Interview with Chef Jody Adams of Rialto - Cambridge, MA

November 2007

Antoinette Bruno: First off, why does this matter? Is this an important issue for you?

Jody Adams: I think the question is “what is happening to the women who are entering the culinary field? Why are they getting out?” We (my generation) decided we were going to do this no matter what. Of course there were obstacles. But it’s the mind set. 15 years ago I was interviewed by The New York Times about Boston chefs. Nancy Jenkins had written the article and hired a photographer to come to take pictures. I asked him, aren’t you going to take a picture of me? He said no, I already have a picture of a woman. I told him, you are going to take my picture and it ended up being the picture they went with. That is what you have to do. If you want something, you just have to push for it. You have to be careful about what the obstacles are in the way and how we approach them. You have to decide if it’s worth it and how you are going to get over the obstacles to get where you want to get. So what are you going to do? Are you going to stay in the workforce? Are you going to change your name?

AB: Why wouldn’t you change your name?

JA: Women work so hard and we have these unbelievable choices. I feel that I have to continue to work, be ruthlessly independent, be an example, and not change my name.

AB: Do you tend to hire more women?

JA: I don’t really do it consciously but I have a lot of women in my kitchen. The thing is, if you have a few women, then other women are attracted to working there. People like to be in a culture that is familiar to them with others like them.

AB: Marco Pierre White recently said that he thought it was the physical nature and macho culture of the modern restaurant responsible for women being less likely to reach the top. He said “Restaurant kitchens are a man’s world. The work is physical and demanding. It is the men who rise to the top.” Do you agree with him?

JA: No. I think men and women are equally strong, both emotionally and physically. My back is incredibly strong. There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do that at a man could. There have been men who couldn’t keep up with me — and plenty that could!

AB: Another general stereotype circulating is that women chefs have “more soul” so to speak, and cook from the heart. It’s true that I can’t think of very many experimental female chefs, apart from Elena Arzak, but I’m not sure that it’s a fair generalization. How do you feel about it? Is the experimental kitchen more gendered than the regular professional kitchen?

JA: It certainly looks that way. I haven’t really figured out why. The word out there is that women are not staying in the field. I entered cooking because I liked cooking with my hands. How could I bring out the best in something? How could I transform it into something different? I think I might have been a more experimental cook when I was younger if I had been exposed to it. I think it’s fabulous though; I like being an observer. About 10 years ago, I told my sous chefs about foaming. I said, there is something happening in the culinary world that we are not doing, how should we incorporate it in the Rialto kitchen? And my team said no, we believe in what you’re doing and it doesn’t belong here. If we wanted to do foaming we would go work at a different restaurant.

AB: The stereotypical chef is a divorcee. The lifestyle challenges relationships like no other. What are your thoughts on this? How does it affect women differently from men?

JA: I’m not sure that it does. There is a reality here: the carrying of a child is a woman’s domain, that’s the reality. Women have to make a decision about how they are going to incorporate motherhood into their lives. It can be a hard time because this is an emotionally demanding business. It’s really heady right now and I think there’s a sense that what chefs do is really important. I’m not passing judgment — I’ve just chosen to do things in a different way. I have a life partner in my husband. When we chose to have children my husband stayed at home — he is a writer and could do so — to take care of our children. We have worked incredibly hard to protect our marriage and our family.

AB: That’s great. I’m trying to figure out how to do it myself…

JA: I have a friend at Harvard law school who is a man, his wife manages musicians, and they have the same dilemma. He is called out to travel all over the world for speaking engagements. It’s so hard to figure out that balance. I could be out of town every week doing events. I have to choose carefully which ones I do. It’s exciting to do these things and see what other chefs are doing, and it’s social. It is hard for some people to say no but I have a family and I am a restaurateur, I’ve got to say no sometimes.

AB: How does your family life and the choices you made, have to do with your success?

JA: My family life has helped me stay focused at my restaurant. I am at Rialto 4 nights a week. I visit tables and talk to my guests. I’m now focused on my website and cyberspace and communicating with my guests through cyberspace as well. I am known for being grounded in the community. I am also focused on my non-profits. People see my children in the restaurant hanging around all the time.

AB: Who have your biggest mentors been? Men vs women?

JA: Gordon Hamersley. I’ve worked with women who have been terrible mentors and vice versa.

AB: Is it harder for women to raise capital then a man?

JA: To be fair, when I was raising money I was already pretty well-known. It’s a question of figuring out who to approach, having the confidence, and being prepared. You have to be professional and do your homework.