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The All-American Chef : Bradley Ogden: Sophisticated food from a country boy.

July 18, 1991|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

Bradley Ogden was born in the country; he was in his mid-20s before he went to New York City for the first time. And although he's been seducing some of the world's most sophisticated eaters for almost 20 years, he took his first trip abroad just four years ago.

That is, in large part, what sets him apart from other famous American chefs. Most of them were city kids who had their first taste of fabulous food in France or Italy. The American food movement was fueled by people such as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, who came home from Europe and tried to reproduce what they had eaten over there. In the process, they learned the importance of the land, for they discovered that you can't cook good food with bad products. They began to demand better fruit, better fish, better chickens.

But Ogden started out in the place where other chefs ended up. Born into a large family in the small town of Traverse City, Mich., he says that the best meal he ever had was cooked by his father. "We were hunting in the Upper Peninsula. We set up the tent, put out the salt licks and sat down to wait for deer. It was snowing hard, and all we had was onions and potatoes, but my Dad cooked up home fries in a big skillet. They were fantastic. Dad always did consider himself a gourmet chef."

Ogden's family didn't farm, but at 17 he left home to find out what living off the land was like. "I ended up in a place with 440 acres--we even made our own maple syrup," Ogden says. "We grew organic vegetables, had cherry and apple trees and kept chickens for their eggs."

At 18, inspired by the cooking legacy of his father, Ogden enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York. After a year of learning the basics, Ogden left the institute--he decided he needed more experience. He got it--in spades. By the time he went back four years later he had a wife, a baby, another on the way and the kind of hard-knock training that a chef can get only from a succession of low-status kitchen jobs. During this second phase of his studies, Ogden worked full-time to support his family.

"I think," he says, "that the classes meant more to me than to everybody else. I had to work so hard to pay for them."

Upon graduating from the institute, Ogden got a job with restaurateur Joe Baum, who took his newest hire on a whirlwind tour of 30 restaurants in New York City. It was Ogden's first trip to the city: "He really opened my eyes."

Ogden went on to become a protege of James Beard and, at 30, head chef at San Francisco's Campton Place Hotel. Stardom came so quickly that six years later, when he opened his own restaurant in Marin County, the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, there was instantly a three-week wait for reservations.

But Ogden doesn't act like your average chef/entrepreneur. Squeaky-clean and fresh-faced even at 37, he starts most days greeting his neighbors at the local farmers market. When he shows up for interviews to promote his new cookbook, he brings his 10-year-old son along. Other chefs tease him about his amazing ability to keep clean: "I can work the line for 12 hours," he says, "and come out spotless." And after a long day at the stove, the place you're most likely to find him at is the local high school, playing a midnight game of basketball with his employees.

Still, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Bradley Ogden as just a simple guy from the country who's made good. He's a complicated fellow: One minute he's the country boy from upstate Michigan telling you about the year he and his six brothers and sisters got nothing but comics for Christmas. The next minute he's regaling you with stories of spending two years as a vegetarian teaching Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism? In upstate Michigan?

He tells you, with a mixture of anger and pride, how his father got into an all-night card game on the way to the opening of the restaurant and never quite made it. ("I had a limo waiting for him at the airport," he says with a self-deprecating smile.) And underneath that smiling exterior is a driven man who has enormous plans for the future and says despairingly of his twin brother Bentley, "talking to him is so frustrating--he never does anything with his life." This is also the guy who never lets you forget that his class at the Culinary Institute voted him Most Likely to Succeed.

Other people might be content with the success of one restaurant and a just-released cookbook; not Bradley Ogden. He's already planning his second cookbook--and his second restaurant, slated to open in San Francisco in about a year. When he talks about that project, his face lights up. "We're going to have a huge temperature-controlled wood-burning oven," he says, "big enough to roast four suckling pigs at one time." Ogden plans to hang his own hams, make his own bread, his own sausages. "It's going to be amazing!" he concludes.

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