.
Thank you for your insight and sharing, Katie!
FORD’S FILLING STATION
9531 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232-2618