Chef Jeremy Ford Cooks for Cadillac's Road to Table Series

September 11, 2018

Like most fans of Top Chef, I watched Season 13 winner Jeremy Ford cook on television long before I ate his food. Episode after episode, the Florida-born, California-trained chef wowed judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons with his artfully composed plates and charmed them with his laid- back attitude (in Ford’s world, everyone is his “bro”).

The show’s judges were especially taken with the four-course, cook- anything-you-want meal in the finale that secured Ford victory over Amar Santana, an Orange County chef and Charlie Palmer protégé. I remember watching Simmons coo at the Mediterranean sea bass that Ford—who proved to have a particular prowess for fish cookery—roasted and served under a bright green, herb lime sauce with fresh tomatoes. And I wanted to have it.

Lucky for me, the most popular dish at Matador Room at the Miami Beach EDITION, where Ford is executive chef, is reminiscent of his winning bass entree. And it was on the menu for a four-course, anything-goes dinner that Ford cooked at Matador Room last fall as part of Cadillac’s cross-country Road to Table series. Ford says his crispy-skin Florida red snapper with a chile-lime-garlic sauce is not only a guest favorite—it’s his, too. “I probably eat that dish three times a week,” Ford says. “It has everything I enjoy when it comes to a composed fish dish: crunch, spice, and—my favorite—lime zest.”

Ford’s cooking at the Road to Table event in Miami—the series also traveled last year to restaurants in New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles—made me a believer in this 31-year-old disciple of celebrated French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. (Matador Room is a Vongerichten restaurant, and Ford edged out 30 competitors for the executive chef job when the space opened in 2015.) Ford’s food stands out not because of an abundance of salt or butter—although his dishes all are perfectly seasoned and sauced—but for his skillful balance of contrasting elements. Every plate he puts out has something soft and something crunchy, something hot and something cold, something sweet and something spicy, something fatty and something acidic.

Ford also likes to dabble in the unexpected. His first course at the Road to Table dinner paired wild Florida shrimp in a fiery “agua diablo” sauce with pieces of banana. Banana! The sweet kiss of the soft fruit cooled down the spicy sauce, and cracked almonds threw a textural curveball to the meaty pink shrimp. It worked, and it turned skeptics into smilers. A tablemate commented that the combination of shrimp and banana was something he’d “never order in a million years,” yet he found himself devouring every bite. That was music to Ford’s ears.

“As a chef, it’s always a huge compliment to hear that someone went outside of their comfort zone and enjoyed the adventure,” he says, adding that his Top Chef experience helped encourage him to push the envelope in terms of diners’ expectations. “There is definitely something to be said about cooking ‘safe’ dishes. But there truly is nothing better than seeing the look on someone’s face who was completely surprised by a combination. There are so many unique textures and flavors that can be on a plate to complement one another.”

Ford says he picked four of his favorite dishes to serve at four dinners over the course of two nights at Matador Room for the Road to Table series. This was Cadillac’s fourth year hosting the events at restaurants across the country. Last summer’s dinners began in New York at Mario Batali’s La Sirena. It featured a guest appearance by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose lifestyle brand, goop, is a co-sponsor. For his Miami meals, Ford says he wanted to showcase as many local ingredients as possible. Besides Florida snapper and shrimp, he also roasted local mushrooms, plating them in a salad with an earthy pine nut mustard, a tangle of chicory, and a fresh tarragon dressing.

“Being chosen as the fourth destination [on the 2016 Road to Table tour] was an honor,” says Ford. “I wanted to highlight some of South Florida’s most prized ingredients. Our Key West pink shrimp are some of the only shrimp you can get fresh, not frozen, in the Southeast.”

Ford, who was born in Jacksonville, relies on local purveyors like Swank Farms, located about 80 miles north of Miami in Loxahatchee, and Triar Seafood, based near Fort Lauderdale. “I am definitely one of those loyal chefs who only buy certain things from certain farmers,” Ford says. “When Swank Farms’ tomatoes are in season, I only buy those for our restaurant. They are absolutely delicious—sweet morsels from heaven. Triar Seafood and I have been working together for nearly a decade. They stay true to the old-school style of fishery, line-caught only, and the result is a beautiful product that surpasses everybody else with its quality.”

