James Beard Semifinalist Jody Adams Talks Rialto, Trade

Adams discusses her nominations, work ethic, and whether she'll expand her empire.

Adams, center, with Trade partners Eric Papachristos (right) and Sean Griffing (left).

On Tuesday, the James Beard Foundation released its semifinalists for the 2012 James Beard awards, and an awesome selection of local chefs were represented in this round (Eater Boston has the full rundown of semifinalists, which includes Jamie Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa, Maura Kilpatrick of Oleana and Sofra, and Jason Bond of Bondir). One chef in particular, Jody Adams, made a particularly stellar showing, with nominations for both Outstanding Chef (for Rialto) and Best New Restaurant (Trade).

On Wednesday, I chatted with Adams to gauge her reaction to the big-deal recognition. Ahead, she discusses the awards, her work ethic, and whether or not she’ll expand her restaurant empire beyond Massachusetts.

First of all, congrats on the nomination! I know you’ve won Best Chef: Northeast, but is this the first time that you’ve been nominated for Outstanding Chef?
I won [Best Chef: Northeast] in 1997. It was a long time ago, so this is really exciting. Absolutely. We keep our heads down and work really hard, and then once a year the nominations appear, and it’s a big deal for everybody. This was really unexpected and something I hadn’t sort of considered. It’s just amazing recognition, not just for the work that I do but for everyone that has contributed to the success of the restaurant.

Rialto’s been recognized as a really important restaurant for a very long time. Why do you think it took so long for you to get an Outstanding Chef nomination?
In 2007, I reinvented Rialto on my own. I got a lot of attention for that. I think with the kinds of work I’m doing as well, it isn’t necessarily what I do inside the restaurant but what I do outside the restaurant. The participation in Top Chef: Masters, the focus on [the charity] Partners in Health at the time. So I think it’s cumulative, but Trade absolutely kind of kicked it all up. I have fantastic young partners [Eric Papachristos and Sean Griffing] with great energy and vision, and we put together this restaurant that hits on the right note. It’s a beautiful balance to Rialto. I think I have shown that I can do these kinds of restaurants. I have shown that I am somebody that has been very committed to the work I have done in Rialto. My integrity is intact.

How does winning the award, or even being nominated, affect your business?
It brings enormous attention. People believe in [the awards] as being recognition from your peers and qualified people in the industry for that particular year. In my case it’s cumulative. It’s incredibly exciting for the staff. In both restaurants they are vibrating. To be recognized for both restaurants was sort of perfect. It doesn’t only give us excitement, but also confidence. There’s so much scrutiny on what we do — everyone is a critic. We just have to stay true to who we are.

How do you think Boston was represented overall in the nominations?
I think it’s recognized well in terms of pastry chefs, and regional nominations. I like that since we are New England, and the Northeast, it’s nice to see other cities get attention and not just cities in Boston. I am thrilled for Joanne [Chang, Flour Bakery] and Maureen [Kilpatrick, Oleana, Sofra] and Jamie [Bissonnette, Toro, Coppa] and all the people that were nominated. Melissa Kelly [Primo Restaurant, Maine] and Nancy Silverton [Osteria Mozza, L.A.] are good friends of mine. I feel like I’m in great company.

How do you divide your time between Trade and Rialto at this point?
I am back and forth on the Red Line; I have a [Charlie Card]. I go back and forth. Yesterday I was at Rialto all day, I had lots of meetings, and then around 8 p.m. I went to Trade for a few hours. I might spend a couple hours at Trade having meetings and spend all afternoon and evening at Rialto. My office is at Rialto, so in terms of percentage time, I spend more time in Cambridge.

How many hours are you putting in each week?
This morning I was up at a 6:30 a.m. writing recipes and menus. Some weeks it’s 50 hours, and some weeks it’s 80. I am not very good at compartmentalizing things like leisure and work. It all bleeds together. The beauty of the situation is we have a wonderful chef, Andrew Hebert, who has worked with me for six years at two restaurants [Rialto and Blu, before Trade]. It makes it possible for me to continue to focus on Rialto and spend time with my family.

How have the openings of Rialto and Trade differed for you?
Opening Rialto 18 years ago, that was a long time ago. When I [reopened] Rialto five years ago, I was on my own. It was a different kind of risk because I was taking a restaurant that was very well loved and established, and changing it. I was running the risk of having people say, ‘This isn’t Rialto.’ I wrote the menu, I designed the recipes, I designed the uniforms, I chose what the menu covers looked like by myself. There was a huge amount of pressure and a lot of anxiety. When I opened Trade, I had two partners, so the three of us did that together. Anytime you do something new, anytime you step into the fire, you are going to have critics and people who challenge you as to whether or not you are successful. Doing that with partners, that meant I could have someone to talk to when I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Are the tables the right height? What if we can’t get food out fast enough? What if nobody comes on a Saturday night in the Financial District?’

Many of the Outstanding Chef winners in years past have restaurant empires, with locations nationally and internationally. Would you ever consider branching out beyond Massachusetts?
I have been asked to look at places all over the country, and at this point I am not interested. Traveling, that’s a different kind of lifestyle. Lifestyle is really important to me, being able to get from one restaurant to another in 20 minutes to know who the staff is in both restaurants, and being able to be with my family and decide on a day like today — it’s my 26th anniversary with my husband today — that we would go on a bike ride. It takes a different kind of personality to do that successfully, and my partners aren’t interested in doing that either.

Where have you been asked, out of curiosity?
I have been asked to cook up in New Hampshire, Vermont, Manhattan, and Chicago.
Would you ever consider these in the future?
Not right now. I have got enough to pay attention to right now. If I am going to do work outside of this area, I would rather do it in a place where I could make a different kind of contribution.

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