|Chef Jody Adams|
|Features - Chefs and Restaurants|
|Written by LIS Staff|
Chef Jody Adams is one of the key players on the Boston cooking scene. Over the last 20 years, she has cooked at Seasons restaurant, helped to open Hamersley’s Bistro and has been executive chef at Michela’s in Cambridge. Currently, The James Beard award winner is the owner of Rialto in Cambridge. Chef Adams was kind enough to sit down with LIS at the end February.
Chef, each season, we feature one or two chefs to talk about cooking creatively with local and seasonal ingredients.
So you came to me for the dead of winter. Thanks. <Laughing>
Well, we needed a pro. Spring will be here soon so perhaps we can start by talking about more bountiful times. How does having a farmers’ market literally at your doorstep influence your menu?
Well, yes, we have a fabulous farmer’s market right outside here in front of the Charles Hotel – it’s here Sundays and Fridays. So we have the luxury of being able to look out our window on those days to see what is coming out of the ground. Farmers come back year after year and we get to know them. When we need something we go to them. There’s someone who brings honey and mushrooms, there are all kinds of fruits and vegetables, duck eggs, pickles and wonderful bread and cheeses.
However, day to day to day, at Rialto we also work with farmers who deliver. We talk to them on the phone. It works well for us and for them. Some farmers email us a list of what’s available. Others are less high tech. They call us and ask “well, let’s see, do you want some pea greens today?” It’s much more, sort of, loosey goosey. I love how different the experience is with each farmer. It’s a dialogue, not just a list.
We’ve been working with some farmers for 16 years and we really like those relationships. But there are so many farmers to work with. The long and short of it is, we wait patiently all winter and then as soon as we can, we order as much as we can from as many people as we can. Our farmers list is very long.
Is there a point when the list becomes unmanageable?
Unfortunately, we do reach a point of saturation where we can’t take on any more farms. We will take on maybe one a year and maybe lose a farmer. We lost one of our favorite people last year due to an injury that forced him to close up shop. That created an opening for us to work with somebody else. We love working directly with farmers. They bring the dirt into the kitchen, you know? The cooks see them, talk to them and get to know them…we feed them. I love going to a farmer’s market to see and touch and smell everything as well, but I also love having farmers come to us so they can see who we are and how we handle their products. I absolutely believe in farmers' markets And feel a responsibility to buy as much as possible. I think that everybody should support them and more and more people are. People are more intrepid about trying new things like kolrahbi and Romanesco and learning how to cook them.
It's fun to be boxed in sometimes, right? If you can make anything in the world at any time it’s not a recipe for real creativity. It's actually the opposite.
Yes, instead of feeling free to make anything, people start eating the same thing over and over again. It's actually why I like putting the box of Italy around Rialto, and then moving from region to region in my menus because it allows me to really focus on putting ingredients together that work together naturally, and putting dishes together that have a thread.
Outside of produce, what other local products find their way into the Rialto kitchen?
The people we buy clams from, Pat and Barbara Woodbury, are local Wellfleet farmers, the guys we buy oysters from at Island Creek Oysters are farmers, many of our cheeses are made locally, and our rabbits and quail come from Vermont, our beef is from Massachusetts. We buy our crème fraiche and butter and yogurt (although we make our own yogurt as well) from Vermont Butter & Cheese. We buy mozzarella from Lourdes at Fiore di Nonno in Somerville and the Taza Chocolate we buy comes from Somerville as well. Our honey, maple syrup and jams are locally made. We like to serve local fish… Pollack, skate, shad roe, lobster…etc.
Are there any unusual products that we might not be aware of?
Stony Brook in Geneva New York is making butternut squash seed oil. It’s amazing. It’s a little like using sesame oil. It’s a seasoning oil, or condiment, not a cooking oil and it’s intense so just a little bit is needed. We are serving an antipasto plate with cheese, roasted vegetables, seckel pears, pumpkin seeds and a little drizzle of this oil.
What are your “go-to” New England ingredients?
Salt cod, clams, oysters, tomatoes, cornmeal. I really love salt cod. I also love peas. I was accused by a reviewer of putting too many peas on one of my Spring menus, because I was using pea tips, and peas. As soon as something becomes available locally, I use it. In Italy, you'll see peas in every course if peas are available.
The fish is all local. Right now we have pollack, monkfish, lobster, oysters from Island Creek, and clams from Wellfleet. In writing a menu I start by asking, “What local seasonal ingredients make sense to pair with the regional focus?”
Sometimes I'll do a chowdery kind of seafood stew in the spirit of a New England clam chowder. Since Rialto is an Italian restaurant I don't do New England style dishes but I use New England ingredients when I can. Maple syrup, for example, isn't something you find in Italy, but I will incorporate it into a marinade for pork.
What is the taste of winter to you?
