I became a cook after watching a CMC prepare a roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and this beautiful pan gravy and all of those things were better than anything I ever had and it was really life changing for me. That was at a point where I knew I loved cooking and realized that my passion could become my profession as well. Working to accomplish that goal has consistently provided me with some of the deepest learning experiences and the largest periods of growth throughout my career. The ACF CMC certification sets a standard and gave me a tangible path to pursue.
I started preparing for the Master Chef exam 15 years ago. Working for master chefs, apprenticing for the exam, watching an exam, interacting with master chefs, and developing really high-level habits were great ways to begin the preparation. For the last 5 months leading up to the exam, I spent 50 hours a week working on the exam. In order to put myself in the best physical condition, I exercised 6 days a week. As for the mental aspect, I meditated, listened to really hard metal, and ran myself into the ground every chance I got.
The Master Chef exam was the hardest challenge I have ever ventured into and every aspect of my ability was tested, every day. During the exam, there is no time to be anything other than what you are as a chef. Mentally, the test pushed me right to the edge. I think that the mental aspect is the hardest part to deal with. The test puts you in a position to question things you are normally confident in. Ultimately, it’s the greatest process I have ever been a part of.
I think the greatest challenge for me was looking at each day as its own day. It became necessary to move on very quickly from the day just completed, good or bad, in order to put the focus where it was most needed.
I feel that reaching for greatness is about a process, developing great habits, and then keeping to consistent action. Successful completion of the exam reinforces my belief in what I do every day and the standards I hold my team to.
Some advice to chefs who are interested in this path…
I would say that there is simply no shortcut to passing the exam, don’t waste time looking for one. Spend your time cooking properly and learning from the right people. Get criticism from chefs who have passed the exam and fail as much as you can in preparation so you don’t have to during the exam. Set the goal and stop at nothing to get it.
For me, the mind game is 75% of everything we do. Pressure and stress, they come from the discomfort of being in unfamiliar situations and there's a direct relationship to being outside of the comfort zone and the pressure that you feel. The Navy SEALs work by a mantra, you don't raise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training. That is something that I've always lived by or tried to embody in my training, into my practice and into my preparation. Another one that comes from the military is, the more you bleed in training the less you bleed in battle.
So, I train. I try and set myself up for situations that are as challenging as possible, in front of the same judges or the same evaluators that I'll be in front of when I'm actually competing. For example, when I was pursuing the Master Chef exam, I tried to get in front of as many master chefs as I could. Just even having a couple at least starts to build that tolerance for working and being in front of people.
I try to do the work I do every day with the intention and the knowing that what I invest in in those situations is going to be who I become. I train really, really hard to work fast, work clean, work efficiently and that becomes a habit. It's like training muscle memory.
Competitions are designed to stress you, to push you to the point that you've trained as much as you can, to control variables so that whatever little other variables come along, you're going to be able to deal with because you're not completely maxed out. I would compare it to learning how to drive a car. When you first start driving a car it's really uncomfortable, you have to think about the seat position, where the pedals are, where the steering wheel is, are your hands in the right place? Eventually over time it becomes completely second nature and that's just because it's something that you do. The more you work at it, the more you become used to it, the more it becomes second nature and the more you just kind of fall into a rhythm.
And I think that's why starting in competitions with the intention of doing another competition really pays off. Once you do it once, it will help you prepare more for your next competition. The stress that you learned how to deal with will roll over into the next competition and you can focus on making better food and focus on producing better results.
Like with anything, it just takes time in the driver's seat, working at it and trying to push to the point where you're making yourself better and you raise your pain tolerance so now you're more comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
The more you're outside of your comfort zone, the more you're going to grow and the faster you accept discomfort, the more you're going to accomplish in your career and anything you do. Growth is not found in the comfort zone.
Experience and experimentation have led me to great flavor evolution techniques. Using the dehydrator for less common enhancements can add unique profile and depths to sophisticated dishes. Read on to learn how and why to dehydrate kimchi then grind to a powder to add to crusts or sausage, and process whole grain mustard into a dehydrated flavor packed crunch. I add the grains to sauce for concentrated flavor and to keep my sauces from getting cloudy.
One of the really cool outcomes of having worked on competitions for so much of my culinary career is the development of using the dehydrator to concentrate and pack more flavor into foods.
Two of my favorites in the dehydrator are making a kimchi powder and dehydrated mustard seeds. These are ingredients that work their way into a lot of different components in my menus in competition because it adds a depth, it adds a characteristic that you can't really put your finger on.
