Gerald Ford, CMC, founder and culinary director of Legit Concepts and a former executive club chef, came up in the industry at a pivotal time—significantly impacting his perspective.
“I had half of my career without the internet and half of my career with the internet,” he says, meaning he falls somewhere between old-school and new-school mentality. “I am uniquely positioned to talk with old-school and younger, more modern chefs. I can almost translate.”
In a shift expedited by the past few years, he says, the old way of doing things in the kitchen is over.
“The events of 2020 sped up what was inevitable,” says Ford. “We recognized that there were things that were important to us outside of the work environment, and continually sacrificing ourselves and our family isn’t sustainable.”
Still, newer generations are wise to learn from old-school mentalities, from classical techniques to establishing standards in the kitchen.
The path that’s most effective in marrying the two perspectives, Ford says, is meeting culinarians where they are—”not with judgment, not with disdain, just understanding.”
He says that chefs can “cherry-pick the best of both worlds to find a workable solution.”
Club + Resort Chef (C+RC): Which characteristics of the old-school mentality do you abide by or find most beneficial?
Gerald Ford (GF): Being fairly strict on vocabulary. For example, there are certain things you have to do to a piece of meat or a vegetable for it to be braised. You can’t call it a braise if you don’t do those things. This allows us to have a common vocabulary to communicate more effectively.
Now there’s this modification of terminology, where if I asked somebody to braise something, there would be confusion about how to execute that because different people have said it’s other things. That makes it hard to produce a consistent result.[The solution is] helping people understand the value of having a standard. It starts with at least giving a tangible reason why it matters and trying to make it relatable.
A fresh culinary school graduate doesn’t have the depth of industry experience. Instead of acting like they should know everything, try to talk with them in a way that respects what they do know and helps them understand what they could know, as opposed to what was one of the less-beneficial characteristics of the old-school mentality—berating them for not knowing. It just doesn’t work anymore. It’s a quick way to shut someone off.
I talk about art and science a lot. Pastry chefs tend to be scientifically oriented and super systemized, and chefs tend to be a little artsier. If you can balance those two things, you’ll find yourself in an agreeable place where you can plan for the problems you know are coming.
I like to find a balance between systems and shooting from the hip. And when I say “systems,” I mean something as simple as having a checklist for closing or having a list of soups for the month ahead where it’s predetermined. You can have systems in place for the things you deal with day in and day out. That way, you have the bandwidth to handle the things you didn’t plan for.
C+RC: What can old-school club chefs learn from the younger generation?
GF: Technology, or at least looking at what’s available and figuring out if there is a better way.
I spend a lot of time questioning if what I’m doing is the best way to do it. If a new piece of equipment comes out, I want to understand it. I want to learn what it can do.[In the past, chefs] had to cook by feel, touch, smell, taste—that’s cooking. But now we can get super precise because we can measure, monitor and create a predictably consistent result because of our available technology.
When I learned how to make anglaise, it was a particular ratio. You heat your cream, most of your sugar and your vanilla. Then you temper in your egg yolks. Then you put it back over the stove and cook it until napes the back of the spoon. As my career progressed, we began to use a thermometer. And when the anglaise hits 186°F, it’s cooked. If you temp it, and it’s cooked to this temperature, it’s done, and you don’t have to worry about it. So there’s more data available to create a more consistent result, but you must be open to the science of it.
Consider and understand what equipment is available and what it could do for you.
If somebody tends to be super classical, I try to convince them that all of their work is lost because nobody else can do it. It’s only them doing it. So if they could find a way to cross over to the more modern equipment and hybridize the way they work, they’ll be able to pass more of the work on to the people who should be doing it. Instead of the chef being the only one who can do it, they can utilize more modern equipment for the sake of their operation.
C+RC: What cons are there for chefs who’ve grown up with technology?
GF: If you’ve never seen classic cooking techniques, and all you’ve seen is the modern stuff, then your food isn’t going to have the depth or the flavor development that would take place otherwise. If you only go with the modern approach, you’re leaving a lot on the table.
If somebody talks to me about their equipment and talks about using more modern equipment and doesn’t do a lot of classical cooking, then I tend to send them down the path of understanding a classic recipe, picking up a classical cookbook—the classical cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire—finding a recipe and going through all the steps of understanding how to make that dish: the layering of flavor, the development of the dish and the execution.
Growth is always outside of the comfort zone, [and] I think everybody struggles with this. Older and younger chefs are both scared of it for different reasons. Younger chefs are afraid of it because they think it will be painful. They’re afraid of what they don’t know. And then the older chefs are afraid of what they could lose.
C+RC: Do you find working with chefs with varying perspectives necessary or valuable?
GF: The best culinary teams that I’ve been involved with have a variety of different people with a variety of different backgrounds. The greater range of people with the greater range of backgrounds that you have around you, the stronger your team will be.
If you have somebody on your team with a solid classical background as well as someone with an incredible modern background, if you as a chef can find a way to get them to work together, your team is in a much better place.
I had two mentors I met in culinary school—each with entirely different perspectives on cooking. That’s, in part, where I got my understanding of the art side and the science side of cooking. One was very methodical but very hands-on and preferred more tangible cooking. The other was a bit more scientific, measured and predictable. The two perspectives helped me find a hybridized way forward.
If you embrace the qualities people bring to the table, you can create some cool things. One of the biggest things that make the bridge [between old-school and new-school mentality] possible is embracing people’s positive traits.