Top Chef Winner Jeremy Ford: From Heavy Metal to Haute Cuisine

The Jean-Georges protégé has ventured out on his own, opening his first restaurant, Stubborn Seed, in Miami.

Jeremy Ford is stoked. But he’s also tired—and maybe a little frustrated. The charming bro- turned-Top Chef-winner has just opened his first restaurant, and he’s going through the usual growing pains, with added hiccups and his own stubborn streak that’s right in the restaurant’s name.

“It’s a lot, man. It has definitely been tough,” Ford told Robb Report. “I’m here every day from 9 in the morning to 12 or 1 at night. It’s more work than I ever thought before.”

The restaurant, Stubborn Seed, is a showcase of the high-level technique and spicy, clean, and seasonal flavors he’s honed by working his way into great kitchens despite a career path that saw him spend more time as a metalhead than as a culinary school student. As he gets the restaurant on its feet, the chef who had to grind to get here is blunt about where he plans to go.

“There’s one restaurant that really defines the chef. After that, there are more calmed-down versions of that concept,” Ford says. “This is the one where we’re definitely pushing hard, man. This is going to be something special.”

foie gras

Smoked foie gras.  Photo: courtesy Grove Bay Hospitality

Ford grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., first finding his way into a kitchen at 15 when he worked in a four-star restaurant. He gave culinary school a shot, but what he was doing at the restaurant was much more exciting to him. After about four weeks, he dropped out and for a time gave up on cooking to play in heavy-metal bands in Los Angeles. Soon, he realized the kitchen, not the stage, was a better creative outlet for him. He started knocking on the back doors of restaurants and working for free just to get more experience.

Without a formal food education, he learned through doing and through the guidance of a couple of key mentors: chefs Dean Max and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

“More than anyone, Dean shared with me a passion for quality and great purveyors,” Ford says. “Chefs can buy carrots from anywhere. But if there’s a certain place that has better ones in July that anyone else, you only learn that through guys like Dean.”

Ford combined that attention to product with the global style of cooking Vongerichten has excelled at, where disparate influences from Asia and Europe exist harmoniously on a plate. “He just balances flavors so well, from salt to acid to the way he seasons things. It’s different but so simple,” Ford says. “Chefs overthink food a lot, and we do all this weird shit sometimes. JG’s recipes are by no means easy, but there’s a simplicity to them. There’s a tomato gazpacho that you’ve had a million times, but his ratio of vinegar to tomatoes is perfect—not too sour, not too bland, just on point.”

As a chef de cuisine at Matador Room— Vongerichten’s Miami restaurant that offers his take on Latin flavors—Ford also gained some valuable experience that would benefit him in the realm of Top Chef, where pressure-packed challenges require contestants to create quickly. “When I first cooked for [ Vongerichten], I did a recipe that I had about 24 hours to get it and then execute it,” Ford says. “It’s not enough time to make it 50 times and be an expert, but it’s enough to examine and go through the steps.”

As one of his season’s younger contestants, Ford established himself as an early favorite in his Top Chef run. He hit some stumbling blocks along the way, like when his Taco Dudes fast-casual concept sounded more like a Hooters than a Chipotle to the judges. Eventually, Ford righted himself, claiming victory with Vongerichten assisting him in the finale.

The win meant he wouldn’t be working with Vongerichten much longer though. The notoriety he gained helped pave his way to opening his own restaurant. “I worked with JG for 3 years, and I would have stayed another 10. But when the opportunity comes along, you’ve got to take a swing.”

Partnering with Grove Bay Hospitality in Miami, Ford announced plans to open two restaurants, with the first being Stubborn Seed. It’s named for his relentless approach, originating from the prompting of a business partner who told him, “Stubborn seeds grow into grapes that make great wine.”

He wasn’t exactly enthralled with the name at first. “I was kind of like, ‘We’re not opening a wine bar,’” Ford says. “Then I kind of slept on it, and I was like, well, we’re pretty stubborn in what we do and what we care about. So the name started making more sense—being stubborn in what we believe in, the products we use, and the ingredients.”

Stubbornness shot through the philosophy of the place, betraying a willingness to buck dining trends if they didn’t conform to his vision—all the way down to ditching the buzziest word in the business.

“I’m not into the word ‘local’ anymore because for us, it’s lying. If you’re really doing it, by all means, I think you should buy local,” Ford says. “But there are so many great vegetables and proteins throughout the U.S. that we source from, so we use whatever is in season.” He wants to use local products and influences when he can, but he won’t be beholden to it or deceive his customers for the sake of a marketing ploy.

Ford was confronted with that choice right at the opening of the restaurant when Hurricane Irma disrupted fish supplies in South Florida and he had to look elsewhere to get what he needed. “We kind of just stuck to our guns, and we called fish from Hawaii; we called fish in the Northeast,” Ford says. “We never really sold anything or tried anything that was bad quality.”

celery root

Celery Root at Stubborn Seed.  Photo: courtesy Grove Bay Hospitality

With his philosophy on food in place, Stubborn Seed’s menu started taking shape. The restaurant offers à la carte options, but at its core is a tasting menu inspired by travels around the world while working for Vongerichten. Ford puts his showmanship and use of modernist technique on display with dishes like his celery-root puree on the opening menu.

“It’s a vegetable-forward dish, but we’re not a vegetable-forward restaurant by any means,” Ford says. “We braise celery root in lemon, olive oil, and herbs. And then there are these crunchy maitakes, and we do an airy mustard froth. It’s crunchy, creamy, and spicy. It’s just a really well-rounded dish.”

Now the kitchen just needs to execute these technique-driven dishes well, day in and day out. Ford won’t accept anything less of them.

“Right now, we’re trying to find the right guys who are able to do this with us,” Ford says. “We’re seeing improvement day by day and getting rid of the people who aren’t improving.”

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