Some things should just stay in the 90s. Gel pens, bleached-out frosted tips and "Mambo No. 5."
Ford Fry, seafood savant and the James Beard Award-nominated chef behind a rapidly expanding Atlanta restaurant empire (which includes King + Duke and Superica), would like to add one more item to that list.
"Coming up as a cook in the 90s, I made a lot of crab cakes," Fry says with a chuckle. "Everyone had crab cakes on their menus, and most of them were pretty bad. I hate all the bread crumbs and those dang bell peppers diced up in there."
So why then are we forcing upon this formidable cook and legitimately very nice man an apron, heaps of lump crab meat and a skillet the moment he steps into our Test Kitchen?
The crabcakes are shaped in ring molds | Crab cake ingredients | Chef Ford Fry
Are we mean-spirited trolls? We like to think not. So what's the deal? We thought about what Fry said, and we agree—we can't think of a crab cake we actually crave either. And we believe that Fry, a seasoned hotel chef-turned-acclaimed restaurateur, can change that.
So on this fine spring day in New York City, Fry does just that.
Gone are the bread crumbs, Old Bay, Worcestershire and those "dang" bell peppers. Instead, for his cheffed-up version of crab cakes (see the recipe), Fry draws inspiration from a place he hasn't seen in a long, long time—his hometown of Houston.
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As he's readying to open State of Grace, a nostalgia-inspired restaurant in Houston later this summer and his first venture outside of Atlanta, Fry has been taking lots of trips back to his old hood and surveying the changed landscape, in particular the surge in new Vietnamese restaurants.
"Back when I was a kid, there was one restaurant we went to, and I always got the spring rolls wrapped in lettuce," Fry reminisces. "I love those flavors, all those herbs."
So he takes a cue from fresh, herb-powered Vietnamese cuisine, massaging lemongrass, lemon zest and shallots into freshly picked-over lump crab meat. Fry sprinkles a teensy bit of panko, mayo and a dollop of gluey magic in the form of whipped butter to fuse the aromatic, generously meaty puck into one piece.
"There are so many bad crab cakes out there with so much bread to keep them together," Fry explains. "That's where the whipped butter comes into play."
Airy, fluffed-up butter solidifies the cakes after a quick chill in the fridge, keeping all the crabby bits together without all the bread—a real brunch miracle.
Splashed into an oiled pan and snuggled next to a cilantro-laced leafy salad, they're exactly the rich, indulgent brunch dish we've longed for in a crab cake all these years. And they sure make us glad that Fry gave them a second chance.
Now, chef, what are your thoughts about that 80s hit, Chinese chicken salad?
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