Chef Jody Adams - The Chefs'-Chef
Jody Adams is a chefs'-chef. Her energy invested in her food, restaurant and causes... causes that she believes in - not P.R yielding, spotlight-gainers. With this in mind, I was thrilled to discover that Jody will soon be introduced to a nation of chef loving American's as she appears on one of the most quality driven, professional chef shows "Top Chef masters", her goal, as ever not to become a house hold name but to shed light on Partners In Health, a charity that she has championed for over a decade...
How did the opportunity for Top Chef Masters come about?
My guess is I was recommended by colleagues and then vetted by the producers.
I imagine that you were thrilled to be on Top Chef and fight for your cause on a national level?
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to bring attention to Partners In Health -- and maybe win some money for them. They're an an organization that I've supported for many years. I've seen first hand the work they do, in Rwanda and, closer to home, in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
First and foremost PIH provides medical care for underserved poor communities, but one thing that makes them stand out is their emphasis on attracting and training local staff -- doctors, nurses, community health workers. Having local people on your team helps when it comes to the other big part of what they do--trying to address the root causes of disease in their communities. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out how make access to clean drinking water happen, or how to make sure that someone who has to take medication every day does in fact get his meds and take them. I think a lot of people had never heard of PIH until the earthquake in Haiti, where they've taken a leading role in relief efforts. That didn't happen by accident. They've been on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. They not only know local people--in all likelihood they are the local people.
Last season 99% of the chefs that competed came across as highly skilled, professional-role models. Did you leave with the same feeling once you had taped your show?
Absolutely. Everyone who competed is a pro, and having the opportunity to work together only increased my admiration for them. Participating in TCM is like cooking blindfolded while racing a marathon. Naked. Everybody's watching to see if you trip, if you can handle the pressure. Any chef who has the chutzpah to sign up deserves a prize, particularly veterans like us. In the end, I was delighted by how much fun I had and what I accomplished.
Your profile media wise is quite low key, but in the industry you are well known and highly regarded, has this been an intentional move on your part?
Oh, God, I don't know. I haven't intentionally stayed out of the national limelight. Part of it has to do with the whole I'm-a-bad-boy-and-I'm-playing-with-fire-and-lots-of-fat-so-stand-back thing. The press loves that. It's an easy sell. But I don't know many female chefs who enjoy playing in that arena. We're a little more work. We're just as tough, we work just as hard--I think TCM shows that--but we're a harder sell. The other thing is, given my own inclinations about reaching out and making a national image requires a certain amount of strategic abstraction. Your audience is out there. Local connections have faces, in food and in life. Local connections are immediate--they're much more real to me. I love having relationship with my customers, interacting with my staff and knowing what makes the farmers and vendors who entrust us with their food so passionate about what it is they're doing. Now, that said, I recognize the value of the media, PR and marketing. You can't proselytize about your passion for local turnips if you're standing all alone out in a field--you need people to hear you. In the past few years we've worked hard to make sense of the labyrinth of new on-line media. Rialto has an active and comprehensive website; we send out a monthly newsletter, follow up with weekly emails, and judging by the comments of our customers, people love hearing about what we're thinking and doing at the restaurant.
What do I want people to know about Jody Adams?
What you see is what you get. I don't take myself too seriously, I love hanging out with my family and friends--and if you're looking for a great Italian meal prepared and served by people who care about your experience, you know where to find Rialto.
Do you feel that Top Chef Masters may change that, if so, how would you like to convert this opportunity?
I did Top Chef Masters in order to introduce the Bravo audience to me, to my cuisine, to Rialto and to Partners In Health. No doubt the national TV exposure will be fantastic for all of us. But I also did it to impress my children and staff--they hounded me to say yes.
Do you/did you have a competitive strategy going into the competition -stick to your culinary guns or roll the dice and take risks with techniques and foods that you would not ordinarily use?
Saying yes to TCM meant setting my sights on winning. It never works when I to try to do something that isn't me, so I had to remind myself to stick with what I know. It sounds trite, but whenever I started talking about crazy ideas for dishes, or worrying about what I didn't do--foams and colloids, for example--the people around me would roll their eyes and tell me to "fuhgeddaboudit." Just be myself.
Can you share your food philosophy on cooking, how you feature foods on your menu with GlobalChefs.com's readers?
Kitchen focus hops to a different region of Italy every other month. Some of those regions' culinary traditions are more suitable to one
season than another, so that plays into our 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 we can make a connection like that.
I believe you studied anthropology at Brown University before you made your way into the kitchen, how did the people that you were close to react when you announced that you were stepping away from academia to a craft?
I entered the world of restaurants 100 years ago, before chefs were rock stars and cooking was high stakes entertainment. My family didn't have a clue how restaurants worked, and there were no television shows to inform them, but they knew food and cooking so when it was clear that I had finally found a happy home in a professional kitchen, they were happy. But I still have anthropological tendencies and draw on them when writing regional Italian menus and getting to know people.
Does your anthropological background help you in understanding your guests or team? If so in what way?
An appreciation for the importance of cultural differences is hardwired into me, and at the same time, how universal simple acts of hospitality are. Over the years the Rialto team has been a small United Nations-El Salvador, Haiti, Brazil, Nepal, Peru, Mexico, Lebanon, Russia, Croatia, South Africa, are some of the countries that have been represented.
I believe that each person who walks into Rialto, whether a member of my team or a guest, whether they have 5 houses or none, whether they're a dishwasher or a venture capitalist, has something equally important to contribute and, I am proud to say, I am known for this.
Finally, as a female chef that has had a solid career for many years, what advice would you offer to the next generation of female chefs and who would you suggest they work for?
Becoming a chef is not for the faint of heart or those afraid of competition, male or female. To stand out, it's key to push yourself out of your comfort zone into new and unfamiliar territory, sometimes aggressively. That new situation can be uncomfortable and unfriendly. Moving from line cook to chef, from chef to chef/owner, competing on TCM--none of it has been easy, but I've found that at each stage I seem to grow new muscles and I end up feeling stronger for the experience.
So my advice to the next generation of female chefs is to work for chefs that you and admire and will force you to grow, whether male or female. Look at their food, their style of mentoring and their place in the world. Always strive for excellence in your own work and never settle for a job that is too comfortable. Be your own best advocate, go after what you want, and remember, you don't get what you don't ask for.