It’s a single scallop. But it’s the best damn scallop I’ve ever had.
On one end of the porch at The Ford Plantation Clubhouse, Chef Ken Arnone is at the helm of his station, gently placing scallops into a sizzling pan. A line has formed because the wind has proven to be a challenge to the gas burner, slowing the process. Arnone is clearly not pleased with Mother Nature at that moment, but he’s used to overcoming challenges.
In fact, no one is more prepared for culinary challenges than the six American Culinary Federation (ACF) Certified Master Chefs gathered at the “Dine Around” event this evening—a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience for members expertly produced over the course of several months by The Ford Plantation’s top-notch triumvirate: General Manager Marc Ray, Director of Food and Beverage James Scott, and, of course, the club’s in-house Master Chef Jerry Ford.
The title of Certified Master Chef is the highest level of certification a chef can achieve. There are only 72 Master Chefs in the world, and six of them are here tonight. While all friends —“Everyone here is somebody I’ve either worked with or for at some point in my career,” says Ford—rarely do they get together, and it’s even rarer that they get the opportunity to cook together. But tonight, each chef has his respective station throughout the Clubhouse, offering a tasting of a first course and an entrée of their own delectable design.
The idea of a Dine Around is different from a plated dinner. Dine Around guests visit each of a number of stations, mingle with other guests, talk to the chefs, and sample the world’s finest flavors.
Nearly 100 members have anticipated this unique event for months. Upon their arrival, they were warmly welcomed by attendants in traditional antebellum attire, offered a glass of the South’s time-honored artillery punch, and tempted with passed hors d’oeuvres that include candied bacon lardons and smoked salmon canapés—a mere tease of what’s to come. The chefs’ stations boast flora and fauna designs that correspond thematically with each unique dish being served. A harpist plays in the corner of the bar, and the sweet smell of pralines wafts in from the porch where a large copper pot boils.
Throughout the evening, guests will wander inside and out, connecting with friends, taking in the breathtaking views of the golf course from the back porch and delighting in the vintage Ford cars playfully placed by the entrance. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of evening. Some will make it a point to visit every station, others may linger near a favorite. Guests can perch on barstools, stroll the Clubhouse or find a seat amongst friends at the tables spread throughout.
With Chef Ford in the kitchen, the tight-knit community is well-versed in gastronomy and good times—there are numerous creatively curated celebrations throughout the year—but the “Dine Around” is an opportunity to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and see these chefs in action, creating what Marc Ray refers to as “very high touch” fare—hand-designed dishes with multiple components.
Which takes me back to the scallop.
I instinctively move forward when Chef Arnone plates the scallop, seared to perfection. “One more thing,” he says with a heavy Staten Island accent, sensing my urgency. One more thing turns into about a half-dozen more things as Arnone hunches over the plate, swiftly and expertly putting the final touches—a dash of anise here, a hazelnut there (placed with tweezers, nonetheless)—on what will amount to be a single, heavenly bite and make every scallop from there just a sad reminder of what I’ll likely never experience again.
Throughout the evening, I find myself repeating the phrase “This is the best (insert pheasant breast, ahi tuna, tamale…) I’ve ever had.” Which is precisely the point. Chef Ford explains that he didn’t give the other chefs many guidelines. “I just wanted to keep it interesting,” he says, “which is also why I chose venison over, say, beef.” To be clear, Ford didn’t simply serve venison; he plated charcoal-grilled venison strap with celery root pavé, collard greens, Carolina rice grits, and garlic-molasses jus. Because anything less would be, well, less. And Master Chefs only do more.
Not surprisingly, when you put six Master Chefs together, everyone brings their A game. Upon receiving a compliment on Chef Jason Hall’s first course—a stunning combination of broccoli, butternut squash, brown butter, Marcona almonds, and red ribbon arugula—he smiled and said, “I didn’t come here to mess around.”
Competition is in the Master Chefs’ blood. Their bios read like those of professional athletes: “holds more than 25 ACF and international competition medals,” “numerous World Cup titles in culinary artistry,” “captain of the 2020 ACF Culinary Olympic team”—and this is just a sampling. That said, Ford insists that “with everybody being at the same level, there’s no ego.” The ribbing that does happen between the chefs is playful and stems from a long history together.
Ford refers to Swiss-born Chef Olivier Andreini as his “father, brother, and uncle.” Andreini was actually one of Ford’s instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and gave him some early tough love. “I went to a restaurant one night for dinner and the rice was not properly cooked,” Andreini recalls. He took his plate into the kitchen and asked for the chef. Pointing at the offending rice, he said to Ford, “Not cooked.” With a willingness to be mentored, Ford successfully completed his schooling then later returned to ask Andreini if he could help him prepare to compete. “He was coming to my house every weekend practicing,” says Andreini. The practice paid off when Ford earned his Master Chef certification in 2017—and a lifelong friend. “He’s like my eldest son,” Andreini says with a smile.
The dessert hour offers up a palate-pleasing array of traditional sweets such as carrot cake, banana pudding and panna cotta, and the chefs begin to emerge from their respective tables to socialize with the guests and congratulate one another with handshakes and amiable slaps on the back. A celebratory bottle of wine emerges and the stories begin to flow along with it. It’s clear that the party will continue into the night, as all the chefs are staying in The Main House. Together.
They arrived the day before and tomorrow they will go their separate ways—Texas, Atlanta, New York, North Carolina—returning to the various locations their lucrative careers have taken them. They will be inspired and refreshed, in spite of the breakneck pace they worked to pull off an extraordinary event such as this.
Like myself, those in attendance will depart equally inspired and refreshed by the palpable comradery amongst The Ford Plantation membership, the chefs’ unmatched creativity and ability to execute previously unimaginable dishes, and the sense that we were part of something very special that evening. The only downside: once you are fed by a Master Chef, nothing else compares. Luckily for the members of The Ford Plantation, with Master Chef Ford in residence, everything else compares