The Idaho Potato Commission likely doesn’t get very many phone calls. But they were more than happy to field one almost a decade ago from Bart Ortiz, a self-taught cook on a sort of obsessive mission to make the best French fries.
Fries are the kind of free side most restaurateurs are more than happy to overlook, regarding them as a personal annoyance or minor perk for patrons. At fancier establishments, some proprietors are eager to up the cost for an order of potato sticks, pretentiously dubbing them pomme frites while offering little to justify the snobbery.
Bart Ortiz falls in the middle.
Sitting at a preview dinner for the Traveled Farmer — the restaurant reboot of Marshall Free House in the so-called Midtown district of Marty Kotis’ Greensboro empire — Ortiz casually prodded the people sitting closest to him on the fries. Not one to brag or build himself up, he almost accidentally let slip how much time he’s invested in thinking about fries, experimenting and perfecting the production process.
The fries weren’t meant to be the star of the meal, and they certainly weren’t. Fries aren’t supposed to be a star at all. But given how frequently restaurants serve them, Ortiz figures they damn well better be good. And over the last decade, he’s figured out how to make good on that mission.
Ortiz, the president of Kotis’ garishly named Kick Ass Concepts, holds considerable experience in the restaurant industry. His family moved to the area from Michigan after his dad bought Tex & Shirley’s in 1987, and he spent much of his childhood hanging around the joint. That’s where he started out as a teenage short-order cook, and later he found employment as a line cook at Lucky 32 and working at a bakery and catering company.
Ortiz’s path diverged from food only briefly — after graduating from college in Indiana, he wound up teaching music and band in Charlotte.
“The pull to be in restaurants was strong, though,” Ortiz said, sitting on a barstool at the Traveled Farmer recently before the restaurant opened its doors for the day.
He landed back at Lucky 32, this time as a manager of flavor and consistency for the restaurant’s then-three locations. Staff was invited to submit ideas for the restaurant’s rotating, seasonal menu, but being featured wasn’t just a matter of coming up with a good idea; it needed to work in terms of timing, consistency and cost.
Drawing inspiration from his grandmother’s cooking — his family is Mexican — Ortiz submitted his idea for a lamb enchilada. And it worked.
He felt underprepared, given his lack of formal culinary training, working in an environment with people who possessed far more experience. They didn’t hesitate to point out that gap, either.
That didn’t stop him. Then in his twenties, Ortiz would study “like crazy” at night, and he kept working his way up.
“I was reading cookbooks the way people read novels,” he said.
His perseverance and work ethic paid off, and he climbed up the Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels ladder until he was responsible for the company’s Print Works Bistro and Green Valley Grill in addition to Lucky 32.
He later switched into an operational role on the hotel side of the business, bought Tex & Shirley’s in the Friendly Center from his dad and began consulting. But before that, he spent “at least 40 hours” on French fries.
Explaining his rationale for the time expended, Ortiz talked about the historical efforts McDonald’s made into precise humidity, storage and preparation requirements for its early fries. Suffice to say that more thought went into it than the average consumer would imagine, especially considering how remarkably basic the food product is.
It’s been years since Ortiz dedicated his crazy studying hours to fries, and Idaho potatoes specifically, but he can still recount the process of cutting, soaking, brining, blanching, cooling and frying the potatoes. He treated it like a science, measuring starch and sugar content levels and aiming for targets that the Idaho Potato Commission gave him. He would weigh the potatoes after blanching, toying with temperature and time as he tried to reduce the weight by 33 percent.
He learned the visual signs of when a potato was ready for the next step, pondered questions like when to remove the skins and discovered tricks like allowing the fryer to recover after use.
Ortiz brought the technique he perfected almost 10 years ago with him when he joined Kotis’ operation, and to the Traveled Farmer specifically. The timing and temperature during preparation have been tweaked, but on the whole the fries stay true to Ortiz’s method. They’re fried in beef tallow, or fat — just like the old McDonald’s method, Ortiz pointed out, though he also drew a parallel to the popularity of duck fat fries.
The Traveled Farmer emphasizes the local sourcing on some of its ingredients, but Ortiz said they stop where it means a compromise in quality. Fries made from local potatoes wouldn’t be any good, he said, and that’s one reason why they use Burbank potatoes from Idaho when they’re in season, diverting to product from North Dakota when necessary.
Part of the aim of the new restaurant is to appeal to a broader clientele than its predecessor, including the kind of people who eat across Battleground Avenue at the Mac’s Speed Shop chain or Red Cinemas next door. The price point is down from Marshall Free House and a partial remodel makes the inside less stuffy.
But Ortiz and the rest of the crew still want to appeal to foodie types, who Ortiz hopes will understand that the concept of terroir for wine applies to ingredients like potatoes as well. Time of year affects the quality of the ingredient too, he said, admitting that the best time of year for these fries is likely early spring when the spuds are the right age.
Regardless of where the ingredients come from, it’s this principle of rigorous sourcing that Ortiz said carries over. There’s nothing on the menu that he’s spent as much time on as the fries, but Ortiz isn’t the chef here, either. Their team, including Chef Jay Pierce, took the extra steps to find conscious suppliers with high-quality products, from the catfish down to the potatoes, he said.
The French fries are not the most delicious or interesting thing on the menu — they’re competing with dishes such as a tasty low country shrimp bowl, a Korean rice bowl and a pork schnitzel — and Ortiz isn’t the most skilled cook at the operation. But the fries certainly have the best back story, and they’re remarkably good, too.
Visit the Traveled Farmer at 1211 Battleground Ave. (GSO) or at traveledfarmer.com.