Instead of using mustard seeds, I like to take prepared whole-grain mustard and then rinse it off. Whole-grain mustard is essentially pickled mustard seeds that are then going to go into the dehydrator, dry out and get nice and crunchy. They've already been processed so they're a lot softer, they're a lot milder and I think they add a really nice flavor to recipes that require mustard.
Make sure to use parchment paper because otherwise it will fall through the racks on the dehydrator. The dehydrator I use is an Excalibur.
The crunchier the kimchi is, the better it's going to grind. Grind the kimchi to a fine powder and then put it through the through the tamis to keep a nice consistency.
I keep the parchment paper under the tamis because it makes moving around the powder a lot easier and it makes cleaning up my station a lot easier too.
For the mustard seeds, break up the bigger pieces and then get it to go through this mat. It's still going to have little mustard seeds and a mustard seed like consistency and texture.
Why would you use this instead of mustard seed that you would buy from the spice rack?
These are pickled, these have been processed, soaked in wine, they taste like delicious whole-grain mustard. They're not really aggressive or super offensive like a mustard seed in the spice rack. And these guys also have a great texture to them. If you ever bit into a raw whole mustard seed, it's pretty unpleasant. These guys have been poached, pickled, marinated so the texture of them is really very nice. A nice little crunchy pop without being overwhelmingly spicy and mustard.
My purpose in using the dehydrator is just to try and concentrate as much flavor into my food as I possibly can. As you see with the mustard seed, they're developed now in a way that you can use them that you normally couldn't. You could of course add a scoop of mustard to anything but now if you add these dehydrated whole grain mustard seeds to a sauce they'll serve as a thickening agent. I think that's probably my favorite use for them is to use these in place of mustard in a sauce. It won't cloud your jus but it'll still give you a boatload of flavor of mustard and it'll also tighten up your sauce a little bit.
Kimchi powder is a really intense ingredient as well. You can add it into force meats. I would add it to the tune of 2 grams per pound of meat and you'll get a flavor in the dish that serves to deepen the flavors. You could also take this kimchi powder and mix it into a breading station so now you have a kimchi flavored breading that goes on to a product. It's a nice way to deepen the flavor in what you're serving.
Learning these things to pack flavor into an item for a competition will benefit you in your operation, in your organization, when you start trying to bang more flavor into a breading station and complicate and create deeper flavor profiles for an ingredient. One of the most popular items that I've served was a tuna fireball. Basically, spicy tuna in an avocado, tempura battered and then fried. If I took that tempura batter and then rolled it into kimchi breadcrumbs, it's going to drive that flavor home and it's going to be more than just a breading on the outside. Get out there, play with your food, get some flavors that make some sense and try and deepen your cooking. That's what this game is all about, go have fun, play with your food.
If you are planning to compete in an upcoming culinary competition, here are five quick lessons to help refine your preparation. Execution is critical but the battle is won in the mise en place.
Lesson 1: Consistency
When we were preparing for our final runs in the culinary Olympics, one of my tasks was to just make sure that everybody was packing things exactly the same. When you're competing it's important to make sure that you're consistent and everything looks the same. That way when you set everything down, and I think we had 600 scaled ingredients for the chef's table run, when you pull out all those containers, they're all laid out the same way. Then eventually when the label goes on, the label is always in the same place.
Lesson 2: Travel with your salt
Overseas in Europe or in Singapore if you're competing internationally or even depending on where you're at in the States. Different salts have different perceived salinity so if you're using Morton kosher salt or diamond crystal kosher salt, you want to make sure that you use that for all of your recipes and then all the way through to the end.
Lesson 3: Tasting to Confirm
Another practice is for people to season out of this and then just reach their hand in a million times and just season and adjust and taste and season and adjust and taste. That's not where you want to be with a competition. You want to be able to taste and adjust but you really want to have the approach where you know where you want to be with your seasoning. My tasting is just going to be a confirmation that my seasonings work.
Lesson 4: Prepping an Onion
You could take an onion in to a competition unpeeled but it's an absolute waste of your time and energy. Depending on the rules of your competition, you may be able to take items a little bit further, you may not. You don't want to push your luck too far, but you want to take it as far as you can. Ideal is absolutely. Let’s say I'm allowed to cut this onion in half. When you do, make sure that there's nothing awful inside. Then, I scale it so I know how much of it that I'm going to need to use.
Lesson 5: Setting up a Leek
You can trim the leek as close to what you need as possible so you’re not taking in a whole leek. Make sure that all of that root end is gone and make sure that there's no dirt in the leek. That's something that can be done well in advance of the competition that way during the competition it's a cut and move, it's minutes that allow you to actually plate beautiful food. As you're controlling all the variables that you can control, the evaluators start to get excited. “Wow they really did great mise en place,” “I'm looking forward to tasting their food,” or “This should be fun to watch this team they came really prepared for this competition.” That's exactly where you want to be.
