I recently had the chance to do an email interview with Chef Jody Adams, one of the chefs from Top Chef Masters. I was super excited about this opportunity because I have eaten at her restaurant and it was one of the best meals of my life! When Nate and I were pennyless newlyweds in Boston, my boss gave us a hefty gift certificate to Rialto, Jody’s restaurant in Harvard Square. We used the certificate for our anniversary and it’s a night I’ll never forget. We enjoyed our dinner for well over 3 hours (luxurious!) and every bite was perfect. It was a special night that I’ll always cherish.
Jody is a fantastic chef who is committed to supporting local farmers and charitable work. It’s been fun watching her on Top Chef Masters…and even more fun thinking up questions to ask her directly. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Q: The culinary world is traditionally male-dominated. Was it hard as a woman to break into the field? Has being a woman in this field been generally frustrating or empowering?
Jody: Mercifully, the days when a woman would be excluded from a kitchen because of her sex are mostly behind us. Even three decades ago my first restaurant job was in a kitchen under a female chef, Lydia Shire, one of the most successful chefs in Boston. My first big step up in the game was as sous-chef, for Gorden Hamersley, who had once been Lydia’s sous-chef. Kitchens are meritocracies; at the minimum, you have to be able to do the physical labor. To advance, you need more than that–you need drive, ambition, talent and a willingness to push yourself outside your comfort zone. I’m a hard worker and I knew if I could get in the door I’d have a chance. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never been employed by some moron with dinosaur attitudes toward women. That said, I think the current media tends to spin culinary culture in a way that doesn’t serve women well. It has to do with the whole I’m-a-bad-boy-chef-cooking-with-lots-of-pork affect. The press loves it, it makes good t.v., male cooks know it, and the public eats it up. It’s an easy sell. Not many female chefs enjoy playing in that arena; most of the male chefs I know don’t either. Women are just as tough as men, we work just as hard, but what we’re about as cooks is often a little more complicated. That means writers have to dig a little deeper, and the story’s a harder sell. My hope for the future is that the work I and other women chefs have done for the last 30 years will build a diverse culinary culture that moves forward toward the light rather than standing still or going backwards.
Q: You do a wonderful job of supporting local farms at your restaurant Rialto. Given the growing importance of eating and growing locally, do you think other restaurants will adopt this practice in a timely manner? As consumers, what is the best way we can support this movement?
Jody: The good news is that we ARE in the middle of a local food movement and chef/owners of restaurants like Rialto have been buying from local farmers for over 25 years. We do it because the food tastes better, we are committed to supporting and possibly saving farms and because we can. But not everyone has access to local food, and making sweeping statements about what consumers, in the broad general sense, should be doing is something I like to be careful about. We as a members of the American community that eats food, that would be all of us, should do everything we can to ensure that all members of the community have access to fresh local healthy food. People like Michael Pollan, Anne Cooper, Mark Bittman, Jamie Oliver and of course, Alice Waters are not quiet about this.
So on the personal direct level, I say, buy from local farms and producers, support chefs and restaurants that do the same and enjoy it!
On a community level–and this is going to be political–educate yourself about school lunches, urban food deserts, portion sizes, industrial food, government subsidies. Recognize that these problems are ours and belong to our community and are therefore ours to fix.
Q: We know you can’t give any spoiler alerts, so without getting too detailed, what has been your favorite part of being on Top Chef Masters?
Jody: Finding out how much fun it was. I was scared going into it–no support staff, no “do-overs,” none of the second chances I’d get in my own kitchen. But my competition and I shared an enormous amount of mutual respect. In some cases we’ve cooked at each other’s restaurants or worked fund-raisers together. Although each of us was trying to win, there was a kind of we’re-all-in-the-same-leaky-lifeboat camaraderie, so it ended up being fun, everyone in the same kitchen cooking for their lives.
Q: Any fun kitchen tips for at-home cooks?
Jody: Buy one really good knife–it’s an investment in your culinary life–and learn how to use it. Here’s my cheap tip: get a Microplane–what it can do with garlic alone is worth many times the twelve or fifteen dollars it will cost you.
Q: One final quick question I have to ask…it’s fast, but maybe impossible to answer! What is your favorite food?
Jody: It depends on the time of the year and the circumstances. A lot of what I love about particular foods is the way they evoke people and circumstances with whom I’ve eaten them, and I like calling up those feelings whenever I can. Down at the Cape where I spend time with my family every August, my favorite food is striped bass or bluefish, fresh out of the water, grilled at a picnic with friends, accompanied by local corn and tomatoes. On Christmas, it would be roast goose, followed by my mother’s plum pudding, and then a couple of days later, goose and cranberry risotto we’ve made from at my sister’s house from leftovers.
Be sure to check out Top Chef Masters Wednesday nights. And here are a few recipes from Jody!