Fork to Fender chef-owner Eric Ireland graciously agreed to play guinea pig in the first installment of our new 10 Questions feature, in which we pose (you guessed it) 10 questions to a different chef, restaurateur or Lawrence dining personality each month.
Here, in an email exchange with the Journal-World, the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef (also of the successful Torched Goodness crème brûlée truck) dishes on everything from his first job in the restaurant business to his favorite Saturday night haunt.
You've been open at Fork to Fender, 1447 W. 23rd St., a little over three months now. How's business so far? Business at F2F increases a little each week. We opened during winter and the holiday season knowing it would be slow starting. It's giving us a good chance to iron out the kinks before season starts. We anticipate a busy spring and summer with the local food trucks being part of what goes on here. Customers are interested in our special events, and we have several regulars that come in every week for a meal or just a craft beer.
Do you have a best seller at this point? We have two best sellers. Our Torched Goodness crème brulee brings a lot of people in the door. It's a great spot to enjoy dessert with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. On our restaurant menu, The Christine is the most popular. It's a meatball sandwich, all made from scratch — both the meatballs and the marinara — on a roll that is baked fresh daily.
Who were your early culinary influences? My early culinary influences were chefs at the Le Cordon Bleu (Scottsdale, Ariz.) where I formally trained. They were experts in their craft and enjoyed sharing their knowledge with eager students like me! Once I graduated, the first chef I worked under was Lee Hilson, who is now the executive chef at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz. Chef Hilson was a perfectionist and taught me to be a true professional in the kitchen.
What was your first culinary job like? My first culinary job was at T. Cooks at The Royal Palms in Phoenix. The first two months was a probation period before I was ever offered a job. I was given a "market basket" of ingredients and an hour to make a four-course meal. I was a nervous wreck, but luckily my food stood the test! T. Cooks had a AAA Diamond Rating, and everything that came out of the kitchen was made from scratch. It was here that I learned to work clean (and) honed my knife and cooking skills in a creative environment. The menu changed on a regular basis so every day was different. If the food and presentation wasn't absolutely perfect, it did not leave the kitchen. The standards were set so high that there was no room for mediocrity.
Where do you like to grab a bite when you're not at your own restaurant? I have so many favorite places to grab a bite. When in Kansas City, I enjoy the Blue Koi — their soups and dumplings are fresh and delicious. Here in Lawrence our "go-to" spot is Zen Zero — my wife is vegetarian so this offers us both lots of options. Of course, I love our local food trucks — Drasko's twist on Kansas City barbecue is creative and fun. Wilma's has a killer meatloaf slider, and Fine Thyme Foods crepes are some of the best I've ever had. I also enjoy Merchants and love that they support local farmers and producers.
Any hobbies (or talents) outside the kitchen that we might be surprised by? I karaoke every Saturday night at Set 'Em Up Jacks. I love to sing and may even take a run at "The Voice" this year. Of course, I'm also a huge sports fan and am proud that our Royals, Chiefs and Jayhawks are forces to be reckoned with!
You co-own Torched Goodness and Fork to Fender with your wife, Julia. What's the best part of working with your spouse every day? The best part of working with my spouse every day is that after 19 years together and six years in business we know our roles and can count on each other 100 percent to do our very best for our business and our family. I am hands-on at Fork To Fender, while Julia runs the food truck, farmers markets and all the behind-the-scenes stuff like accounting, social media and scheduling. She loves to cater weddings and has many already lined up for this year. It's going to be a great season!
You started Torched Goodness in Phoenix, where it was highly successful, before moving to Lawrence in 2014. Is there anything you miss from the Phoenix culinary scene that you wish you could have brought with you to Lawrence?
What I miss from the Phoenix culinary scene is the community of food trucks that we had there. We were the first food truck in Phoenix in May 2010, and by the time we moved (to Lawrence), there were over 80. It was amazing to know all those people — great chefs and entrepreneurs — that grew the street food scene and really put it on the map. We were family — everyone supported each other and played well together. On a smaller scale, we are excited to be part of the growing food truck scene here in Lawrence. We're also members of Elite Street Eats in Kansas City, Mo., and enjoy the camaraderie of the food truck family we have there.
