January 6, 2016 • FOOD
DJ Dines: The Optimist in Atlanta
“The Optimist for me has always been about super-high quality fish and shellfish in a classic, casual setting,” says chef/owner Ford Fry, who owns nine restaurants in Atlanta and one in Houston, where he grew up. “I have great memories of waterfront vacation dining and it was always enjoyable and laid back. Lobster rolls from a shack in Maine, wood-roasted oysters in the Low Country, and fresh gumbo in New Orleans. . .” It’s dishes like these that Fry re-imagines at his beach-and-surf-inspired space, complete with a two-hole putt putt course.
Reese—along with critics from Esquire, Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, and more—lists The Optimist as one of her favorites. Once you’ve tasted dishes like fresh fish and corn milk hushpuppies (Reese’s favorite), She Crab Soup, and Shrimp a la Plancha (see the recipe here), you’ll see why.
Read on for Ford’s responses to our rapid-fire Q&A.
When did you first realize you wanted to be in the restaurant business?
I realized it very young, but not by way of the kitchen! I always loved eating out, so thought I would start off as a bus boy.
Boy, was I the worst bus boy! I would hang out at the dish drop and eat food as it came back! Whoops!
I was confused about the industry and where to go within it: I just knew I loved food, and my parents suggested culinary school. It was off to Vermont for school, and that was all she wrote.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
Well, I would want to play tennis or take Eddie’s place in Van Halen, but that’s not likely. So, who knows!? Honestly, I couldn’t imagine straying from food.
What are your three favorite ingredients to work with in the kitchen?
Butter because I can freeze it and bring it into a burger mix; I can brown it and serve it with anything; or I can keep it cold and spread it on a crusty baguette with a slab of foie gras terrine or serrano ham.
Porcini mushrooms—they are so good roasted and even raw sliced thin.
Oysters—I can eat them as is, blend them into a sauce or soup, or best of all, fry them!
What does Southern food and cooking mean to you?
For me, Southern food and cooking is rooted in ‘little means,’ which results in cooking with a lot of attention and purpose.
What’s the best part about the culinary scene in Atlanta?
It is so fresh! There has been a major shift in restaurants migrating to neighborhoods instead of main corridors. This is where chefs and owners are given the opportunity to shine.
What will we find you doing when you have a rare afternoon of “me” time?
Most likely blowing up my basement playing guitar and pretending I’m Eddie!
Three favorite Atlanta spots we should visit on our next trip?
Click here to see Ford’s recipe for Shrimp a la Plancha (served at The Optimist with “sopping” toast).