Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.
It may be humble, but it was the meal that gave Gerald Ford a big dream. A Certified Master Chef® had come to the weekend cooking class his mom had signed him up for at the local community college, and to the teenage Ford, everything about that meal — from the deeply flavorful pan sauce to the words the chef used to describe it — was a revelation.
“I’d eaten all those things before. The chicken was always dry and overcooked. The way he made it — it was roasted so beautifully,” he remembers. “I remember the conversation with him, how poetic and passionate he was. He talked about the juice of the chicken being the tears of the guest[s] who don’t get to experience it.”
Years later, at age 37, Ford took the American Culinary Federation’s grueling, eight-day exam that claims a pass rate of around 10% on first attempt. He passed, joining just 72 other Master Chefs as the youngest member of their elite ranks.
As a chef who stands out for the sheer multitude and diversity of his accomplishments, Ford shares his most valuable advice for those looking to pursue culinary school, a career in the kitchen and maybe even that ambitious certification.
On going to culinary school
The Culinary Institute of America grad returned to the hallowed institution after his Associate’s degree to finish his Bachelor’s and work as a student teacher. From the library to the dining halls, Ford says there’s no substitute for being immersed in food with top instructors teaching fundamental technique.
“I was around people who wanted to learn to be great cooks. There wasn’t a food answer you couldn’t get,” he remembers. “It’s like Hogwarts for food.” Thanks to a McIlhenny Company scholarship, Ford was able to spend a semester doing a stage in France, which gave him invaluable practical experience.
Go to culinary school with an open mind, Ford advises, and be ready to learn: “The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.” That’s where having a working knowledge of a kitchen is an advantage, he notes. “I knew what mirepoix was, I knew what a small dice was. I could look at a higher-level learning.”
On career paths
Currently serving as Executive Chef at The Ford Plantation, Ford has stepped into almost any back-of-house role you can think of, from his teenage days as a golf course dishwasher and grill cook to a brief stint as a pastry chef and even a year at a casino. Working in all these kitchens helped him refine not just his culinary skills, but also crucial management and leadership abilities.
“I started working at the best possible places where I could get my foot in the door,” says Ford, who scored an early job at the Ritz-Carlton after impressing a visiting sous chef. Always do your best and try your hardest, because you never know who you might be working for.
On kitchen staples
Ford advises chefs in high-volume operations to standardize as much as possible, a lesson he learned running a banquet business serving up millions of dollars worth of dining sales a year at the Everglades Club in Florida. A streamlined pantry also helps sous chefs make the decisions they need in a hurry.
That’s where TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce comes in. A versatile “adjuster” that can be used to balance both heat and flavor, Ford uses it for sauces in particular (his go-to hollandaise calls for a dash of Original Red, not cayenne pepper powder). “It has amazing flavor. It’s a very consistent product that I can really truly depend on,” says Ford, who also likes to use the chipotle flavor in the restaurant and at home. “It’s present in all my kitchens.”
On taking advice
“Criticism isn’t an attack; it’s a way to help you grow,” says Ford. Learning to take a critique and move on is a valuable lesson — and it doesn’t always come naturally. He counsels aspiring chefs to find good mentors, learn from them and listen to their advice — even when it involves leaving one’s comfort zone.
On the Master Chef Certification and culinary competition
Ford is no stranger to the world of chef competitions: In 2015, he tried out for the Bocuse d’Or, using the feedback he received from luminaries Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud into prepare for the Master Chef exam. Next up is the IKA/Culinary Olympics, where he will lead the American team during the competition in Stuttgart in February 2020. Ford is busy splitting his time between his full-time job and preparing the team, from perfecting their menu to sourcing the best American products. While his Master Chef Certification represented a huge milestone, accolades are just another step in the grand scheme of one’s career, in Ford’s eyes. “Learn to love the process,” he advises.
Whatever goals you have in the kitchen, Ford says, the most important thing to remember is that nothing is achieved without work. “The bigger the dream, the more work and grit you develop. You can do and be and have whatever you want if you’re willing to work for it.”