Well the taste of winter...root vegetables. Beets, Macomber turnips, and Jerusalem artichokes, and then braises. Right now our lamb dish includes a grilled rack and lamb shank, braised in Barolo wine. The braised shank is shredded and stuffed into cabbage leaves with chestnuts and mushrooms. Very rich. The rich needed a light bright accent so I added carrots.
Our chicken dish has Jerusalem artichokes puree, the tuna has beets...
What would you tell the winter farmers’ market buyer who says, “I just don’t know what to do with a turnip!”?
Think outside the turnip box. For example, you can eat all root vegetables raw, except may potatoes.
In the late fall I did a demo at the farmers' market with nothing to cook on. So I improvised. I collected beets, turnips, radishes, and Jerusalem artichokes, all of that root stuff that farmers have at the end of season and sliced them very thin on a mandoline and tossed them with lettuces and herbs and dressed it with a nice, nutty sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Then I added sliced apples for sweetness because beets are kind of bitter and taste a little like dirt. Apples are a nice accent to dirt. It was a gorgeous raw salad, and people were really surprised at how delicious it was.
Roasting root vegetables is another great option. The technique brings out all the natural sugars, .
Peel the roots, cut them into even pieces, toss with salt and pepper and oil and roast at 400 degrees.
A lot of people probably get turned off to root vegetables because they never tasted them prepared really well.
Yeah, I think that's very true. Many people don't know what to do with them..
Another option that comes to mind is related to CSAs. Let's say your farmer delivers 5 pounds of carrots and you don't know what to do with them all. Braise them with some onions, garlic, ginger, orange juice, and tarragon, and then purée them. You have a base for a variety of recipes. Use it as is as a vegetable (purées aren’t just for babies). Use it as a pasta sauce. The Italians, purée all kinds of things and turn them into pasta sauces.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently who said that's how she gets her kids to eat vegetables. All kids love pasta, right? So it's not a secret, it's not like you're hiding it. We get stuck thinking that the only vegetable sauce for pasta is made with tomatoes. Why not carrots?
You can also use it as a base for a soup. Add vegetable or chicken stock and you have a beautiful flavorful soup.
I like to freeze the base purée in pint containers.
People generally don’t think of root vegetables as being this versatile.
Whatever you can do with carrots, you can do with beets, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac…the list goes on. By caramelizing them and then braising them in something other than just water or by roasting them until they are golden and caramelized, the flavor gets really intense, you get this really amazing base.
You focus on Italian cuisine. Other than Italian, what’s the second best?
Other than Italian? Mediterranean. But to be honest, I cheat a little when I write my Italian menus at Rialto. I move freely into the other parts of Europe…Greece, Spain and southern France, Northern Italy moves you into France, Switzerland and Austria, and eastern Italy moves you down to Croatia and Greece, and western Sicily moves you over to the Arab countries. The beauty of Italy is it touches a little of everything. In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region you see a lot of yogurt, feta, and in Sicily there is cous cous.
There's a dish on the menu right now that almost looks like Italian by way of Japan, almost a ramen with pasta, pork belly, and a porcini broth.
Yes, well it's a combination of ideas. It’s based on a dish that's actually in my cookbook that I've been making for 16 years. The recipe includes a rich porcini broth, soft polenta, taleggio cheese, a poached egg, and truffles.
We should have eaten before we came here.
It’s a great dish and I sold it for years. On this menu I decided I wanted to switch it up a little bit, so I’m doing it with pasta rather than polenta. The idea for the dish originally came from Acquacotta a soup from Tuscany, which just means cooked water. It's traditionally a peasant soup with a piece of bread a poached egg and whatever vegetables were available to be added to the “cooked water"...tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, artichokes. Every country has this kind of soup. It’s very comforting. I originally replaced the bread with polenta and now the polenta with pasta and then pork belly was just begging to be added...who doesn't like pork belly these days?
Agreed. A lot more people seem to be interested in ingredients like pork belly these days. At the same time, talk of eating locally appears to be on the rise. Is eating locally a trend?
I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and I’ve been buying from local farmers from the beginning, Back in the early 90’s Chris Schlesinger, Steve Johnson and I started the local chapter of Chef’s Collaborative.
It is so exciting to see how invested the public now is in buying locally, organically and supporting local producers. Even supermarkets are in the game.
There was a time when some high-end restaurants weren’t sourcing locally. They were flying things in from exotic places and buying tiny little vegetables and things, but I think this happens less and less.
To me, the word trend implies something fashionable and temporary. I’m putting my money on the notion that eating locally is a permanent and growing part of our culture.
You led a trip to Italy not too long ago. What do you think accounts for the more pervasive local sensibilities in countries outside of the United States?