Are there any food trends out there that you wish would just go away?
No. The shift in trends is all positive in my opinion: the desire to know where your food comes from — to source local and organic when possible. To eat healthier, fresher and with minimal processing. The need to feed our kids real food at school instead of frozen pizza and chicken nuggets. It's all steps in the right direction to help Americans to be healthier. At Fork To Fender, if I don't make it from scratch, then I source it from another small local business that does. Our brats and dogs come from Kroeger's Country Meats, our breads from M & M Bakery, and even our coffee is locally roasted here in town by Lawrence Fresh Coffee Roastery. My menu is street food with a healthier twist. No fryers here!
Describe your ideal last meal (as in, last meal on Earth). A pork belly dish from my friend Brian Webb, who owns the Hey Joe food truck in Phoenix, along with dauphinoise potatoes and pan-seared brussels sprouts. For dessert, my wife's cappuccino crème brûlée — perfectly torched before my eyes!
Sometimes, life throws some pretty tough decisions at you. Especially where food is concerned.
The solution to all my sadly unfulfilled cravings for barbecue and creme brulee at the same time is almost here, you guys.
Lawrence’s new food truck collaboration, Fork to Fender, is slated to open “early next week” at 1447 W. 23rd St., co-owner Julia Ireland has confirmed.
Ireland — who also owns the Torched Goodness creme brulee truck and cart with her husband, Eric — has four local vendors along for the ride with her: Drasko’s, The Purple Carrot, Wilma’s Real Good Food and Fine Thyme Food. Together, they’re forming what Ireland calls a “community food hub” at the spot formerly occupied by Granddaddy’s BBQ in southwest Lawrence.
Here’s how it’ll work, at least initially: Fork to Fender’s restaurant will serve a menu of mostly Torched Goodness (which, in addition to its creme brulee, will also branch out into savory offerings) with a handful of items from The Purple Carrot. Because the other vendors can’t commit to kitchen duty every day, there might be one night a week — Wilma’s on Saturdays, for instance — when a different truck owner will take over the Fork to Fender kitchen with their menu.
In addition, certain days of the week will see different trucks parked outside the restaurant. When the weather cools down, business will move inside.
If you’re wondering what this schedule might look like, Ireland didn’t give out specific dates but says it’ll all be “pretty widely publicized ahead of time” on Fork to Fender’s Facebook page.
Despite its brick-and-mortar location, Fork to Fender’s restaurant will remain “true to street food” while offering “something for every dietary choice or restriction,” Ireland says.
“It’s an eclectic menu,” she says. “Everything will be made in-house, from scratch. We really tried to cover everything.”
Right now, that includes comfort-food classics like chili, meatloaf, potpies and pasta dishes, plus more “unusual” creations like chipotle artichoke dip, spinach balls (think meatballs minus the meat) and something called “cheeseburger pie.”
The Irelands have also recently secured an alcohol permit, which means plenty of Free State Brewing Co. on tap, plus other craft beers, wines and a few specialty drinks. And, in the winter, Mexican hot chocolate — no alcohol in that one.
The storefront will also sell favorites from the farmers market year-round, including selections from Lecompton-based Kroeger’s Country Meats, Lawrence’s Fresh Coffee Roastery and Mr. Bacon BBQ.
“It’s been a learning curve,” Ireland says of her “community food hub,” but she’s been encouraged by the folks who have stopped in during renovations.
There’s nothing like Fork to Fender along the bustling restaurant hotspot along 23rd Street, they tell her.
There’s nothing like it in all of Lawrence, really. At least for now.
Fork to Fender hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, though Ireland says that’s subject to change. We’ll keep an eye out to see when the place officially opens — hopefully soon, because now I’ve got a serious hankering for cheeseburger pie.