This Thursday, March 17, at 9 p.m., a new champion will be crowned on Bravo's Top Chef. Of the 17 contestants, only two remain in the cooking competition's 13th season: Amar Santana, owner of Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach, California, and Matador Room's Jeremy Ford.
This close call is reminiscent of Top Chef two seasons ago, when Nina Compton, then the chef de cuisine at Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau, faced Nick Elmi. In a nail-biter of a finale, Elmi won the coveted title of Top Chef, though Compton was the fan favorite.
Ford, however, is going for the whole enchilada. "Honestly, fan favorite is cool, but winning and being able to spend all that time and money with my family would be amazing." What would Ford do with the money? "If I were to win, I don't even know yet."
Of course, Top Chef comes with much more than a prize purse. Past participants such as Jeff McInnis, Bryan Voltaggio, and Stephanie Izard have gone on to open their own successful restaurants and have become celebrities in their own right. Though a chef's ambition and talent is still a key factor in career trajectory, an appearance on the TV show can open many doors.
Ford is well aware of the impact that Top Chef can have, which is why he chose to wait until he was more seasoned to try out for the show. "For me, Top Chef is the most elite level in the cooking-competition world. I had tossed around the idea a few different times about doing a competition, but the rest of the shows kinda fell short for me. I love Bravo, and I thought this was a perfect fit, but if you asked me five years ago, I wouldn't have done it. This year, I woke up and I was ready. It's now or never. What better time than at the peak of my career?"
Once chosen as a "cheftestant," Ford sought the blessing of his employer and mentor, iconic chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "He has been so supportive and amazing. I can't begin to say how great he's been."
This season, the show was filmed throughout the state of California, a departure from the usual single city where the chefs are based for all but the final episodes. Ford says the constant travel proved to be his favorite part of filming. "On the production side, it was probably more stressful, but I enjoyed it. We were on the road a lot, and the best part was that if you survived another challenge, you were able to go to another place. I lived in Los Angeles for years, and I never got to go to Santa Barbara before this."
Ford also had the opportunity to cook for some high-profile chefs, such as Jonathan Waxman and Emeril Lagasse, but the moment that stands out is when he was tasked to create a tribute dish to close out Hubert Keller's restaurant Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. "I felt like I was having dinner with a French legend."
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The show has also forged some real friendships among contestants, who basically live with one another while sequestered from the real world during filming. Ford says he especially bonded with fellow chef Kwame Onwuachi. "Kwame and I were roommates, and we spent a lot of time talking. It's like being at summer camp with your best friend. I also think the competitors this year were really mature, professional chefs."
On Thursday's finale, Ford, assisted by Angelina Bastidas, will cook for the title. Bastidas, former chef of Coral Gables' Piripi, was eliminated from competition midseason. Ford wants to give his fellow Miamian a second chance to show her potential. "When I was picking my helpers for the finale, there were a lot of great chefs to choose. I felt Angelina didn't have a chance to show her true talents. I also wanted to do this with someone from Miami."
No matter the outcome of the final showdown, Ford has represented Miami well in the competition. "I feel like I did a pretty good job. There are so many food destinations, and I really want to bring attention to Miami. I feel like right now we're at the pinnacle of a rising city, and I'm so glad I was able to bring a little more to the pot."
Cheer Jeremy Ford on at the Top Chef finale, which airs Thursday, March 17, at 9 p.m. on Bravo.