If there’s a conversation about female chefs who have paved the way for others in Boston, Jody Adams is always one of the first names that comes to mind. From running Cambridge’s iconic Rialto to opening up new cult-favorite spots like Saloniki, Jody’s mark on Boston’s culinary culture and identity is undeniable. Read through her “Five-Year Plan” to learn more about her struggles and successes in the restaurant industry.
Around 20, I was finishing up my last semester of studying anthropology at Brown. I had decided that I was probably going to become a nurse practitioner.
After I graduated, I went to Spain, France, and Italy for about four months. The idea of working in restaurants hadn’t occurred to me at that point, but I had worked for a woman who taught cooking classes as well as at a catering company throughout high school and college—that’s how I made money. So I’d been in food, but I just didn’t know that food was where I was going to end up.
Another important thing that happened during this time: I volunteered for an event demoed by Julia Child—it was a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood in Providence, and I got to meet her there. I was washing dishes, but still, it was great.
I got married when I was 24. I stayed married for a year, and I was miserable. During that time, I had started working the counter at a gourmet food store in Tiverton, Rhode Island, Provender. I just got into that kitchen and I felt like I was finally home. It was a really exciting time in food; Dean & Deluca had just opened in New York. Sun dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil––all of those things were just being introduced to Americans. Of course, Italians had known about them forever, but we were just finding out about them.
One day while I was working at the store (I’d become a manager), my now-husband walked through the door. Six months later, I knew that my first marriage wasn’t working, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to be a nurse practitioner. I think I was 25. If you’re really unhappy in your marriage or in your professional goals at 25, then you really should make the shift, because it’s going to be a long life of misery if you don’t. I’d figured that much out.
The owner of Provender was aware that I had decided I wanted to go work in a real restaurant. So, one day, as luck would have it, Sara Moulton and Julia Child came into the store, and she introduced me to them. They both told me that I had to go to Boston, and if I went to Boston, I had to work for Lydia Shire at Seasons in the Bostonian Hotel. Lydia was running one of the most innovative kitchens in the country at the time by really pushing the envelope on incorporating new flavors into French technique. When I eventually went in to interview, Lydia was out of town, so I interviewed with her sous chef, Gordon Hamersley.
At first, Seasons passed on me because I didn’t have enough kitchen experience. But then they called back two weeks later and offered me the job. Without pride I said, “Of course! Sure!” I became a line cook.
I was a mess.
I didn’t know how to cook in a restaurant kitchen. I cut myself and I burned myself a lot, and I cried a lot. I got yelled at. There was one night where Gordon needed something and he was banging on the counter to get it from me, but I knew it wasn’t cooked enough to serve yet. He raised his voice, and after service, I went to him and said, “It doesn’t help me when you yell at me. It makes it worse.” I had a goal in mind, and it was that I wanted communication in the kitchen to improve. I wasn’t disrespectful, and he listened to me. I learned that I could speak up for myself. I stayed there for four years, and I moved from the middle station, to grill, to rounds cook, to sauté.
When I was 30, Gordon had just left Seasons to open up his own restaurant called Hamersley's Bistro, and he invited me to join him. It was me, Gordon, one other cook, and a dishwasher. The first years, he was only open six nights a week, and we did everything on the hot line, with someone working garde manger. His wife Fiona did everything in the front of the house. She stapled all the fabric onto the chairs. I was there for three years, and I was sous chef. It was fun, and Gordon and I had a great time together. I loved anticipating what he needed and really being a great support to him. I learned so much about French bistro food and running a restaurant.
After staying at Hamersley’s for three years, I became the executive chef at a restaurant called Michela’s. Gordon told me about this position that had opened up at an Italian restaurant in Kendall Square, which was a very obscure location at the time. It had a cafe and a dining room—we served lunch and dinner in the dining room, and there was a take-out shop during the day, which turned into a cafe at night. It was a very complicated restaurant. I’d been the sous chef of a fifty-seat restaurant, and to go from that to Michela’s was a lot. Also, I had my son when I was 33, so that was part of a busy time, too.
When I was first applying to work at Season’s, I remember that I told Gordon during my interview that I wanted to open my own restaurant. I had no idea what that meant, I was so arrogant and naive! It sounded like a good idea at the time. But by this time, I realized there was still so much to learn, and that arrogance had subsided. Running a restaurant is incredibly labor intensive, and there’s a crisis around every corner.
At 36, I was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs, and at 39, I had my daughter.
Even though we got great reviews from the Globe, Michela Larson (the owner at Michela’s) decided that she wanted to move on. The opportunity to run a restaurant in the Charles Hotel came along around the same time, and so we opened Rialto.
My forties were a time when I was traveling a lot and making a name for myself while getting to know the chef community both in the United States and abroad. That term, “celebrity chef,” didn’t really yet exist, but things were clearly evolving.
