Back in the spring of 2016, Jeremy Ford quickly became a recognized name here in South Florida (and nationally) after taking home the top spot in Top Chef season 13. The popular culinary competition has turned out plenty of notable names through the years, but Ford is the only one in the Magic City to take home the winning prize.
After returning to Miami, the whole city was watching with baited breathe as to what he’d do next. And while rumors were swirling for months that he was going to depart from his post at Jean-Georges’ Matador Room to he finally announced last year that he was partnering up with Grove Bay Hospitality Group for not one, but two new restaurants.
And since opening in the fall of 2017, his first standalone restaurant, Stubborn Seed, has been a hit with critics and diners alike garnering his the title of Eater Miami’s Chef of the Year 2017.
A lot has changed for the chef in the past few months, and Ford spoke with Eater Miami about what it’s like owning and operating his first independent restaurant, the challenges he’s faced, and what’s next for him in 2018.
Eater Miami: This is your first restaurant that really has your name on it, so what has that been like so far?
Jeremy Ford: It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, that’s for sure.
Why is that?
Well, it’s so hard because coming out of environments where you have twice as much staff as not as many concerns when you start thinking about budgeting for labor and everything. Then when it becomes your own you really start to hone in on what can and can’t get done. So, there’s a lot of mental sacrifice.
I’m like, okay, I want to do this, this and this but there’s only so much time with what you have and the tools around to make it happen. So it’s the hardest job, but I’m learning the most I’ve ever learned.
In regards to just what’s possible, so we’re trying ... we’re getting everything under control to the point where it’s like okay, what’s next? We’re finally staying above water, treading, but we’re finally getting set up every day about six o’clock and it’s an awesome feeling. At first it was really hard.
So you said you’d learned a lot, what has been the biggest thing you’ve learned during this experience?
The biggest thing so far — because that’s going to change tomorrow — the biggest thing so far I’ve learned is how to keep the food focused. At first, the menu was going to be twice as big as it ended up being. But I think the cuisine is suited to more focused food instead of sporadic things that don’t make sense, so it’s really teaching you how to focus on a food and make each small component perfect.
And what has been the biggest challenge of this experience so far?
Yeah, it’s crazy because in a hotel environment you call extension 19 and it’s a sewer department and you say, “I’ve got a little flood in the kitchen” and then they come down, they clean it, they snake the drain.
That’s the hardest part for me I think so far is dealing with all the things that as a partner in a business has to deal with. There are so many things that just happen, the A/C breaks all the time or something in the plumbing is messed up because it’s older. You know how the drains are in Miami Beach, it’s an ongoing challenge. So, I think just everything breaking, it sucks.
What was the biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise I think to me was that my CDC is actually no longer with us. He was my best friend and we’d been working on and off for the last 17 years. We left my home town together on a truck to work out there for restaurants and we’ve known each other for long and literally within four months it was really, really gnarly kind of break-up. It’s the biggest surprise of this whole concept. Me and him are were ride or die in this thing. The amount of pressure and friendship and just everything, kind of crashed, so that sucked. We’re homies and that was the biggest surprise for sure, losing your sidekick.
Stubborn Seed is prime example of a tasting menu doing really well in a city that rarely embraces them. Were you expecting that to be the case?
It’s funny you bring that up because the first time I saw that space, I kind of knew the area and I didn’t think that tasting would be as popular as it is to be honest with you. I put it on there in hope that you get a couple a night, or a couple adventurous eaters that would want to sit and commit to a menu that’s an hour and half, two hours long, and literally it’s like 50-50 split, it’s way higher than I thought it would be. Some nights it’s a 70-30 split on the tasting menu side, so it’s crazy how well received it’s been so far. A definite challenge to pull it off and only a few guys doing it and I definitely have a lot more respect for them now.
Do you think there’s a reason behind the tasting menu’s success?
At first I thought it was everyone’s giving us a chance the first couple of months, I thought when I saw them again they’d be getting all a la carte but we’re having repeat guests doing the tasting menu over and over. Then it kind of dawned on me that it’s working and now it’s like, okay now I have to push and start changing it up because we have guests coming back for a repeatedly, which is great.
Now, I have to bring up your time on Top Chef. Is there anything you kind of learned from that experience that you’ve now applied to your restaurant?
I think my experience with the show and how that impacts us now. I definitely work better under pressure since the 6, 8 weeks of filming that was, that was the toughest. I think that even great chefs don’t do well on there and I’m just happy that I pulled through and did good on it and I kind of retained how to keep it under control through these pressured times. Because right now, it really is hard. Middle of season in South Florida puts us to the test every day. So, the amount of stress and pressure that it is, I think we’re doing pretty well.
Now, you’ve had a great 2017, what’s on the agenda for 2018? What’s the latest on the second restaurant you’re working on?
The second restaurant, A-fish-o-nado, is looking like it’s probably the end of the year, possibly ‘19. Which I’m fine with because just keeping this one and trying to get good at it. So another one on top of it right now — because we wanted to make this perfect I think this year is going to be really focused in on Stubborn Seed and pushing ourselves every single day to recreate the tasting menu and change out. We just want to cook right now.