NORTH SALEM, N.Y. – North Salem’s chef/author Antony Ballard says the most important thing about food is, “It’s got to taste good.” He adds, “It’s got to be hot and it’s got to look great.”
Ballard spoke to a large audience at North Salem’s Ruth Keeler Library on Thursday, describing his career, discussing his criteria and talking about his new book, “Food and Shelter.”
“I wrote this book so that my children would have something material to remember me by,” he explained. His own parents died while he was a teenager in Leicestershire, England, and Ballard found himself on his own, with next to nothing to remind him of home except a few memories.
A job in a five-star hotel provided him with shelter and sustenance and the opportunity to discover his interest in cooking. “It was very elite and very stuffy and I was actually learning about food in a country reputed to have the worst cuisine in the world, but it was a great foundation.”
Tired of the rain and damp, Ballard bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles with a friend and discovered, not elegant restaurants ready to employ him, but lots and lots of coffee shops. “It was some culture shock,” he said.
He drove a cab for a while and eventually headed for New York, where he arrived at the George Washington Bridge with $10 in his pocket. His first job was as a busboy in a mafia-owned establishment.
All the while, Ballard was cooking, usually calling on friends to act as guinea pigs. Answering an ad in The New York Times led him to a job as chef at New York’s exclusive Grolier Club. Ballard was 24 years old.
Thirteen years at the Grolier Club gave him a chance to hone and showcase his skills, and introductions to celebrities like Tom Wolfe, Ladybird Johnson, Stephen King and Malcolm Forbes.
One day he was approached by a member, who asked if he would prepare a private dinner at her home. Soon he found himself moonlighting as a private chef.
When a private job took him to Pound Ridge it opened a new chapter in his life. He fell in love with the terrain, the stone walls, the rolling hills, the fresh air, and all the details of country living. He and his family searched for two years before finding a house in North Salem, where they still live.
While working as the VIP Tent chef at an Old Salem Farm horse show, a woman offered him a full-time job as a private chef.
His new employer was very amused to find that Ballard had no idea who he was. It was the late author, Michael Crichton. Through Crichton he met and worked for many celebrities, including Keith Richards and Chevy Chase.
“Food and Shelter” is basically a memoir, but Ballard includes recipes where appropriate. For example, when he describes the traveling fish and chips lorry that used to roam his childhood neighborhood, he includes the instructions.
“Personally, I don’t really cook by recipe,” he said. “Food is organic and it’s seasonal and each time you may have to do it a little differently. Cooking is like painting. You go into a zone. For me, cooking with a recipe is like painting by number. But,” he added, “a recipe is a good generalized basis for what you want to do.”