It’s rare to find someone who knows, at a very young age, what his or her life’s ambition, aspiration or career will be. Yet as uncommon as they may be, we’ve likely all heard success stories about the little boy who knew from childhood that he wanted to become an NFL quarterback and did, or the young girl who dreamed of being a Navy fighter pilot and is. That kind of laser focus, drive and determination are rare indeed. To think that every decision in one’s life from a tender age would lead to accomplishing a single life goal is truly exceptional. But that’s exactly the focus that led The Ford Plantation Executive Chef Jerry Ford to become one of only 70 American Culinary Federation Certified Master Chefs.
According to the ESPN website, there are currently 83 NFL quarterbacks—32 of which are the best-of-the-best for the starting line-up any given week. According to the American Culinary Federation (ACF) website, there are only 70 Certified Master Chefs. To put that in perspective, in 2017, the year Chef Ford reached the pinnacle of his industry’s achievement, only four other chefs passed the grueling eight-day test administered by the ACF panel of judges. That same year there were 10 NFL quarterbacks drafted—none of which were starters.
To achieve ACF Certified Master Chef status is a rare accomplishment indeed—something that only the world’s best savor. In Chef Ford’s case, the achievement represents the culmination of 24 years of professional cooking, learning, and culinary experimentation. But his love of food preparation started long before his cooking vocation. Growing up in Michigan, (remember Jerry is a Ford after all), he started cooking for fun at age 10. A few years later, Jerry launched his professional culinary career working in a kitchen—at the bottom of the food chain where all careers start by learning and mastering the basics. But even at a young age, his goal was clear—Certified Master Chef.
Before he became “Chef Ford,” Jerry spent years cooking, discovering, training, being mentored, and honing his craft. His early cooking memories include weekends at his uncle’s home that started by planning the menu on Friday night, shopping at various grocery stores and markets for just the right ingredients on Saturday, and then making everything from scratch for a wonderful meal. Making wontons, for instance, meant first making the dough and then the filling with authentic ingredients; making kielbasa meant sourcing the spices, grinding the meat and stuffing the natural casings. The flavor-rich creations were based on using the freshest ingredients, and masterfully blending them together with techniques and spices to enhance and draw out the natural flavors that only occurs when food is well-crafted by a chef who masterfully blends culinary art with the science of food preparation. Jerry’s parents recognized the passion and talent he had for cooking and encouraged him to participate in weekend continuing education opportunities at a local community college. In fact, that is exactly where his culinary awakening became his life’s ambition.
Jerry explains, “There was a new chef from the area every weekend. 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 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 and beautiful 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.”
While ingredients may be the same, Jerry soon discovered that “it was totally mind-opening to see that even though food can be a million and one different things,” the most common dishes can be crafted to be extraordinary.
“That was pretty much the moment that I decided that I wanted to become a Certified Master Chef. And basically after that, every decision I made took me down that path,” Chef Ford added. In addition to being singularly focused on becoming a master chef by putting in the hours, making tough life decisions, experimenting, making mistakes, learning from mentors and being willing to give back and mentor others along the way, Chef Ford also added, “the universe has totally helped me out along the way.”
Now with the universe on his side, Chef Ford continued to hone his craft until he was prepared for the most intense and grueling challenge of his profession—the eight-day test that determines who has the chops to be deemed Certified Master Chef by the American Culinary Federation. The administration of the test itself could easily be the topic of another article but it should suffice to say that each day presents a different challenge. Even after the pressure of preparing and plating the food and waiting for the judges to respond has passed, the chef’s work continues well into the night preparing for the next day’s challenge. In addition to the rigor of the daily challenge, the intensity level is raised to a rolling boil by a handful of proctors wafting through the kitchen observing how the candidate handles and prepares food, the mastery of knife-work, the cleanliness of the workspace, the efficiency of the process, and more. Simply making incredible cuisine is not enough in its own right—mastery of the process is as important as the product.
