Jeremy Ford is back in the kitchen, and this time, it's not a game.
In September, the Florida-born winner of Bravo's 13th season of Top Chef opened his 65-seat Stubborn Seed (101 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 786-322-5211; stubbornseed.com) on prime real estate in South Beach. The tasting menu shows the bald, bearded cook isn't content with reality-TV glory.
In the offing are torched beets with bay-leaf berries and a cured-olive cracker. Crackling quail — the love child of puffed pork rind and game bird — is paired with green eggs, smoked grapes, and a luscious soubise. For dessert, pastry chef Dallas Wynne, poached from Michael Beltran's Ariete, has revealed dishes such as corn pudding with late summer berries, bay-leaf meringue, and buttered-popcorn ice cream.
Given the high expectations that come with the exposure Ford has received, such dishes won't last long. But if Ford can maintain a leading chef's pace of creating, deleting, and creating again, he just might accomplish a rare feat for Top Chef competitors in Miami: staying in business.
Ford, 30, began cooking at the age of 15 at the now-shuttered Jacksonville seafood joint Lighthouse Grille. "It was peel-and-eat shrimp all day," he laughs. As for so many cooks, school was akin to prison. A year later, he landed a job as a garde manger doing grunt work at a fine-dining place called Matthew's. It soon became clear he'd be spending more time in kitchens.
"I would pretty much haul ass from school and get to work probably within a five-minute window and just start grinding," he recalls. It was a tough job, but Ford considers himself lucky to have landed the position despite having relatively no training. "There were guys that would come in with more experience than me, and I knew I had to outwork them," he says. "I had to show learning techniques, improving was a passion."
Not long after, he decamped to the West Coast, where he snagged a job with Los Angeles' Ludo Lefebvre. The heavily tattooed French chef is today one of that city's beacons, who turned pop-ups into a burgeoning empire by using grand, Old-World French ingredients and preparations in more contemporary compositions. Yet the dream was short-lived, and at the age of 22, Ford returned to Jacksonville to help care for his ailing mother.
To cover the basics, he took a job working construction. The move turned out to be a disaster, but one that also gave him more confidence in his choice to become a cook. "I was helping my dad for six months and said to myself, This is fucking miserable," Ford recalls. "Working in restaurants, it's hard, the hours are daunting, but it's something I found myself missing."
It wasn't long before he was trawling through papers and online job ads, hungry to get behind a stove again. One chef's name kept popping up: Dean Max. "He was doing exactly what I wanted: a lot of farm-to-table concepts driven by badass products," Ford says. The South Florida-based chef was exporting his locally minded cuisine around the country, and Ford scored a sous-chef position at the now-shuttered 3030 Ocean before helping Max open projects in Ohio and Texas.
In 2014, Ford made another impressive jump when he became chef de cuisine at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Matador Room inside the Miami Beach Edition. It was a heady time. Ford had dozens of staffers and cooks under him, the gravitas of a French superchef's name on his business card, and the opportunity to continue learning and cooking at the highest level. So why would he risk looking like a royal putz by going on national television to potentially be eviscerated?
"For me, it was the challenge," Ford explains. "I feel like in life if you're not putting yourself out there and giving it a swing, you're never going to know where you're at."
The risk paid off handsomely with $125,000, which he says is set aside for his kids' schooling. Yet it also afforded him the ability to travel the world and enjoy the fanfare of chefs and diners back home in Miami. How to parlay that good fortune into a future, however, proved to be another challenge.
"After something like this happens, you meet a lot of really weird people who throw incredible-sounding opportunities at you," Ford says.
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Ultimately, he decided to team up with Grove Bay Hospitality Group, which has been on a tear developing restaurants at Brickell City Centre and in Coconut Grove with Giorgio Rapicavoli. Initially, the plan was to open only a larger, more accommodating spot called Afishionado in the Grove, but when construction delays mounted, the team pivoted and at the same took over the space that formerly housed Tiramesu in Miami Beach's South of Fifth neighborhood. "We wanted to do something small where I could do more challenging dishes," Ford says.
And the challenge is palpable. Few Top Chef alumni have sustained successful Miami restaurants. The brash Howie Kleinberg's Bulldog Barbecue & Burger in North Miami Beach and Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth's Sarsaparilla Club in Miami Beach are two case studies in what to do right. Nina Compton, who took second place in the show's 11th season, decamped to New Orleans, where she and husband Larry Miller's Compère Lapin has delighted that city while also serving as a home away from home for expatriated Miamians.
Though Ford might have been able to translate his win into success in New York or San Francisco, there was a certain allure to staying the course.
"For me to leave would've been like ripping my heart out," Ford says. "I want to make Miami proud. I want to make great neighborhood places that people love and support."