Culinary Olympian


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Chef Jerry Ford secured his place among America’s culinary elite by achieving Master Chef certification. Now he’s taking his talents to the Lowcountry club that bears his family name, and he’s setting his sights on Olympic Gold.

It’s like the Food Network television show Chopped meets the Stanley Cup finals. That’s how Chef Jerry Ford, executive chef at The Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, characterizes the Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam.

Administered over an eight-day period, the timed exam measures eight competencies with the singular goal of achieving CMC status, the highest certification a chef can hold with the American Culinary Federation (ACF). In fact, there are only 72 Certified Master Chefs in the country, and Chef Ford is currently the youngest.

During the CMC exam, daily challenges require precision from CMC candidates and strict adherence to planning. For example, if a chef estimates a total of 24 grams of salt will be needed for the preparation of six platings of the day’s five-course meal, then only 24 grams of salt is provided, and not a pinch more. Heaven forbid someone drops an egg.

Throughout each challenge, proctors monitor every aspect of the food preparation. From meal-planning to knife-work to plating and the flavor of the final dishes, becoming a Certified Master Chef requires mastery of the process as much as the product.

In the Beginning, there was Food

Chef Ford’s love affair with food began at a young age, cooking at first just for fun. He recalls spending weekends at his uncle’s house that started with menu planning on Friday night. They’d shop for ingredients on Saturday morning at local markets, and then he’d prepare a large meal for his family.

Chef Ford’s parents recognized his talent and encouraged him to participate in continuing education classes offered on weekends at the local community college. “There was a new chef from the area every weekend,” Chef Ford explains. “One weekend, in particular, Certified Master Chef Ed Janos came in as part of the class. We made green beans and mashed potatoes, and we brined and roasted a chicken. Then [we] made a pan gravy. It was a simple meal that I've eaten so many times in my life. But, the chicken was moist and beautiful and crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The pan gravy wasn't lumpy; it was strained properly and was just delicious. The mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy, loaded with butter and cream, not beaten with skim milk. And it was just a life-altering experience.”

“That was pretty much the moment that I decided that I wanted to become a Certified Master Chef, Ford continues. “And basically, after that, every decision I made took me down that path.”

Twenty-four years and one Certified Master Chef achievement later, Chef Ford has a new dream: the Culinary Olympics.

 

Going for Olympic Gold

The International Exhibition of Culinary Art, commonly called the Culinary Olympics, is the largest and most prestigious culinary competition in the world. In 2020, the Culinary Olympics will be held in Stuttgart, Germany, and as one might imagine, the competition is every bit as intense as the Olympic name implies. As with Ryder Cup teams in professional golf, members of Culinary Olympic teams must earn the right to represent their nation.

Only the most talented of America’s chefs are selected for ACF Culinary Team USA, and preparation for the competition takes months. Team members practice individually and as a group, learning to work together as a team. The result is a demanding training schedule that requires monthly travel for team practice, especially for Chef Ford, who will serve as the team captain for the 2020 team. In fact, the flexible schedule is one of the things that attracted Chef Ford to his new gig as Executive Chef at The Ford Plantation.

 

The House that Ford Built

“Most restaurants, even high-end ones, don’t have the margins or the manpower to accommodate the executive chef being gone for several days every month,” Chef Ford explains. “But, at The Ford Plantation, they totally support my participation [in the Culinary Olympics]. It’s a huge part of why I took the job. That, and the club’s prestigious reputation.”

This, of course, begs the obvious question: is there any family connection between Chef Jerry Ford and the Henry Ford, who once made The Ford Plantation his winter home?

“Distant cousins,” says Chef Ford. “In fact, when I was a kid growing up in Michigan, I visited the small cemetery outside of Dearborn where Henry and Clara Ford are buried.” He also attended Henry Ford Community College before entering the Culinary Institute of America.

Olympic dreams notwithstanding, Chef Ford wants to make dining at The Ford Plantation the best experience in the area. “I want to be the members’ first choice. Period. Hands down,” says Chef Ford. “I want members to be torn about leaving the property. I want them to know that the best meal in Savannah is right in their own backyard.”

No matter where ACF Culinary Team USA finishes in the 2020 Culinary Olympics, it seems the real winners are diners at The Ford Plantation. 

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