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?

Photograph by Chad Griffith

Photograph by Chad Griffith

Standing on a temporary stage set along the banks of the Charles River, Jody Adams is clutching a 10-inch knife. A few hundred local food geeks are gathered on this sticky June morning to watch one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs teach Governor Deval Patrick how to cook a lobster. Adams flicks a strand of rust-colored hair off her face and, with a definitive thwack, separates the live animal’s body from its tail.

Next to her, Patrick shifts awkwardly on his feet. He’s wearing a white chef’s coat with “Rialto” embroidered on the lapel. Compared with Adams, who glides across the stage in her signature ensemble (flowing skirt, dangly earrings, no makeup), he’s a stiff. He keeps picking up tools and eyeing them uncertainly, waiting for instruction. Finally, Adams hands him the knife.

“Careful,” she mothers, gently laying a hand on his arm. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

The governor raises an eyebrow at the audience, prompting a chuckle, and allows Adams to position the knife in his hand before pointing to the lobster’s sweet spot. Thwack. Thwack! Patrick blinks as he’s showered in lobster juice.

The audience at the annual Let’s Talk about Food festival, an outdoor event at the Museum of Science exploring the relationships among food, health, science, and cooking, is smaller than it should be for two such high-profile presenters. But Adams doesn’t seem to notice. She keeps things rolling, coaxing the governor to grate garlic, whisk a vinaigrette, and finally plate the pan-roasted lobsters over a grilled corn salad. With nudges of encouragement (“You are really good at this”; “an expert chef…”), she soothes his apparent nerves, and by the time he’s picked up a fork to taste their creation, Patrick actually seems to be enjoying himself.

That Jody Adams is perfectly at ease with the governor should come as no surprise. She is, after all, Jody Adams. The founding chef and owner of Rialto, the landmark Harvard Square restaurant, she was named best chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation in 1997; has earned raves from Food & Wine magazine; appears at countless charity events; and even popped up last year on the Bravo reality show Top Chef Masters, in which renowned chefs from around the country compete in cooking challenges. (She made it to the top seven.)

But let’s be clear: Jody Adams does not want to be considered a “celebrity chef.” Okay, she did agree to appear on that TV show. “There was the exposure, of course….” she explains, trailing off. But there was also the chance to raise money for the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health, which would get anything she won. “And,” she offers as a kind of last defense, “my kids talked me into it.”

But, it’s worth asking, has Adams done herself any favors by resisting the spotlight in a city where hot young chefs come up the line in a flash, open new ventures with hardly a month’s notice, experiment with pop-up restaurants, and cook up brand identities as often as inspired new dishes? For 18 years, she’s operated the same restaurant. There’s been no licensing of her name to hot new projects. No cookware line. Just one restaurant, for nearly two decades.

That is, until now. Trade, her new Boston venture, is set to open this month. It marks the first time Adams, 54, has taken her own name for a real spin. Unlike Rialto, which she opened as part of a team of boldfacers and took over only later, Trade is, from the ground up, a Jody Adams joint. And whereas Rialto is hidden shyly away on the second floor of the Charles Hotel, Trade, set as it is on a bustling downtown corner, is a showoff.

Finally, it seems, one of this city’s brightest culinary stars is about to take her next step in shaping our food scene. So why did she wait so long?

A few weeks after sharing the stage with Governor Patrick, Adams, wearing a knee-length skirt and a sporty jacket, visits the still-raw space that will become Trade. The restaurant’s name, chosen by Adams and her two partners, Sean Griffing and Eric Papachristos, comes from its location inside the former Russia Wharf Building, a historical goods-trading hub. It’s set at the corner of Congress Street and Atlantic Avenue, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Greenway. The site is still a tangle of cables and lumber, with workers in hardhats scurrying about.

Adams is pointing out where the Wood Stone oven will go; she and the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Andrew Hebert, traveled to Washington State, where the oven company is based, to test it out a few weeks back. The oven will be the primary cooking source for the many flatbreads and roasted entrées on the menu, which, along with everything else having to do with this place, Adams keeps describing as “simple.”

“Think really simple,” she says, referring to the clean lines and pops of color architect Maryann Thompson has planned for the design, which will preserve the building’s original vaulted ceilings and steel beams. Simple, too, is the hot line in the kitchen, to include that wood oven, a couple of burners, and a grill—but also a flat, griddlelike cooktop called a plancha (“less pans to wash,” notes Adams).
And there’ll be a simple, casual menu: small plates, flatbreads, salads, entrées. The flavors will be bold, she says, but not ambitious. “We want to make sure that everything we’re putting on the plate is what we want it to be. And that we can meet the volume that walks through this door.”

And if the crowds do pour in, the effect could be monumental. Trade occupies a coveted piece of real estate—a gateway to the Fort Point Channel neighborhood that’s been up and coming for years, yet has remained disconnected from the rest of the city’s dining scene. The opening of Trade, along with the neighboring steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, could take the hopeful vision of chefs Barbara Lynch and Joanne Chang, who have set up shop across the channel, to an entirely new level. Our downtown dining landscape, a sleeper compared with, say, the scene in the South End or Back Bay, might finally wake up.