Chef Chat: Brian Ferguson, 98 South

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Brian Ferguson runs the most organized, least serious army platoon in town. It's also the tastiest.

Those are his words, by the way, "army platoon." He describes his team as "a very tight, cohesive unit. You don't have to have a lot of explanation or talking; the guys know exactly what to do.

"Heads down and focused," he says.

Of course, his platoon of four young men wear chef's whites instead of camouflage, and they  run drills in the kitchen of 98 South in downtown Chandler instead of in the Middle East.

But they're just as disciplined -- if you ad in a healthy dose of dirty jokes and, oh, umm...cooking. The group of culinary school graduates create the French/American cuisine at this downtown Chandler hot spot, under the tutelage of Chef Ferguson, a Navy vet from Louisiana (he pronounces it, Loo-si-anna), who has a sly smile, perfect manners and a touch of Southern charm.

When he was still young enough to need to "fib a little" on his application, Ferguson got a job in a restaurant and, when he was barely old enough to enlist, he joined the Navy and spent four years seeing the world, including the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm. During his last two years in the Navy, though, when he was on shore duty in Virginia, Ferguson changed his path quite drastically.

He enrolled in Johnson & Wales University and trained to become a chef. He went to classes for seven hours a day, then "got a couple of winks" before going to work at Navy headquarters from midnight until 7 a.m. After graduation, Ferguson took his Southern manners and sailor attitude and turned to face an even bigger challenge: an apprenticeship with a French chef.

He bought a one-way plane ticket, he says. "I had a box of knives and a bag of clothes."

What he got was a year-long culinary boot-camp in Lyon, France, with a Michelin-starred chef, Pierre Orsi, and a crash-course in French culinary technique.

The chefs' apprentices lived above the restaurant in a house built in 1792 and slept in barrack-like quarters.

"It was very much militaristic; he didn't want us to go out drinking and stuff at night after the restaurant closed, so he would lock the door at 11 o'clock," Ferguson says. Yes, he was locked out once.

"He was very, very tough -- but French chefs are very, very good," he says.

But Ferguson's own restaurant seems ever so less ... terrifying. He likes to take his guys for a beer after a long shift and even takes them on various field trips -- to the farmers' market, to the meat-packing plant, to the produce facility.

It's Ferguson's down-home roots you can taste at 98 South, which has only been open since April, when new owners re-opened the old restaurant under the same name (with a new chef). With jazz playing in the background most nights in the big, airy room with sexy red walls and local artwork, 98 South feels like the South.

Check back tomorrow to try on one of Ferguson's sweet summer meals yourself: Seared sea scallops with Sweet Corn and Vanilla Bean Sauce.

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