Jeremy Ford was just 14 years old when he felt a calling to the culinary world. His first hero was Emeril Lagasse, whose show “Emeril Live” on the Food Network sparked Ford’s imagination. “He was funny, he was creative, his food’s delicious, and I got the bug from watching that show,” Ford says. That bug soon transformed into an experimentation beast, and Ford began “doing weird sh**—I was grilling strawberries on my dad’s grill, just weird stuff that would pop into my head, and some of it tasted horrible, and luckily I stuck with it.”
Little did Ford and his parents know he would one day win the 13th season of Bravo’s popular cooking competition show, “Top Chef,” in 2015, and earn a Michelin Star rating at his restaurant, Stubborn Seed. But before all that, Ford’s journey to becoming a chef started with a harrowing search for his maternal grandparents, since his mother was adopted at a very young age, which brought Ford and his family from Jacksonville, Florida, to the West Coast in Carmel, California.
“We went on this crazy search to find her real mother, and we ended up finding her,” Ford recalls. “She was Italian, [and] barely spoke English. And our first meeting with her, she invited us to her home. It was a very emotional day … She prepared a large lunch for us with all of these garden delights out of her backyard, and we connected over food.”
“I didn’t really understand anything she was saying, and neither did anybody else. But it was a really special moment and I’ll never forget the aroma of being in her living room that first time, and I think from that moment on, I was like, this is what I want—I want to cook,” Ford continues. “Doesn’t that speak volumes about what food can do? Because you talk sometimes through food, and I feel like you have moments through food.”
After moving back to Jacksonville and working at a few restaurants as a teenager, Ford ended up dropping out of high school and moving away to Los Angeles to chase his dreams of becoming a chef. He started earning his culinary degree from “the School of Hard Knocks,” he often jokes, by toiling away at multiple restaurants. Ford worked his way from mincing vegetables and frying shrimp at local spots to working at a French restaurant in Los Angeles called L’Orangerie, where he was mentored by executive chef Christophe Eme, as well as under master chef Joachim Splichal at Patina.
“I worked at a two Michelin-star restaurant and really got high, high-end training. I got my ass kicked every day physically, and mentally abused every day, which thank god those days are in the past,” Ford says, without naming or referencing a specific restaurant.
A few years later, Ford moved back to Florida to take care of his mother who had become ill, and set up shop in Miami. There, he worked and learned for about five years under acclaimed Chef Dean James Max, owner of farm-to-table food and beverage concept DJM Restaurants, before getting the opportunity to serve as executive chef at Matador Room in Miami, run by the world-renowned French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “He was the one who really pushed me to do ‘Top Chef,’ because he’s had a lot of [people] either come in second place or have competed,” Ford says.
Following his victory on the Bravo TV show, the Sunshine State native decided to strike out on his own and create his own restaurant in Miami. He called it Stubborn Seed, which he named after the resilience it takes for plants to grow—illustrating the persistence required to open a new restaurant, and the dedication and time commitment to ensure it grows and flourishes. Partnering with Ignacio Garcia-Menocal and Francesco Balli of Grove Bay Hospitality, Ford opened his first restaurant in September 2017 in Miami’s South Beach.
With 74 seats and located on a busy corner in South Beach’s South of Fifth Neighborhood, Stubborn Seed has become known not only for its rotating seasonal tasting menus, but also for its sleek design, with industrial chic decor and a glass-fronted display kitchen. In 2022, Stubborn Seed was awarded one Michelin star in the highly-coveted inaugural Florida MICHELIN guide. In May, Stubborn Seed retained its Michelin one-star rating at a ceremony.
Yet, Ford believes Stubborn Seed’s biggest accolade isn’t the Michelin Star, but “the constant evolvement of young talent and turning young kids into great chefs,” he says. “I think that’s one of my favorite parts about Stubborn Seed, is that people come in there with very minimal skill, and within two years, they’re either a sous chef or they’re a chef at another restaurant. Just watching that evolution from like, someone who can’t cut a potato, to basically being a perfectionist at a high level.”
On Stubborn Seed’s website, Ford describes the concept as “the result of pairing unrelenting passion with an unapologetic approach. It aims to unearth cravings of the palate while constructing a reward in each bite. This philosophy takes honest ingredients and elevates them to be splendidly elegant through rigid and persistent execution.” Ford focuses on crafting his constantly evolving tasting menus in the most sustainable way possible—and advises his culinary team to do the same.
Though Ford’s culinary style has evolved to be worldly-inspired—like using a Haitian jerk recipe with carrots, or incorporating spice blends like berbere from Ethiopia or garam masala from India—it all began with French technique. “I think it’s one of the best cores that a chef can start with because there’s just this push for perfection,” he says. “Everything you do has a purpose, and everything you do needs to be neatly done. So it teaches you all of this discipline, and I feel like if you don’t have discipline to start, you don’t have as good of a base.”
In addition to Stubborn Seed, Ford also owns Beauty and the Butcher in Coral Gables, Florida—a nod to his eldest daughter, Madelynn (the ‘beauty’)—which was recently added to the MICHELIN Guide. Plus, Ford recently opened The Butcher’s Club in Palm Beach’s PGA National Resort.
The 32-year-old chef also appears on another culinary show called “Fast Foodies” on truTv in the second season, alongside fellow “Top Chef” winner Kristen Kish, and “Iron Chef” winner Justin Sutherland. In the competitive show, hosts meet with a new celebrity each episode, learn the guest’s favorite fast food menu item, then attempt to replicate the dish with a twist to make it more authentic to their cooking style. Food Network re-aired some episodes, and streamers can view the show on HBO Max or Amazon Prime.
When asked how he keeps his creativity flowing and what inspires him, Ford replies, “My team, 100 percent. I would be nothing without them. The food that we’ve been so successful in creating is all because of them.”