I think that there is an integrated sense of place, particularly for the Italians. There is a true connection, through food and wine to a particular place and it’s very visible. Drive or ride through Umbria, and you will see houses with a fig tree, a walnut tree, a chestnut tree, olive trees, grape vines and everybody has a garden. Culturally, people identify themselves with a place and that place is reflected in what happens around the table and what’s on that table.
For example, when I was in Umbria I was struck by the variety of dried beans that were available. I knew Castelluccio lentils, those beautiful little lentils, but I went to a town called Spello and talked to a merchant there and he said, “Castalluccio? No, no, no. Spello. That is where the best lentils come from.” They looked identical to me! There’s an incredible sense of pride about the lentils, or the tomatoes, or the cheese, or the this, or the that. Theirs, whose ever it is, is always the best.
So we have a couple of questions we want to make sure we ask each person we feature.
If I was lost on a desert island, what would my last meal be, and what's it like being a woman and a chef? <Laughing>
No, no, no… What can you make at home in 10 minutes?
Well it depends what's in the refrigerator!
Well, that's part of the question... what's normally in your fridge?
Normally we have cooked beans, some kind of cooked grains, greens of some sort - my kids love greens—and other vegetables. I like it when they're already blanched, but sometimes I have to blanch them myself. We always have eggs, we always have cheese, we always have some kind of canned tomatoes, and we always have yogurt, olive oil, anchovies, hummus, pesto, harissa and capers.
I want to be able to make a quick healthy flavorful meal and what I’ve found is that it’s important to have a foundation of condiment ingredients. Not just mustard, but condiments from whatever particular cuisine you really love. That way you can take something as simple as beans and rice, a poached egg and some greens, and turn it into something really yummy and satisfying. If you add yogurt and dukkah it ’s Mediterranean; if you add soy sauce, ginger, and a little bit of sesame oil it becomes Asian. And I do use the microwave.
Is that a confession?
No other chef would ever probably acknowledge this, but when I get home late at night, I put grains, green and vegetables into a bowl, crack an egg over it cover it with a plate, stick it in the microwave and let the microwave do the work. I don't cook the egg all the way through, I just get it to the point where everything is steaming hot. Then I take it out of the microwave, stir it up and add harissa.
Are you a cookbook reader?
I'm a cookbook skimmer. I'll read books for ideas but I don't follow recipes, per se.
What's the most worn cookbook in your collection?
The Joy of Cooking. I have one of the older ones. Every edition is different...and the newest one I have, but don't use at all. I don't even know where it is. The one that I have doesn't have either the front or back and some of the index pages are in the back of a drawer. But I have shelves and shelves of cookbooks. The other ones are The Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman and books by Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert, Nancy Jenkins and Elizabeth David. Then for inspiration, although it's incredibly outdated, and some people laugh at me, is Waverly Root. His book on Italian cooking and his book on French cooking...I just love them.
Both terrific books.
I know when I am reading about a particular region I have to think, well, this was written 100 years ago so I have to be careful. And I just stole from my mother, The Food of Italy by Edwin Knopf, 1964. It's a delightful read about his travels with his wife travel through Italy in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It provides a perspective of discovery of Italian cuisine. For example, he talks about garlic as something new and unusual and that he didn’t like much. The book reminds me of Julia Child’s experience when she was first in France. For the Knopfs, in Italy, doors were opening to magical lands of food...it's a treat to read.
What is one quirky ingredient that you might have in your kitchen that you like to use?
Dukkah. It's an Ethiopian spice mix and it can range from just spices, to spices and nuts, to spices and nuts and herbs...
What's the dominant spice profile?
Cumin and coriander and it's used either as main ingredient or condiment. I put it on everything… salads, eggs, fish, chicken and even ice cream. My version has cumin and coriander, and then, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews and almonds....it's amazing magical stuff. If you go to the Rialto website you’ll find a recipe for it. The interesting thing about dukkah is that, in my travels, I've seen it in the most unlikely places like in South Africa, or even more unlikely, when I was in Iceland and I was doing food and fun event in Reykjavik.
Dukkah encrusted reindeer?
Yeah, exactly! It was one of those gigs that we do sometimes where you go for a week, you give your menu and recipes to the chef in a restaurant, and they cook your menu all week. Customers come and taste your food as executed by someone else. By the end of the week it's completely transformed into something else, but it’s okay because it’s all so friendly. Anyway, the restaurant, had dukkah on the table and the reason it was there was because several years earlier, an Australian chef had come and brought dukkah, and the Icelandic chef fell in love with it and started making it. I’ve heard you find it in Australia because somebody took it from Ethiopia to Australia and the Australian culinary and wine community adopted it and then wineries, liked serving it at wine tastings as a way of cleansing the palate between wines. So from Australia, to Iceland, to South Africa and, actually, I first read about it in a Claudia Roden book about Mediterranean cooking.
