A week after his Top Chef victory, Jeremy Ford can still hardly believe it, but the executive chef at Matador Room inside the Miami Beach Edition hotel is finally getting used to revealing he is the winner of the hit Bravo cooking competition. "It's a bit surreal, but it's sinking in. I've been holding it in for quite some time."
Miami chefs have done well on the show — including the Sarsaparilla Club's Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth and former Scarpetta chef Nina Compton — but the 30-year-old Ford finally brought the top honors. Though he competed well throughout the season, when it came down to him and Amar Santana in the finals, it still wasn't a sure thing. "You can clearly tell from my expression that it was a complete surprise," Ford says.
"I mean, Amar is a beast. I've never seen someone walk so slow and get so much done. Every move is meticulously thought out. If you asked me if I had it in the bag, I would say, 'No way.' He's got two restaurants and he's 32 years old. It was a challenge to beat him."
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Though Matador Room owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten served as Ford's sous-chef in the final meal service, another member of the Vongerichten family also contributed to Ford's success without even being there. The judges were wowed by the chef's cheese plate, which featured a modernist cheese platter with a ricotta-and-mozzarella cylinder. Ford gives credit to Cedric Vongerichten, who works at the family's Perry Street restaurant in New York. "That's a really awesome technique I learned from Cedric. We played with that technique for a while."
Another memorable moment for Ford was having his family on hand to share the win. "I come from a family that's so supportive. There was a crazy idea that I was going to be a rock star, and they supported it. I wanted to show them that the last 15 years of my life wasn't a complete waste. They would have been proud of me no matter what, but winning is a different ball game. My father wanted me to be in the family business, so showing him I have the skills out there meant a lot."
One person who wasn't in Las Vegas was Ford's 9-year-old daughter, Madelynn, but the first thing he did was call her. "I didn't get to celebrate with her. It's kind of a bummer, but she went crazy on the phone." For her part, Madelynn had faith in her dad the entire time. "All season long, she said, 'I know you won the money.' I kept saying, 'Baby, you have to watch.'" For her devotion, Madelynn will get a special thank-you. "We're going on a Disney cruise with slides."
Ford, who's back in the Matador Room kitchen, has a bit of advice for young Miami chefs who want to try out for the next season of Top Chef. "Believe in yourself and what you do. The moment you stop and try to be something you're not is the moment you're going to be kicked off. You're not cooking to win over the judges. You're cooking because you're you."