Local chef looks to be Chef of the Year

Four chefs will be sharpening their skills and their knives in a competition in Providence, R.I., on April 12. At stake? The title of 2014 American Culinary Federation (ACF) Northeast Region Chef.

Gerald Ford, formerly of Greenwich, will be competing in the regional competition this weekend. He’s competing for the opportunity to advance to the national competition, where the winnings include $5,000 and the illustrious title of 2014 U.S.A. Chef of the Year.

The title is an honor that Mr. Ford, who has been cooking professionally for more than a decade, has been aspiring toward for many years. He recalls when he first heard about ACF, at the tender age of 12.

“I’ve wanted to be in the profession for quite some time. … There’s been some great chefs who have won the competition, a lot of people who I’ve aspired to be like. It’s kind of been something I’ve wanted to do for years,” said Mr. Ford.

The organization, which was established in 1929, is considered to be one of the gold standards for chefs in North America. With roughly 20,000 members spanning 200 chapters nationwide, ACF offers educational resources, training, apprenticeship, and programmatic accreditation. Previous recipients of the prestigious U.S.A. Chef of the Year award include many distinguished food professionals, and for the past five years, the Northeast regional winner has gone on to take home the title.

Superstitions aside, the competition is certainly no cakewalk. The four chefs must prepare four portions of a main course in a little over an hour. It’s a time trial, like the intense tests popularized by food shows such as Top Chef, that tests both the skills and the composure of the competitors. Going into the weekend, Mr. Ford is confident that he’s up to task and ready to handle the pressure.

“I’m preparing to leave as little to luck as possible. I’m working on any kinks, making sure that as little is left to chance as possible. Otherwise, I feel like I’m prepared to go,” Mr. Ford told the Post.

He says that his work as executive sous chef at Westchester Country Club (WCC) has readied him for the competition. He’s been manning the kitchen at the club since 2011, where he is also a coordinator for the ACF Accredited Apprenticeship Program. In this role, he’s able to share his love for cooking and knowledge with the next generation of chefs.

He describes the food program at WCC as “astronomical,” with an extensive focus on in-house production. This allows the team to concentrate on every aspect of production, which gives them the flexibility to make creative decisions in their cooking while still staying true to tradition. This style resonates with Mr. Ford’s personal approach to cooking and food. He calls himself an advocate of sound fundamental technique, above all else, with a nod toward modern style.

“I really love the idea of taking a classical coq au vin or something really traditional, and trying to modernize it with making it a bit lighter, but still staying true to that old flavor profile. I’m a big fan of classical technique, stocks and sauces, not using bases. … I want to eat everything the way it’s supposed to be, in the place that it comes from,” said Mr. Ford.

Despite his love of fundamentals, Mr. Ford says he has a keen interest in exotic flavors, influenced by his travels abroad and experiences over the years. He has cooked in France and the United Kingdom and has traveled extensively to such far-flung regions as Southeast Asia.

“I would say that it [travel] is such a huge component of who I am, that I don’t know how to separate it out. … Because of that, it’s just who I am and how I cook,” said Mr. Ford.

His curiosity for new flavors and food experiences arose during his childhood, growing up with a grandmother and an uncle who truly appreciated food and fostered a love of cooking in him. He recounts stories of cooking with his uncle, an engineer turned amateur chef, who would take him along to ethnic grocery stores and cook dishes the likes of which they’d never tasted before.

“He’d make things as a kid you’d be scared to death of, made them appealing and interesting. We’d go shopping and go home and cook — making empanadas from scratch, wonton soup from start to finish. … We got to actually cook it, I found it was something that was really enjoyable to me,” said Mr. Ford.

Another indelible memory was when he attended a cooking class at a local community college in Michigan. The continuing education course was targeted toward adults, and he was the lone youngster in the room, at just 12 years old. He still vividly remembers the way the instructor roasted the chicken, never before having had a chicken “so perfectly cooked.”

“It was all very simple food, but prepared in such a beautiful way. I went home and told my mom I wanted to be one of them,” said Mr. Ford.

And today he is. He’s hoping to be the chosen chef of the year who embodies all of the criteria of the title, exemplifying the “highest standard of culinary skills, advancing the cuisine of America, and giving back to the profession.”

He’s been studying and practicing since late December and has winnowed down on his final dish. In a nod to his traditional style with modern touches, he’ll be cooking a lamb tenderloin using za’atar, a Mediterranean spice, vegetable ash and salt. This will be accompanied by a pasta stuffed with Barolo-braised lamb neck, with roasted eggplant stuffed artichoke, sautéed greens, and kabocha squash purée.

“I know exactly what I have to start with, and they need to see certain things. … It’s a very aggressive timeline, a lot of work for an hour. But I’ve never been a person to play it safe,” said Mr. Ford.

Mr. Ford is no stranger to competition, and boasts several titles from culinary competitions, and also, as an added, surprising skill, in ice carving contests. In 2012, he received a gold medal from the National Ice Carving Association. With months of preparation and dedication already logged, he appears to be cool and collected, and ready for the weekend.

“I’m looking forward to competing; I’m looking forward to the food the other chefs put up,” said Mr. Ford.

[email protected]

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

© Hersam Acorn. All rights reserved. The Greenwich Post, 10 Corbin Drive, Floor 3, Darien, CT 06820

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress