March 2019

Certified Master Chef Dine Around: The Ford Plantation

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: Courtesy of the Ford Plantation

Passing through the main gate into The Ford Plantation, a Platinum Club in Richmond Hill, Georgia, about 20 miles southwest of Savannah, you leave behind the bustle of an obviously fast-growing city, and instantly feel miles away. An equestrian center’s white horse fences to your right set a tone for the pastoral setting pervading the property.

Situated on the banks of the Ogeechee River, one of many tidal creeks meandering through the region, this piece of land is a postcard for coastal Georgia with its Spanish Moss-draped live oaks and abundant wetlands and wildlife—all of it a backdrop for a variety of homes ranging from opulent estate homes to more modest designs, but all tastefully expressing the area’s antebellum Lowcountry architectural heritage.

The centerpiece, known as The Main House, with its long tree-lined front lawn, reflecting pool and sweeping views of the Ogeechee in back, lends The Ford Plantation a special sense of history. When you visit The Main House, you’re walking in the footsteps of the late, great Henry Ford. Yes, that Henry Ford, who built the mansion as his winter home in the 1920s.

With all of that, though, the best way to understand the sense of place The Ford Plantation affords is to get the members talking. Ask a member what they love about the place and why they chose to make The Ford Plantation home and watch their eyes light up as they describe the experience.

“We are sporting people. My husband is an equestrian, and I love fishing, so I do all the fishing things. We both play golf, and we are both food and wine people,” said member Melanie Culver. “And don’t you love that our chef is Gerald Ford?”

Guests were welcomed to the event by a Southern Belle with a glass of champagne.

She was not referring to the thirty-eighth president of the United States, but to The Ford Plantation’s executive chef, Gerald L. Ford, a Certified Master Chef (CMC). Although distantly related to the club’s namesake, it is purely coincidental. “We’re already blessed to have a master chef as our chef,” another member added.

Notice that Chef Ford is a common theme? Among members’ favorite amenities are the fun-filled social gatherings that commonly occur at the club, and on the evening of Friday, January 18, the presence of a CMC on staff paid off in a big way as members were treated to Certified Master Chef times six at The Ford Plantation’s first ever Certified Master Chef Dine Around.

Club president Jim Trolinger explained how it all came about. “Marc [Marc Ray, general manager] has been a part of some very high end, very special clubs, and he and Chef Ford conspired together by asking, ‘What if we both used our influence in the club world to bring together the best of the best of the best?’ So, Chef and Marc reached out, and we got five additional master chefs, and that’s the event tonight.”

The result: a showcase of six Certified Master Chefs, of which there are only about 70 in the United States, all in one place in one evening. As usual, The Ford Plantation management and staff pulled out all the stops to make the event a fun and memorable evening as well as an unparalleled culinary adventure. Antique automobiles on display, a champagne lady dressed in antebellum era fashion, and characters playing Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler greeted the nearly 100 guests in attendance. A harpist provided musical ambience to the evening, gently serenading guests with popular songs from the likes of Neil Diamond and Elton John.

The five chefs in addition to Ford were Ken Arnone, Jason D. Hall, Helmut Holzer, Russel Scott and Oliviér Andreini. Each was asked to prepare two courses: a composed salad and an entrée course. Offerings ranged from Arnone’s anise crusted sea scallops to Ford’s charcoal grilled venison strap to Holzer’s serviettes knödel, a tradition from his native Austria.

The entrance to Henry & Clara Ford’s winter home at The Ford Plantation.

Hall prepared a dish of za’atar grilled eggplant. Explaining the vegetarian choice, he said, “One of the things I focused on when I was in private clubs is that a vegetarian diner should have the same experience as the person who’s coming in for fine dining. So, years ago, I started to really look at vegetables and vegetarian food and how you could elaborate on that and make it more elegant.”

Scott and Andreini rounded things out with aged cheddar tamales and an ahi tuna poke respectively. There was truly something for everyone, and all of the chefs’ creations received rave reviews from the guests.

Getting so many Certified Master Chefs together in one place may seem like a daunting task, but it is actually easier than it sounds. “We’re all friends,” said Holzer, who is chairman of the American Master Chef’s Order. “We come to help out and make everyone look good.”

“We all either went to CIA (Culinary Institute of America) or taught there,” Scott added, so it’s a close-knit network. While all admitted to being competitive with each other, it’s always a friendly kind of competition.

Trolinger considered the evening a complete success and wasn’t surprised at all. He explained that, although the Dine Around was the first of its kind at The Ford Plantation, it was typical of club events. A Platinum Club Award and a CMC executive chef certainly raise the bar to elite status for a club, but Trolinger points out that the mood, atmosphere and culture at The Ford Plantation remains light, laid-back and fun. “Anything members want to do, we’ll find a way to make it happen,” he said. “We even had pig races at our Kentucky Derby party!”

Master Chef Olivier preparing finely cut components of his dish for the event.

He summed it up by saying, “Your Ford day is defined by what you want to do. You can wake up tomorrow and you can create your day. That’s the coolest thing about The Ford Plantation—every day is your day. You make it what you want. We laugh about it and we call it Camp Ford.”

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