Having achieved his life’s ambition and earned his rightful place among the culinary elite at such a young age (currently the youngest Certified Master Chef) Chef Ford has a new goal—competing in the Olympics. Just as the best-of-the-best athletic teams compete on a field in the Super Bowl and on a court for the Davis Cup, top culinary teams compete—not for bowls or cups, but for gold medals—at the “Culinary Olympics.”
The International Exhibition of Culinary Art (in German: Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung or IKA), commonly called the Culinary Olympics, is a quadrennial chef competition—the largest and most prestigious in the world. In 2020, the Culinary Olympics will be held in Stuttgart, Germany. As one might imagine, the competition is every bit as intense as the Olympic name implies. Team members must try-out and earn the right to compete on a team that represents their nation.
Training for the Culinary Olympics takes years of individual effort. Working together as a dynamic team presents a wholly different challenge that requires a willingness to put the needs of the team first as is the case with any Olympic team endeavor. Among the sacrifices team members make is a demanding travel schedule that requires monthly trips to practice and fuse together as a cohesive team in preparation for their Olympic appearance.
The 2020 Team USA consists of seven chefs and one alternate—including past Olympic medalists among their countless other medals, titles, honors, awards, and accolades. The American contingent, led by team captain Master Chef Jerry Ford, will be one of 48 international teams competing for top honors in Germany.
Despite the fact that the existence of the Culinary Olympics may be unknown to many people, even the most ardent foodie, the international event dates back more than a century. A group of German chefs first conceived of the competition in 1896 as a way to promote Germain cuisine to the world while also discovering other delicacies, cooking styles, and techniques from other cultures. The first competition, then known as the International Culinary Art Competition, was held in 1900 between four nations.
The United States began competing in 1956 and in 1960, only the second world competition, Team USA won its first championship. Within a generation’s time, the US National Team chalked-up an impressive three-peat winning the championship in 1980, 1984 and 1988.
Most recently, Team USA brought home three gold medals in 2016—one for hot-food, one for cold-food and another for culinary art. Overall, the 2016 American national team finished fourth among the 30 nations (fielding 50 teams) behind Singapore, Finland, and Switzerland which finished first, second and third respectively. The youth and military teams representing the United States also medaled in 2016. Youth Team USA finished seventh in the world with two silver medals. The United States Army Culinary Arts Team, including local Army Specialist, Symone Harden from Ft. Stewart, Georgia, won four gold and two bronze medals.
The current Team USA has been training together under the leadership of Chef Ford since October 2017. The Culinary World Cup/EXPOGAST held in Luxembourg last November was the first real-world opportunity the American chefs had to compete together as a team leading up to the 2020 Culinary Olympics.
No matter where team USA finishes in the 2020 Culinary Olympics, the true winner is anyone who takes advantage of dining at The Ford Plantation. With only 70 Certified Master Chefs in the country, each has the prestige, talent, and reputation to practice the craft wherever he or she chooses. The fact that Chef Ford has agreed to join the team at The Ford Plantation creates a delightful and rare opportunity. Interestingly, what attracted Jerry to The Ford Plantation is similar to what attracts everyone—the people, the climate, and the natural beauty of the property. Of course in Jerry’s case, as a distant cousin of Henry Ford, there was one another attraction—the prestige of the name.
As a child, Jerry visited the small cemetery outside of Dearborn, MI, where Henry and Clara Ford are buried. Jerry attended Henry Ford Community College before entering the Culinary Institute of America. Even his work email address, ChefFord@FordPlantation.com bears the proud family surname.
And now Chef Ford has another mission—to make fine dining at The Ford Plantation the best experience in the area. “I want to be the member’s first choice [for dining] period—hands down,” Jerry added. “I want members to be torn to leave the property. I want them to know that the best meal in Savannah is in their backyard.”
Chef Ford joins an already world-class food and beverage team under the direction of James Scott—who does some fairly amazing things we’ll be writing about in future issues. But for those who have yet to meet Chef Ford, we hope this whets your appetite to do just that—share your Ford Plantation Story with him now that you know a bit about his. Ford is literally in his blood. Perhaps it was kismet or the universe throwing its weight around again but in a sense, Jerry has come home to The Ford Plantation.