Jody Adams remembers her first job as a 25-year-old cook, working directly on the hot line. “I cut myself, I burned myself, I was a mess, I cried,” she says. “But I survived.”
Today, Adams, 57, is a James Beard award-winning chef and sole owner of Rialto, a 20-year fixture on Harvard Square in Boston’s Charles Hotel. The 50-employee restaurant grosses about $4 million a year in revenue. A few years ago, Adams and two partners raised $2 million to open Trade, a casual-dining restaurant in Boston’s Waterfront District.
Adams can tick off the challenges of running a restaurant, starting with high food costs that eat into profit margins. “I walk through the kitchen and if I see the end of a head of celery,” she says, “I’ll pull it out and say, ‘we can use this. This is money right here.’”
There’s also the challenge of finding talented personnel — sous-chefs, line cooks, servers — who can work together in a perfectly choreographed dance, night after night. And then there’s the personal commitment. “I am never not working,” says Adams, who has a husband, Ken Rivard, and two adult children. “You have to be prepared for a completely unpredictable way of life.”
And if you are a woman, you have to be prepared to beat the odds. Men hold the highest paying and most prominent kitchen jobs at ambitious, independent restaurants across America, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis: “Women occupy just 6.3 percent, or 10 out of 160 head chef positions at 15 prominent U.S. restaurant groups.”
In a conversation that has been edited and condensed, Adams spoke about her life in the restaurant business and the impact of meeting Julia Child.
The Story Exchange: Why do so many restaurants fail?
Where do I start? Restaurants succeed when everything is in balance — location, rent structure, financing, size, concept, food cost, labor cost, beverage cost, staffing — and when they are designed for the customers. But it’s very easy for them to get out of whack, and when they do, they start to bleed. You have to figure out what’s going on and adjust quickly.
The Story Exchange: What lessons did you learn that have allowed your restaurants to survive?
You have to pay attention to every detail, every day. It’s a penny business.
The Story Exchange: Restaurants are notorious for having lots of turnover. How do yours do?
At Rialto, a 20-year-old restaurant, we have some staff who have been with us since day one. We provide an environment that is safe and secure, where people know they come first. Our waitstaff are professionals who are interested in putting down roots. Cooks tend to think of one year as the appropriate tenure to be in one kitchen — they want to learn from different chefs and different cuisines. With that said, at Rialto, many cooks stay five to seven years and many have grown professionally from cook to sous-chef.
The Story Exchange: What have you learned about hiring?
It’s most important to hire people who believe in the mission of the business. Skills can be taught on a foundation of passion and commitment. It rarely works the other way around.
The Story Exchange: Have you faced harassment in the kitchen?
Early on, some guy kept hitting on me and when I said I wouldn’t go out with him, he said, “You must be a lesbian.” A young stupid kid hit me on the butt, and I said, “Don’t ever do that again.” And he said, “You tempted me.” I have no tolerance and I fight. We have to teach women to do that. The first time someone crosses the line, we have to stand up and say, don’t do that.
The Story Exchange: Do you think women are still harassed in kitchens?
Certainly not in mine. Is there abuse? Yes, there are chefs that throw things and scream at people, and there are kitchens that are misogynistic and places where jokes about women are disgusting.
The Story Exchange: Do you think female chefs get the attention and credit they deserve?
Clearly, there are more men than women in the field — but more men get in the paper. They’re called on as experts. Thomas Keller, David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali — you know who they are. Whenever you see quotes about “the best thing to be eating or drinking this summer” — it’s always men. Women need, in general, to get media training so they can do it.
The Story Exchange: Do you think women have a harder time promoting themselves?
Absolutely. I don’t think it’s in women’s nature to talk about their accomplishments, because they are interested in the collective environment. They feel like they’re showing off. When I started, you were recognized because of what was on the plate. That is not the case anymore. Now it’s game shows and reality TV.
The Story Exchange: Tell me about meeting Julia Child and how that influenced you.
