Jody Under Construction
In this era of celebrity chefs and restaurant empires, culinary powerhouse Jody Adams has dodged the spotlight for decades. But with a new Boston restaurant about to open, she’s finally embracing her personal brand. The question is: what took her so long?
Adams didn’t follow the usual culinary-school path to greatness. After studying at Brown, where she majored in anthropology, she worked with a writer and teacher named Nancy Verde Barr, whom the chef credits with teaching her the fundamentals of cooking. Barr also introduced Adams to Julia Child, who would become a major inspiration. When Adams moved to Boston to join her soon-to-be husband, Ken Rivard, Child gave her some simple advice: “Go work for Lydia.”
At the time, Lydia Shire was one of a handful of chefs—and, really, the only woman—defining Boston cuisine. She worked at Seasons, in the Bostonian Hotel, along with Gordon Hamersley, who wound up granting an interview to Adams despite the fact that, to that point, she’d cooked only as a caterer. Hamersley wound up passing her over for someone with actual restaurant experience. Ten days later, though, disappointed in his first choice, he made Adams an offer.
“She burned fish, she burned meat, she bled all over the place,” recalls Hamersley. But she learned quickly, and when Hamersley and his wife, Fiona, opened their eponymous bistro in the South End in 1987, Hamersley brought Adams with him. There, he says, she was “instrumental” in the creation of new recipes, many of which, like his well-known roast chicken, he still serves today.
Hamersley’s was intense—shot-out-of-a-cannon intense—and Adams fit right in. When she sliced her hand on a tin-can lid one hectic Saturday night, she ran to the emergency room and returned, heavily bandaged, to the line, shoving Hamersley off her station so that she could resume her shift. When a roast chicken wasn’t done properly, she threw it across the kitchen in frustration. And when she gave birth to her son, Oliver, in 1989, she was back to work in just three weeks.
But being driven sometimes means having to make difficult personal choices. Adams was clocking almost 100 hours a week. She finally pulled her boss aside. Hamersley says her request to scale back her hours was like “a bucket of water had been thrown over me. It made me realize these people have lives, too.”
The battle for work-life balance has been a constant one, Adams admits. “Ken and I made this agreement that one parent would be at home,” she explains. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be the parent at home.’” Though Rivard always worked (as a ghostwriter, he’s published four books), he was the primary caregiver for their two kids, Roxanne, now 15, and Oliver, 21. That meant Adams missed bedtime baths, story time, and tagging along on her daughter’s first bra-shopping excursion. But, Rivard notes, that was their choice. “The responsibility of our family has always been in her hands,” he says.
“It was not easy for me at all,” says the working mom. “There were plenty of times when I was done, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I want to be at home.’ But I’d made my choice.”
Shortly after Adams’s son came along, both she and Hamersley recognized that it was time for a change. An executive chef position had opened up at Michela’s, a restaurant owned by Michela Larson, and Hamersley encouraged her to apply. “I sort of threw her out of the kitchen,” he says. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted her to go, but it was time.”
“I was perfectly happy,” recalls Adams. “I was not looking to leave. In fact, when I gave my notice, I cried. But it was the right thing for me. It was a small restaurant. It was time for me to take the next step and leave, so that somebody else could come in.”
Compared with the tiny South End kitchen she’d come from, Michela’s was a beast: lunch and dinner service in the dining room, plus an all-day café, seven days a week. Adams was stepping into the shoes of a powerful predecessor, Todd English, and she fought to make the place her own.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t have a chicken on the menu,’” recalls Larson. Instead, Adams needed to create her own signature dish, one that wasn’t linked to her past. So she developed a “drop-dead, absolutely delicious” crispy roast duck, says Larson, a dish that still appears on the Rialto menu today.
Adams continued to work hard, and it paid off. In 1994, an opportunity for partnership came along: The Charles Hotel was looking for a restaurant, and Larson was looking for a new project that would allow her to share ownership. With Christopher Myers and Karen Haskell, Larson and Adams opened Rialto, focusing on Mediterranean cuisine. It was the first time Adams had control over her own menu. Right out of the gate, Rialto received four stars from Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett.
Still, it took a while for Adams to warm up to the spotlight. “She was shy about coming out to the dining room,” Larson recalls. “She had to put on another face. At the beginning, it was like, ‘Jody, you have to comb your hair.’”
“I didn’t see myself as the world saw me,” Adams says. “I saw myself as being the chef in the kitchen, always connected to the staff.”
Thanks to Adams, Rialto began to produce some of the city’s top cooking talent—a string of notable protégés who share Adams’s no-nonsense work ethic. There was Joanne Chang, whom Adams hired with barely any experience in a restaurant kitchen. Despite lacking dessert skills herself, Adams helped turn Chang into one of the city’s most respected pastry chefs. “She took the dishes that were spinning through my head and showed me how to make them great,” says Chang, who went on to open Flour Bakery + Café and Myers + Chang.
Then there was a young guy named Dante de Magistris, who worked at Rialto early in his career and later was the chef at Blu inside the Sports Club/LA, which Adams and her partners ran for several years. De Magistris credits Adams for mentorship that went beyond the stove. “At the time, I was just thinking about food: where it was coming from, the history. She was trying to get me out of that, to think about the bigger picture and become a better manager,” he says. De Magistris now owns Dante and Il Casale.
And there have been countless others: Chris Parsons, who would later helm Catch and Parsons Table; Tom Fosnot, who went on to run Rocca and now Gibbet Hill Grill; Nuno Alves, currently cooking at Tavolo; and a tenacious young toque named Carolyn Johnson, who today can be found at 80 Thoreau. More than any other restaurant at the time—or, for that matter, since—Rialto became the place for rising stars to cut their teeth.
But for Adams’s partners, it wasn’t enough that she was developing menus, educating a new generation, and leading her staff. Dick Friedman, owner of the Charles Hotel, wanted Adams to be the face of the restaurant. “In the early years, Jody was always just in the background,” says Friedman, adding that he didn’t “think it would be a detriment to her food if she were out promoting more.”
Larson urged her to offer cooking classes for restaurant patrons, something Adams did reluctantly at first but quickly embraced.
Outside the restaurant, Adams’s name was growing. Food & Wine called her one of the nation’s best new chefs in 1993, and 1997 brought the prestigious James Beard Award. By the time Adams put out her cookbook, In the Hands of a Chef—coauthored by her husband—in 2002, she and Rialto were synonymous with fine dining in Boston. A collection of important regulars started filling the place, and became friends. People like Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl from Partners in Health, one of three nonprofits she supports. (The Greater Boston Food Bank and Share Our Strength are the other two—Strength cofounder Billy Shore even held his wedding reception at Rialto.) Jack Connors, the former head of the Hill Holliday advertising agency who is now a philanthropic powerhouse, was a prominent fan. “I’m crazy about her,” says Connors, who handed Adams what might have been her most prestigious cooking opportunity to date this past spring: He invited her to prepare the menu for a $35,800-a-couple fundraiser for President Obama. The big shots came at first for the food; they returned to catch some face time with the rising star who was now walking the dining room with ease.
But just as she began to grow comfortable with this new, more public role, the Rialto partnership started to shift. Myers moved on, leaving the trio of Larson, Haskell, and Adams to open other projects (Red Clay in Chestnut Hill, Blu at the Sports Club/LA, and Noir, a bar inside the Charles Hotel), all of which had Adams focused solely on food and kitchen management. By 2006, when Rialto’s contract with the hotel was coming to an end, Adams was “bursting at the seams” to learn new skills.