Chef Jody Adams proved to be one tough cookie on this season’s Top Chef Masters. Adams, in competition with top chefs like Rick Moonen, Susur Lee, and Marcus Samuelsson, survived a number of battles (including an obscure Quickfire challenge to produce dishes designed to look like characters from The Simpsons) before being eliminated during a recent Exotic Surf and Turf challenge. Her first visit to Bravo’s popular competition series, the award-winning chef was happy to be a part of the season, noting that her on-air experience was full of great personal growth.
I think it’s the kind of challenge that teaches you about yourself in ways that you can’t imagine and it was an amazingly positive experience for me in all kinds of ways.
Upon her departure, Adams returned to her lauded restaurant, Rialto, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The four-star restaurant, noted as one of the best by both Esquire and Gourmet, has been Adams’ home since opening in 1994. In addition to regularly being recognized for her regional Italian dishes, the chef is also actively involved in local non-profit organizations, like Share Our Strength, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Partners in Health.
Chef Adams was kind enough to answer a few questions on her recent Top Chef Masters stint, being a chef in Boston, and her adventurous Guerrilla Grilling program.
Q: How is your thinking different when you’re in the middle of a competition like Top Chef Masters?
A: In my life as a chef and restaurateur, whatever my immediate task, I’m factoring in a host of considerations both professional and personal. In thinking about a menu, for example, I’m considering what’s available, what’s local, what I can do with those ingredients, balancing demanding preparations against less complicated ones so that my cooks aren’t overwhelmed, considering how far I can push the envelope with my clients–familiarity versus unfamiliar territory, whether there’s a tie-in with a potential upcoming cooking class I might be teaching, how that might effect my schedule, etc. Top Chef Masters, in contrast, pares everything down to some very simple considerations–what do I have in front of me, and how can I make something that will win. It was like being a line cook again–how do I make this food great and get it out on time. I loved how simple the goal was.
Q: What have you taken away from your TCM experience?
A: Never be ten minutes behind. Always give yourself an extra twenty minutes.
Q: Your restaurant, Rialto, has been recognized as one of the best restaurants in the Boston area. What sets it apart from other local eateries?
A: Two things. First, we’re still interested in working with regional cuisine. At one time that used to be really important to a lot of restaurants, especially French or Italian. In the last decade it seems there’s been a greater focus on chefs as creative geniuses, wherever they take their inspiration. I’m a good cook, and I love working with local seasonal ingredients, but my menus are always inspired by regional Italian technique or flavor combinations. Secondly, if you’ve eaten in my restaurant more than twice there’s a good chance I’ve met you. I believe in knowing my customers.
Q: What do you love about being a chef in Massachusetts?
A: I grew up in Rhode Island and I love New England. I’m a big fan of seasons, of edges, of times when you can get one thing and not another, so you look forward to the time when you can get that thing that’s not available now, and you celebrate what is available. I hate the Anywhere, USA phenomena, the kind of corporatization, whether it farming or bookstores, that strips a place of its uniqueness. New England still has a lot of resistance to that.
Q: Tell me more about your great Guerrilla Grilling program.
A: I started the program as a way of duplicating a something that’s taken for granted in Europe, that is, seeing a connection between what’s on your plate and where the original ingredients came from. Guerrilla Grilling came about as a way of introducing my staff to that story. We meet with one of our suppliers–a farmer who specializes in turnips, a seafood wholesaler, a dairy and cattle farmer, a woman who’s the third generation of cheese-makers in her family–and then we cook a meal together with that ingredient. My staff loves it, I get a ton of email from customers who love reading about our adventures, and it gives everyone a connection with all the great people producing wonderful food in New England. (Editor’s note: You can follow the adventures of the Guerrilla Grilling program here at Jody’s blog.)
Q: What’s up next for you?
A: Rialto, of course. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe another book, maybe another restaurant. I’m open.