Before tasting Ford’s food, Miami Road to Table guests arrived at the chic W South Beach, where the aromas of lemon verbena and beach air send an immediate dose of euphoria through your veins. Cadillac representatives in khaki pants, light-blue Oxford shirts, and navy-blue blazers greeted us with mocktails and light bites to start the evening. (Alcoholic beverages were waiting once we finished taking the all-new 2017 XT5 crossovers for a test spin.) After sips of cucumber- and thyme-infused lemonade and bites of caviar-topped tater tots, we made our way to a fleet of XT5s idling in front of the hotel under a dusky Florida sunset.

The Cadillac reps let us take our pick from among the vehicles—a glistening silver one called out to me—and, after a very brief interview (“You’ve driven a car before, I assume?” my tutorial began. “Then you should be good.”), we were on our way. The sturdy, midsize SUV hardly had any miles on it and emanated that unmistakable new-car smell. I fantasized about cranking classic rock on the stereo, revving the engine, and letting it roar down Interstate 95. In reality, I tuned the satellite radio to NPR, eased into drive, and got into formation with the rest of the 10-car convoy. We never topped 15 mph as we cruised along a few miles of South Beach, following a black Escalade on a route that snaked past the Miami Beach Golf Course, paralleled Lincoln Road, and continued onto the touristy main drag, A1A.

Glasses of chilly chardonnay and a jammy Grenache were waiting upon our arrival at EDITION, and the wine continued to flow generously throughout the night. The bracing acidity of the chardonnay proved to be the best match for Ford’s shrimp, salad, and snapper dishes, accentuating their bright flavors without overpowering anything. A server wisely suggested trying the Grenache with Ford’s finale: a deconstructed strawberry sundae featuring the berry in 12 different variations, including a sweet jam, dehydrated slivers (every Ford plate has a crunchy bite on it), and several sorbets. The wine’s red- berry notes played well with the dessert, coaxing out all of the strawberry flavors of each element in the dish. Even the difference in temperatures—the 60-degree wine and the icy sorbet—fit into Ford’s repertoire of complementary contrasts.

Ford and other chefs who cooked for the Road to Table experiences say they want to give diners a taste of their personal cooking styles. In Dallas, the Road to Table stop prior to Miami, chef Matt McCallister, a James Beard Award semifinalist and 2014 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, emailed guests recipes of the dishes they ate at his restaurant FT33: escarole salad, roast chicken, beet tartare, and chai-poached cherries. He says the idea was to inspire and empower amateur cooks to experiment at home.

“The recipes I provided are geared for home cooks,” McCallister says. “They either have components removed, or they are simplified versions of what we would normally do, or both. Most of the food we make at FT33 is pretty technical. The recipes I gave out are a good baseline and relate to what I would cook at home.”

In true chef fashion, McCallister had to improvise on at least one of the courses he cooked for the Dallas Road to Table crowd. He roasted Chioggia beets and diced them into fine cubes to resemble beef tartare. To finish the dish, “I made it up that day based on what I had in our pantry,” he says. He reached for brined coriander seeds, lime juice, and tons of fresh herbs: chives, parsley, and mint. “The coriander berries are very floral and herbaceous, so they balanced well with the herbs and citrus.”

In Miami, Ford’s guests went home with more immediate gratification: bacon-covered doughnuts from The Salty Donut in Miami’s trendy Wynwood neighborhood. While I certainly didn’t leave dinner feeling hungry, there was no way that doughnut was making it back to my home untouched. My Uber driver declined my polite offer of a bite, leaving me to that sweet orb glazed with porter from local craft brewery J. Wakefield and topped with pieces of smoky bacon. It’s Salty Donut’s best-seller, and for good reason: The salty- sweet combination of sugar, salt, and fat is undeniably addictive—and delicious.

A doughnut with bacon seemed like an appropriate end to a meal that began with shrimp and banana. For Ford, cooking is all about the unexpected, about finding novel ways to surprise people with food. In the year since his Top Chef victory, Ford says he’s been fortunate to explore new cities, seeking out new techniques, ingredients, and flavors, and bringing them back to the Matador Room.

“Life has dramatically changed, that’s for sure,” he says before departing for a cooking event. “I am getting opportunities to travel the world and experience a completely different side of cooking. It’s an absolute dream come true.”