I met Julia around 1980. I was a student at Brown, and she had come to Providence to do a benefit for Planned Parenthood. At the time, I was working for a woman named Nancy Verde Barr, who had a cooking school in Providence. She was Julia’s executive chef for the event, and asked if I would like to volunteer and help — of course I said yes. It was really exciting – Julia did a spun sugar dome that she put over a souffle. About four years later, Nancy set up a meeting where I sat with Julia and Sara Moulton, the executive chef for Gourmet magazine, and they encouraged me to go work for Lydia Shire at Seasons in the Bostonian Hotel. You can’t be what you can’t see. Talking to them, I was surrounded by women who exemplified possibilities.
Next Week: In part two of this two-part series on entrepreneurial women chefs, we talk to Ana Sortun, who has run the Mediterranean restaurant Oleana in Boston for 13 years.
Jody Adams (JA): I had no ability to imagine being in the restaurant business. I came from an academic family. We never went to restaurants. I’m a yankee, ya know. Why spend money in a restaurant when the food at home is always better. And at that time, 35 years ago, that was pretty accurate.
CARD: Jody Adams – Chef/Co-Owner-Rialto – Cambridge/Mass. – USA
JA: I did not go to culinary school. But I knew how to cook. From the time I was 16 or 17, I was making money working in food. I worked for off-site catering. One summer I was a private cook.
CARD: Jody graduated from Brown University in 1980, uncertain about a career. She started a master’s program in health and worked at a gourmet food store.
JA: And I was about 25 and I thought ‘I’m gonna decide a path that would make me happy. And it was food. But, I was told that I was too old, that I wasn’t gonna be strong enough to lift the pots and pans. And then I was told by people I was too inexperienced, even though I had all this cooking experience, I just didn’t have restaurant experience.
CARD: While in college, Jody had met Julia Child, who popularized french cooking in America. She contacted her for advice.
JA: So she sat down with me and said the fact that I didn’t have restaurant experience, that would be a problem. But I was a good cook and I was motivated, so she was very instrumental in giving me the confidence to apply for a job in Boston.
CARD: In 1983, Jody finally landed a job at an established Boston restaurant.
JA: I ended up working directly on the hot line, which was really crazy. I would never do that with somebody who never worked in a restaurant before. The first couple of months I cut myself, I burned myself, I was a mess, I cried. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. But I felt like I was home, I was where I belonged.
CARD: Jody worked as a line chef, then worked up to sous-chef. In 1990, she became executive chef at another leading restaurant. Jody created innovative menus mixing regional New England ingredients with traditional Italian cuisine.
JA: I learned that if I was going to get the recognition that other chefs of my caliber were getting, I would have to go after it myself. But that was a really hard thing to do. And for women, we are often overlooked. People who are in the game and in the picture don’t wait. They’re out there to a certain extent self-promoting. And although that sorta makes everyone a little uncomfortable, you have to.
CARD: Jody was named “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine Magazine in 1993. That same year, Jody and three partners were invited to open their own restaurant in the Charles Hotel. They called it Rialto.
JA: We built this really fun restaurant that got four stars right off the bat. And to be in the middle of Harvard Square, surrounded by Harvard and that community, means we have I think the most interesting clientele in the world coming through the doors of Rialto.
CARD: One of her guests was her friend and mentor, Julia Child.
JA: I had a steak on the menu and she tried it and she called me and said ‘you have to change the steak, Jody. You’re not using a high enough quality of meat.’ I said, ‘OK Julia! Get right on it!'”
CARD: After more than a decade of success and a coveted James Beard award to her credit– Jody bought out her partners and became the sole owner of Rialto.
JA: Rialto is all-consuming for me. We have to work hard to keep the spark alive every day and we do it by keeping everyone excited who’s in the restaurant. By changing the menu once a month, it means the kitchen has something new to do. New ingredients, new techniques, new recipes. The front of the house staff has new menu items to talk about. You can have as much PR as you want, you know, telling stories to the world about how wonderful you are. But if people walk in the door and they don’t feel it, they know it. So you have to challenge yourself and see what happens.
CARD: After 20 years, Rialto still ranks as one of Boston’s best restaurants.
Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Erin Kron
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Music – Killer Tracks
Photos Courtesy of:
Bethany Versoy, Jacki Morisi, Corey Arcelay, Matt Stone Photography, Mark Ostrow Photography