In the end, it was a goat that did her in — a goat leg, to be precise. Jody Adams held her own on the latest season of Top Chef Masters, until she was banished over an undercooked goat leg. The James Beard award-winning Adams first sharpened her skills as a line cook under the legendary Lydia Shire 27 years ago, then worked with two seminal Boston-area chefs — Gordon Hamersley (at Hamersley's Bistro) and Michela Larson (at Michela's) — before opening her own Cambridge place, Rialto, in 1994. Adams, known for her support of local food producers and charities and for her culinary curiosity, bounced back from her Top Chef Masters ouster by conquering goat preparation with the help of a kindly visitor from Haiti. She shared some recent adventures with RH.
RH: How did you find the Top Chef Masters experience?
Adams: It was thrilling to raise $17,500 for Partners in Health (a favorite charity that provides health care to the poor worldwide). During the days I was on the air, their donations spiked significantly. Doing the show was scary a lot, but still a lot of fun. I was operating way outside my comfort zone, but I did incredibly well against some of the best chefs in the country. I did really well until I met that goat, and then I was kind of tripped up.
RH: Did you have to be coaxed into it?
Adams: (One of my staffers) let me know that Top Chef Masters was in touch; she said “I know you don't do competitive shows, but you have to do this. It's going to be great.” Then I talked to a variety of people just to figure out what it was about. I found out huge numbers of eyeballs see it. Once I watched it I saw it was respectful of ingredients, and respectful of the chefs — and the chefs seemed to be having a good time. Then my children said, “Mom you've got to do it. If you don't do it, you're a wimp.”
RH: We've heard that you like to have fun at work. Can you explain how your Guerilla Grilling program works?
Adams: I attribute my success to being a goofball and not taking myself too seriously. I do take hospitality very seriously, though.
There are a number of things we do to make sure the staffi is engaged. A couple of years ago we started the idea of having a monthly meeting with producers of food, then making a meal with them using the ingredients. It turns out that was wildly successful. Once, we had a private tour at the Museum of Fine Arts (of works by an artist who specialized in food). The result is a dialog that goes on among the staff. And it allows servers to talk about the food more knowledgeably.
RH: You've also taken small groups of foodies on cycling tours of Italy. How did that get started, and what kind of schedule do you follow?
Adams: We've done three tours. It started when I was invited to Sicily a couple of years ago. I found it very appealing to be able to do something physical, eat and drink. With a group, when you have an activity and more than one common interest, it makes a difference. It really opens things up, loosens up the group. We bike for about 30 miles in the morning and then have some kind of food-making event or tour in the afternoon. I'm the tour guide. The last time I was there, we were in Umbria in September, and there were figs, walnuts and chestnuts growing. It was amazing.
RH: Who have been the biggest influences on your professional life, and what did you learn from them?
Adams: Julia Child was one huge influence. She was very instrumental in getting me my first job. She was a good friend who kept me honest and focused. When I opened Rialto, she didn't like the beef, and she told me, so we changed it.
RH: What are some of the toughest hurdles in running your own restaurant, and how do you overcome them?
Adams: The biggest challenge is knowing which hat to wear at which time: I create menus, I'm a trainer, I deal with numbers, I'm the aesthetic driver to make sure the restaurant looks right and oversee how it's portrayed on the website, I'm involved in promoting and marketing it. And then I have to remember to take those hats off when I go home and be a mother and wife. How do you juggle all that? By hiring the right people and not trying to do/make everything all at once.
RH: What's your favorite new ingredient, and how do you use it?
Adams: Goat, of course! On the night I was “voted off the island,” there was a woman in the audience at the restaurant from Haiti. She said, “I'll teach you how to cook goat.” I spent a day with her and we cooked goat together. And now my new favorite tool is a hacksaw, which you need for the goat.
RH: You have a night off. How will you spend it?
Adams: I will spend it at home. When possible, either my husband cooks or we cook together and invite family and friends over. It will be something simple, this time of year whatever we can get at the farmer's market. I might look for the freshest piece of fish. In winter we might braise something or make gnocchi.
RH: What do you do to blow off steam?
Adams: I do morning bike rides, and I run. I started going to a trainer who is teaching me how to box. I guess it's good for building bones.
RH: If you weren't in this business, what would you be doing?
Adams: I don't think there is anything else. I'm very lucky. I love food, and I bring people around the table, which is incredibly satisfying. I have become a teacher, and watched people go on to open their own restaurants. I'm able to balance what I do with helping to raise money for people who don't have what we do. People come to my door from all over the world, which is inspirational. And I have a good time.
But it's a fickle and hard business, and it's not for the faint of heart.