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.
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.