What is one trick or technique that you would use as a restaurant cook that doesn't get enough use at home? For example, not enough people think to braise when, in fact, it's the perfect kind of thing for home cooking.
I think it's about thinking about just having a battery of possibilities, as opposed to thinking about cooking an individual dish. Think about cooking or preparing large batches of ingredients that you can use over the course of the week and that you can put together in different kinds of ways. For example, when you have a melon or a pineapple, peel it, remove the seeds, cut it up into cubes and put it into little plastic boxes in the fridge. Everyday you can have fresh cut up fruit. If your CSA gives you 4 bunches of kale, you might think, "Oh my god, what am I going to do with all this kale?" But if you clean it all, blanch it all, you don't have to do anything else. Then it's ready for you when you come home from work. You could make chicken and add sautéed kale with some garlic, or you can chop it up and throw it in a pasta sauce, or if you have some left over beans and chicken stock and this kale, you chop up the kale you put into a soup. Spend the time on the weekend, when you have it to prepare and breakdown ingredients and, create what we call mise en place.
Many of the cookbooks and food television shows out there seem focused on being recipes because they need content. There’s a knowledge gap in the conceptual and planning parts of cooking. When people decide to cook something, it's very recipe driven, not an operating system they can work from every day.
Exactly. Particularly now.
Recipes are great, but they do provide only a limited approach to cooking. Learning to cook intuitively is not part family experience in many households. Everyone is working and busy. In general people are looking for guidelines and a recipe provides that. My son and his friends, who are sophomores in college, are just beginning to think about cooking for themselves. None of them have money but they don’t want to eat cafeteria food anymore. However, most of them don’t know where to begin when it comes to feeding and cooking for themselves in a way that's healthy, affordable and quick. They turn to the internet for recipes that work in their lifestyle.
So, then, how do you go about writing a recipe for a magazine, for example?
Actually, when a magazine approaches me about writing a recipe the ingredients that are OK for me to use are often limited because they have to be available to everyone. Let’s say I want to use mackerel. I’m told I can't use mackerel because it’s not easy to find and it scares people. But to me, mackerel is local, delicious and healthy---high in omega 3’s. So I ask, well, what can I use? Well, you can use salmon or boneless, skinless chicken breast. But I want to say, remember how Julia introduced viewers and readers in the 60’ and 70’s to fish like monkfish…something that is now part of our everyday diet? At the same time, from the television food shows we get recipes full of butter and cream, deep frying and bacon. This is frustrating to me. It’s a missed opportunity to show people how to make delicious healthy food and have fun doing it.
If anything that seems like an impediment to people learning to really cook.
Well, the television food shows are no longer about learning, they’re about entertaining, production, an event. The recipe is the event and the person is the entertainer as opposed to old-fashioned cooking shows that actually had interesting content…for me anyway. I love watching Jacques Pepin and Julia because I still learn something.
I am very interested in teaching people the “how” of cooking.
We recently had a cooking class with Christy Timon from Clear Flour Bakery, a butchering class with Tom Daly from Savenor's, and on April 10th, we will have a pasta making class. I do these classes once a month at Rialto and we get 50 people in here. The focus is on the process, and in fact we all joke because I am always loosing track of the recipe and making mistakes. But the audience loves that because then they can see me make corrections. I want to teach people to be comfortable in a kitchen and comfortable thinking about just being with spontaneous with food and cooking.
Your recent Greater Boston Food Bank fundraising event was a big success.
Yes! There were 350 customers and there were probably 30 volunteers or more. All the food and labor was donated, our staff, some kitchen and some front of the house people came in and volunteered. Friends and family were the wait staff and in the kitchen. We’ve been doing it this way for years, and this time we raised $15,000. Some people who come to help have never worked in a restaurant, some of them we’ve never even met before. They just found out they could volunteer so they come to volunteer. For one day, Rialto is a guerilla restaurant. It's created for just that day, and so as long as operations are massaged into a system, I don't feel like we need to interrupt them. So, it's OK if the two sixteen year olds’ system for doing the bread and fruit isn't exactly what I would do. It doesn't matter because it's their system and it's working for them.
It must be fun for people who don’t have the chance to work in a professional kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
Oh, the people in the kitchen who don't work in kitchens love it. It has the feeling of a big family Thanksgiving meal. On dishes we have an engineer from the hotel and the wife of one of our cooks. She always does dishes because it makes her nervous to do the food. She’s also the staff photographer We have one wait person who has the same tables every year. She let’s us know months in advance that she is expecting her “station”. It's what community events should be about… everyone pitching in, getting out of their comfort zone and working as a team. The end result is different than a Rialto brunch would be, but it should be. That’s what makes it fun and valuable to the people who volunteer. It’s theirs.
Chef, we really appreciate your time.
Oh, you're welcome.