In 1997 when I was forty years old, I was named Best New Chef–Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. Around this time, my partners and I opened Red Clay, which was a very casual restaurant in Chestnut Hill. We also opened up a restaurant called Blu in the Sport’s Club LA, and a bar called Noir, which is still in the Charles Hotel today.
When I was 45, my cookbook In the Hands of a Chef that I wrote with my husband Ken Rivard came out, and around age 49, I started leading culinary adventure trips.
The first one was with Oldways to Florence. They led a lot of tours for chefs, writers, and scientists to examine the Mediterranean diet, so there were these trips to Italy and Greece and places like that. Later on, I was approached by an Italian cycling company and asked if I’d like to lead a trip of my own. So, I learned that I didn’t really know how to ride a bike. I didn’t know what it took to, like, go up a hill and shift gears. I was extremely proud, though, because we were in Sicily and it was extremely hilly. I had to get off a couple of times and catch my breath, but I never pushed my bike up a hill.
After thirteen years of service, it became clear that Rialto needed to be reimagined, so my partners left and I took it over on my own as the sole proprietor at 50.
It was a huge adventure for me because I had to hire an architect, graphic designers, and PR companies. I thought I had to know how to do everything by myself. I remember sitting with my architect, who was a friend of mine. I burst into tears and told her I didn’t know what I was doing, and she said, “You’re right, you don’t, but that’s why you have me.” It was such a relief because I thought I had to carry that huge weight by myself. Eventually, though, it all came together, and the Globe gave us a second four-star review. For the Globe to have given Rialto four stars in its first incarnation and then again in its second was really a big deal for us.
When I was 52, I was on Top Chef Masters. I initially thought, no way. I didn’t watch the show, and really didn’t have the time between parenting two children and running the restaurants.
I had actually done a cooking competition on television before, but it was really different. It was a show called Ready, Set, Cook and I competed against Michael Romano who was the chef at Union Square Café. It was so much fun! But it wasn't serious competitive cooking. When I asked my daughter about going on Top Chef Masters, she said, “If you don’t do this now, everybody’s going to know you’re a wimp.” I decided to do it.
That said, I loved it. I had so much fun. I loved the community, and it was absolutely a wonderful experience. I hated losing. Top Chef Masters did incredible things for business. It brought so many new people into the restaurant. I don’t know that I could do it again because it was so demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I don’t regret it at all.
When I was 54, we opened TRADE. Sean Griffing, who was my general manager at Rialto, had been asking and asking about doing a project together with a friend of his, Eric Papachristos. I didn’t know the friend too well, but finally I caved and said okay. I was so consumed with Rialto that I couldn’t be a part of the day-to-day operation of TRADE. It was Eric and Sean who were there. A sous chef from Rialto became the executive chef at TRADE, and overnight, it was enormously successful. We had a great time doing that.
After five years, my partners at TRADE wanted to do another project, and we opened Porto in June of 2016. At the same time, Eric, Jon Mendez and I opened the first fast-casual Saloniki in March of 2016, and the second in January of 2017. I closed Rialto in June of 2016. I would not recommend a year like that.
I’ll say that closing Rialto was hard. I was very sad to do it, and I wasn’t really ready. A bunch of circumstances contributed to the closing. Porto ended up being the hardest restaurant we ever opened––the location, the staffing, everything was difficult. It didn’t get the kind of focus from me that the other restaurants had had because I was so busy with closing Rialto and opening up Saloniki at the same time. It was just so much. The work paid off and today it is humming along.
In April of 2017, after all of that crazy stuff, my younger sister died. She had metastatic breast cancer and she had been doing really well, but in the fall of 2016, there was a change in things. Once that happened, I just crashed. That had never happened to me before. I’ve dealt with a lot of challenges in my life, and I’ve overcome adversity, I’ve started over and I’ve opened restaurants.
If I could go back and change things—and I don’t often say that—I would. I would bring my sister back.
I had to learn how to get comfortable with imperfection in bigger ways than I had before. I had to try and figure out what my job was, because I didn’t have a place to go every day. Now, I spend evenings at Porto one week, and at TRADE the next. In the mornings, I’m at Saloniki or having meetings, going to the gym, or doing life things. I want to write a book, so I need to figure out a way to carve that out.
When you go through a year and a half like I did, and you start to doubt everything, and question everything, and you don’t have a set role to play, it’s a really scary time. It’s really important to listen to the people who know you and love you––my husband and children––who remind you of who you are. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and having faith that where I started was what was important to me—working with food, working with people, and building a community—that’s what I did at Rialto. People went there because it was a safe and comfortable place.
Earlier this year, I was inducted into the Who’s Who of the James Beard Foundation. I’ve started reconnecting with the national community of chefs. I’d stopped during that year and a half, but I’ve started to re-enter the world again.
~As told to Oset Babür/The Thirty-One Percent