In March, Top Chef season 13 concluded with Jacksonville native Jeremy Ford taking the show’s top honors. Ford, 30, is executive chef at Matador Room by Jean-Georges in Miami, but at 16 he was mincing vegetables and cutting his culinary chops in the kitchen at Matthew’s Restaurant in San Marco.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef? At a very young age, I found fascination in the show The Galloping Gourmet. It was an odd thing for a boy to want to watch. I found it funny how the show was put together—[Graham Kerr] would go and eat in these Michelin-star restaurants, go home and cook. It sparked something in me.
How did you get your first job at Matthew’s? I did the old “knock on the back door” kind of thing. I wanted to learn and I’d do whatever it took to work there. I knew that was the best place in the city, and chef [Matthew Medure] was kind and generous enough to give me a chance.
Favorite moment on the show? Definitely winning the first challenge and not getting sent home on day one. A lot of my training was in French kitchens, so getting to cook for Hubert Keller at [now-closed San Francisco French restaurant] Fleur de Lys and making my way into the finals was the most satisfying feeling I’ve ever had in my life. It was unbelievable cooking in that kitchen.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with? I love yuzu and Meyer lemon. Or bergamot. Yuzu has this magical fragrant citrus flavor. It goes really well with fish, simply paired with olive oil, salt and a Thai chili. I love spice, so I always add chilis to my cooking.
How often do you return to town? I’m probably here once a month. Every time I come back I’m seeing family and I’m always cooking. We do big crab boils. My brother lives in Mayport, and he married into a family of shrimpers so there’s always a huge amount of shrimp in the house. Family comes first.
Do people recognize you now? When I’ve been out and about, people have said congratulations and how glad they were that Miami got the crown. For Miami it was a huge deal because we’ve come so close so many times to having a contestant win. The biggest thing for me is winning Top Chef not only for Miami but for Jacksonville, too. Jacksonville deserves a pat on the back for getting me on the right path. u