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Why did I start competing?
I started competing initially because I wanted to get really good at ice sculpting, of all things. When I was younger, I attended a college, and I was taught how to ice carve and really the only way to practice as a student was to compete and it just sort of turned into this obsession. I realized that the more I prepped for competition, the better I got at ice sculpting and then that kind of rolled over into cooking and it just gave me an excuse to hone a skill, to practice harder and to do everything I could to get better at what I was trying to do.
What are some benefits of competition?
In my mind, competition is an opportunity to really learn a technique better than you would just doing it every day at work. It's a chance to focus on a skill. So, say you're working on a braise and at work you learned how to do a braise and you want to do a great braise so you read a couple recipes and then you learn how to execute that braise. When you're taking a braise into a competition and you want to serve what would be an exemplary braise, you go through and really hone in each individual step of that technique, understanding on a much higher level the carmelization that needs to go into it, the deglazing that needs to happen, the soft cooking process that needs to be applied. Competition then forces you into a specific set of parameters and you're forced then to try and do a braise or execute a braise in a particular amount of time, under a particular amount of circumstances, and your understanding rolls over into your day to day work. When you do that for an entire plate and say a hot food competition or if you're working on a terrine for a cold food competition, the repetition of that practice, you have no choice but to get better at what you're doing.
What has competition done for me?
To me, competition has been a fantastic way to really work to hone a skill, to dial-in a practice, and it's made me a much better cook as far as speed goes, as far as understanding goes. Competition is something that you do as I would say you could call it a hobby, it's something you do in your spare time when you want to obsess about something for the kitchen outside of the kitchen. Competition gives you a purpose to hone in a skill, to really dial in a technique, to understand food at a much deeper level. I used to spend my time diving into books and comparing different methods for executing something in particular and then pull those things together. Inevitably my cooking got better no matter what I was cooking, and it was through that focused repetition, that focused change in competition, that I saw those results in my day-to-day work.
Do you have to compete to pass the master chef exam?
There's sort of a myth that people seem to think that you have to be on the Culinary Olympic Team or you have to be a major competitor to pass the certified master chef exam and I don't think that's true. I think that it helps you prepare for the master chef exam. Everything is a process, and the master chef exam is a stressful, intense, mastery of the craft exam. So we're not thinking in terms of are you good at something, we're thinking in terms of have you mastered a technique? Now there's many different ways to get there. Competition is one of those ways that helps you find your way there, that helps you understand what mastery looks like and how to work towards that. I also think competition helps you meet people along the way to put you on that path. Other paths include you focusing on your work at your restaurant and working every day to master your craft or to prove yourself as a master of your craft. Some of my mentors never worked on the Culinary Olympic Team, some of them did. I think, for me, my path I worked on the Culinary Olympic team so that I knew that I was going to be ready for the Master Chef Exam. That's just something that made sense to me and that was something that practically seemed like the right path but by no means is it necessary
One of the things that I truly believe is that at the core of what we do, we're craftsmen. I pride myself on having passed the Master Chef Exam but I don't see that as an ending point for me, I see it as actually a whole other starting point. We are craftsmen and although food can be art, I think it's important for cooks, culinarians, sous chefs, chefs to remember that at the end of the day this is a craft. It requires focused practice and through that focused practice, mastery is entirely obtainable. That's what's most important to remember is skill can be developed. The skill to produce, to execute in the craft, is entirely possible. It's entirely feasible. Everything is an evolution of skill. When I competed to try out for the Culinary Olympic team that was another point for me to start again. A whole other realm of executing at another level. Now I have a base level standard of mastery for every project that I undertake and that's something that really excites me. I'm very much so interested to see where my path takes me next. I think it's so important to understand that when I set out on my path for mastery it wasn't a direct line, it's been a bumpy road of moving and of training and of falling down and standing back up but each and every time I've learned something. And that's the most important thing to remember. Nobody's perfect, nobody executes perfectly all the time and it's trying to fail forward so that every time you pick yourself back up you can be successful. It's so important to remember that what we do is a craft and it being a craft it's not natural ability, it's not God-given talent. It’s persistence, it's focused hard work and it's never giving up.
One of 73 Certified Master Chefs and Captain of the 2020 American National, Culinary Team USA, with stops in Michelin Starred Restaurants; The Moulin de Mougins and Eleven Madison Park, Chef Ford has established himself as a professional who is focused, driven, innovative and organized beyond obsessive.