Jody Under Construction

By Erin Byers Murray | Boston Magazine |

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.

For Larson, the frustration emanating from her chef was palpable. “She didn’t want any more voices in the mix,” Larson explains. After 16 years, the pair decided it was time to split. Adams took full custody of Rialto, while Larson and Haskell moved on to other ventures.

Adams shut Rialto down for five weeks, then reopened in February 2007, ushering in a new era. The redesign was a truer reflection of its sole owner: lighter, softer, more approachable. And Adams was the decision-maker.

“It wasn’t just about the food or the customers,” says Adams. “It was about the budget, about, ‘Do the chairs fit around the table? Do the uniforms work?’ Every piece of that restaurant came from my head.” The menu was overhauled, too. Instead of an overarching Mediterranean influence, Adams became hyperfocused on regional Italian cuisine, with a menu that covered a new area of the country every month. And instead of spending all of her time concentrating on what came out of the kitchen, she had to build a staff that could execute her vision, beginning with her rising chef de cuisine, Carolyn Johnson.

“It was nerve-racking,” says Johnson. “We were going for a four-course menu with a pasta course in the middle, which no one in Boston was doing then. We had no idea how diners would respond.” For Adams, the reinvention transformed her as much as it did the restaurant. “I was terrified that people would discover that I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admits. “I didn’t have enough confidence. But once I opened these new doors to Rialto and people came in, it was like something had been peeled off of me.”

JODY ADAMS ISN’T exactly basking in free time. On a recent Monday, she’s zipping around a farm party hosted by the local food publication Edible Boston. Tuesday, she’s up early for a bike ride (she’s training for the 192-mile Pan-Mass Challenge), then sits in a two-hour meeting before hitting the kitchen with her cooks to prep a dish for that night’s Taste of Cambridge fundraising event. Wednesday there’s another bike ride, another round of meetings, and then she’s glad-handing local press and posing for photos during a reception celebrating the summer opening of the Rialto terrace. (“But I’m not wearing any makeup!” she protests.) On Thursday’s agenda: a Guerrilla Grilling expedition—a name she’s given to the regular farm and purveyor visits she makes with her entire kitchen staff. On these trips, the crew loads up a car with pantry items, visits an organic farm, a poultry processor, or a chocolate maker, and, after a tour or a hands-on lesson, whips up a feast for the host’s staff. On a rare Friday morning at home, Adams speedily chops garlic while working on a recipe for the food blog that she and Rivard launched in June. The Garum Factory, named for an ancient fermented condiment, is an online repository of recipes, stories, and food photography. By noon, she’s out the door to visit the new Trade space, and finally it’s back to Rialto for a 10-hour shift.

Given her already-packed schedule, it’s understandable that Adams would be reluctant to open a new business. Adding to the trepidation is the fact that any chef with more than one venture—Ken Oringer (Clio, Uni, Toro, Coppa), Michael Schlow (Radius, Via Matta, Tico)—will have his or her critics. The kind ones will question how you can devote your time to multiple ventures and still maintain the quality; the cruel ones fling the s-word (sellout). But if any chef in town has a proven ability to multitask, it’s Adams. So why, when it comes to building her own brand, has she remained more tortoise than hare?