Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Top Chef Master Jody Adams Talks To Food Network Musings (That’s Me!) About Her Career, Her Training And Being On Reality TV

This was such a treat. I was given the opportunity to chat with Chef Jody Adams in advance of her appearance on Top Chef Masters tomorrow night.

We had our conversation electronically and she sent back such thoughtful, considered answers that I’m thrilled to share them with you.

A little background first - Jody is the owner/chef of Rialto in Cambridge, Mass., and is known for using the freshest New England ingredients in her imaginative Italian cooking.

Food and Wine magazine called Jody one of 1993’s “10 Best New Chefs”; Esquire lauded Rialto as one the country’s top 20 new restaurants and Gourmet called it, “One of the world’s best hotel restaurants.”

I found it interesting that Jody did not go to culinary school. Instead, while attending Brown and earning a degree in anthropology, she worked for cookbook author and teacher, Nancy Verde Barr. (Barr was also an assistant to Julia Child for many years.)

Jody started her restaurant career cooking at Seasons restaurant in Boston and then moved on to Hamersley's Bistro and then Michela's, before opening Rialto in 1994 and becoming its sole owner in 2007.

By the way, Chef Adams is also a blogger. Check out In The Hand of a Chef. She has some other awesome recipes there, as well as a wonderful lesson on making pasta.

Tomorrow, I will be posting some of Chef Adams’ recipes and seeing how she does on Top Chef Masters. The last thing she says in our interview (the last lines of this post) reminds me greatly of last week’s winner. Hopefully, that bodes well for her.

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I’m sure you’re probably too busy to watch a lot of reality television, but were you a Top Chef or Top Chef Masters fan before you became a competitor? If you watched the first season of Top Chef Masters, what surprised you? Who were you rooting for?
You've found me out--I've never been a fan of reality tv. I made a point of tuning in to Hell’s Kitchen when it first came on, but the whole tone turned me off. People in the restaurant business have worked hard to change both the reality and the perception of kitchen culture, and in a few short episodes Gordon Ramsey brought bad-boy-behavior back as something to strive for. My initial response when asked to compete on TCM was, Oh no,I can’t do that--it's not me, it’s too scary. But I did my homework and watched both TCM and the regular show and realized I didn’t know what I was talking about. I found myself getting caught up in the excitement and adrenaline rush of the challenges and in the characters.

I understand that you wanted to do Top Chef to bring awareness to your charity, Partners in Health. Tell me a bit about why you’ve been such a strong supporter.
Like a lot of aid groups PIH provides medical care for underserved poor communities, but they stand out for their emphasis on growing local staff--doctors, nurses, community health workers. Having local people on your team helps when it comes to addressing the root causes of local disease. Maybe a community needs access to clean drinking water; maybe it needs a way to support clients who need help sticking with long-term medication. Local people are vital for those kind of efforts. A lot of people had never heard of Partners in Health until the earthquake in Haiti. Suddenly PIH is all over the news and newspaper front pages for their leading role in relief efforts. That didn't happen by accident or as the result of a publicity campaign. They've been on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. Who else are people going to turn to? PIH not only knows local people--to a large degree they are the local people. By integrating members of the community they're serving, PIH creates programs that are organic, and as result are sustainable. Their approach has a lot in common with what the food world calls terroir.

It’s interesting that you got your training in restaurant kitchens, as opposed to culinary school. Based on that, what advice do you give to aspiring chefs - to go to culinary school or to work one’s way up in a professional kitchen? And when you’re hiring chefs, do you have preference about where they’ve been trained?
Generally speaking, read as much as you can, travel, taste everything and cook. If you're still in high school and thinking about cooking as a career, do anything to get into a good kitchen for a year or two after you graduate. Resist the temptation to sign up for cooking school. Give yourself a chance to get up close and personal with the life and see if this is what you really want, if you've got the drive and stamina for it. If you're older, thinking about changing from your present field into cooking, consider a short, intensive program to get some skills to help you get in the door. I've got a pair of cooks right now who switched out of completely different occupations--and one-year cooking programs made it possible for them to make the jump. That said, the hype that surrounds some programs disturbs me because it raises unrealistic expectations in kids. They're selling celebrity, not cooking. Cooking is always hard, mostly underpaid, and not at all glamorous, at least in the beginning. If it’s for you, dive in, but never forget it's a business and at the end of the day, be sure you're making money.

As for hiring, I don't have a formula. My own background is unconventional and I value both life experience and professional training. Sometimes a candidate will have worked with a chef I respect, sometimes an applicant is looking for a more satisfying path after having worked in a less personally rewarding arena, and sometimes it means a job-seeker has traveled and eaten in interesting places and is passionate about cooking and just wants to go for it. Grit, determination and focus count for a lot. I love being surprised by what people bring through the door.

You completely revamped Rialto after it had been open for 10 years. Your menu is so imaginative, while still being Italian-inspired and obviously focused on very fresh ingredients. I read recently about a chef who was having problems coming up with monthly specials and I wondered where you get your inspiration for new dishes. How often do you change the menu and where do your ideas come from?
Kitchen focus hops to a different region of Italy every other month. Some of those regions' culinary strengths are more suited to one season than another, so that plays into my thinking. Figuring out how to weave New England ingredients into those traditions is another. Italians don't have bluefish, for example, but they do have fatty, dark meat fish that you might see served with a sweet and sour preparation, and sometimes I can make a connection like that.

I think about food and menus a lot, but not as much as I’d like. These days budgets, schedules, marketing and management eat into my time, so writing a menu for me is a treat. I generally wait until Saturday, when no one is in the office and I’m not needed for meetings or phone calls. I get out the notes I’ve been keeping in recent months, photos and menus I’ve collected in my travels, the lists of seasonal ingredients from our famers and local purveyors and a stack of books about the region in Italy I've chosen as our focus. And then I just free associate. It’s certainly not linear. Recently, when I was writing a Ligurian menu, I pulled out notes from a Ligurian menu I wrote in 1993 and, rather guiltily, stole some ideas for my 2010 menu. How cool is that?

Finally, did you have any tricks up your sleeve to win when you came to Top Chef Masters?
I treated myself to brand new knives. That was about it. My family and friends put the kibosh on it whenever I talked about coming up with new tricks. I don't have any foams or colloids up my sleeve at my restaurant, Rialto, and I didn't have any on TCM. I was pretty much myself, a little faster maybe, a little more nervous, but my food was a good reflection of who I am and what I do.


The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Sweet! What a great opportunity to chat with a chef on TCM. She really gives a unique perspective on running a restaurant.

Sue said...

Yup, Rach, she seems like a really down to earth person. I can't wait to watch tonight.

Sheila said...

Very cool Sue! I like that she gave a food processor version of making pasta on her website. I'm too chicken to make a well in a pile of flour on my counter...

I liked hearing about her charity and also about how she chooses menus. Thanks for sharing!

Emily said...

Great interview, Sue.

Jody is lovely. She does seems down to earth and I think I'd love her if I knew her. I think I'd love to work for her! She sounds like a great boss.

I love how she comes up with her menus too.

I haven't watched the show yet. Hopefully I'll catch it on today.

Sue said...

That's fine too, but it IS fun to do it by hand. And you don't have to worry about Jody's warning if you break through the wall of flour, you won't get married!

Thanks, Em. I love talking to chefs.