Coming of age in the kitchen
Food is suddenly in all the news around here. First, we hear of Warwick Representative Joe McNamara’s bill to have calamari deemed the official Rhode Island State Appetizer, then we get word that Rhode-Islander-wherever-she-lives Chef Jody Adams will be at the Brown Faculty Club on Wednesday, April 3, for a cooking demonstration and book signing.
The Providence native is the owner of nationally acclaimed Rialto restaurant in Harvard Square, but before she was a chef, she was an anthropology major at Brown. She came to Providence by way of her father, an almost equally well-known rare book librarian and professor at Brown, Thomas R. Adams, who helped make the John Carter Brown Library a repository of some of the most important books in the Western Hemisphere.
While Jody Adams does most of her work in the shadow of Harvard University these days, a Providence entrepreneur hopes to hold a “food tourism” event in Rhode Island next September. A press release last week announced it was your last chance to contribute to their Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to promote the conference.
“This fall, we're launching the nation's first Food Tourism Conference,” announced Seth Rensler, the producer of Taste Trekkers, in a news release last week. “This event is designed for people who plan their vacations around food [which I suspect includes you].”
Rensler tells us he is the founder of the nationwide social dining group called Mystery Meet.
“Mystery Meet brings together adventurous foodies for a night of social dining at the hottest restaurants,” Rensler explained. “There's only one catch ... you don't know where you're going until 24 hours in advance.”
Within days of Rensler’s solicitation, we received some evidence that leads us to believe British author Steven Poole will not be among the foodies who will be at the Taste Trekkers event, or joining Mystery Meet, although he would probably savor the echo of high school cafeteria “mystery meat” in the name. They’re not the sort of events that fit Steven Poole’s idea of fun. He successfully lampoons such stuff in “You Aren’t What You Eat,” an “electronic monograph” that delivers a scathing but funny account of the rise of “foodism.”
Poole thinks foodism is a system of belief that is much closer to venal evangelism than exalted theology. He distills centuries of food culture, and the moneymaking schemes and harebrained health claims that have attached to the simple act of cooking and eating. Poole notes how people’s insecurity and anxiety about social status and health have been taken advantage of. He says “foodism” is another way to separate fools from money and makes an excellent case but the effort exhausts him. After chapters of eviscerating the more outrageous claims of “foodists,” he finds himself a little weary of the subject entirely:
“I reflect almost soberly on what I have learned from immersion in the warm Bain Marie of foodist culture...Well, the top cooks seem to agree that Bird’s Eye frozen peas are the best peas to use (the frozen ones are frozen so quickly after they are picked that, once thawed, they will be fresher than ‘fresh peas’). And it’s a waste of olive oil to cook with it, at least according to Thomas Keller. More generally, it seems a sure rule that anyone who fulminates against coffee is either a bore or a fraud, if not both.”
After reading Poole, you may cast a more jaded eye on “food tourism” as espoused by Seth Rensler:
“Adventurous travelers and food lovers have until Saturday, March 30th to pledge monetary support for the event in the hopes of making it a reality,” cautioned Rensler. “By doing so, they can earn rewards like tickets to the event, spots on a walking culinary tour, and city food guides.”
There’s only one catch to Rensler’s appeal, and it’s of the
“Catch 22” variety; there won’t be an event if he doesn’t raise enough money with www.tastetrekkers.com/kickstarter. You have to take a gamble, which may be too much food adventure for some.
Rensler says he has been involved in the production of hundreds of events, including the WBRU Summer Concert Series, the New England Nightclub and Bar Expo, and the Global Institute for Leadership Development. Rensler says his events have been recognized by the mayor of Providence with a Citizen Citation, so avowed foodies may want to take it seriously.
Which brings us back to the happy news about Jody Adams. We find a balanced and sensible bill of fare, a chef who acknowledges the extremes of the foodist world without the joyless over-reaction of critics such as Poole.
Adams was lucky enough to have a well-developed sense of what it meant to be a good cook years before the age of the “celebrity chef” dawned in the early 1980s.
“Wasn’t that amazing?” she said in a phone conversation. “Suddenly more people began to see the great work being done in kitchens. People were being recognized.”
To be sure, there was always a sub-culture of knowing eaters in this and other countries who knew where to go and who to ask. Perhaps it was all the discretionary income available at the time, but by the 1980s, dining out at the most expensive restaurant wasn’t enough anymore. Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck thrived on the new attention. In Boston, food critics like Anthony Spinazzola had been asking about the people in the kitchen, the people who really made a restaurant what it was. Spinazzola told his readers who they were and championed people like Lydia Shire and Jasper White wherever they were cooking, and their stars began to shine beyond a few knowledgeable diners.
Then came young Jody Adams, fresh out of Brown University and coping with a strong drive to cook good food, who joined Shire as a line cook at the Seasons restaurant at the Bostonian Hotel and soaked up the professional food culture the way a fresh baguette absorbs buerre blanc.
“I was an anthropologist,” said Adams. “I just had to work my way through the culture of the kitchen.”
She was no stranger to food. The Adams tribe, of the East Side of Providence, was well aware of the culinary customs of many ethnic groups. Adams fondly recalls expeditions to Federal Hill with her mother, to absorb the atmosphere and aromas and bring back rich spices and condiments to the East Side. As she grew toward maturity, many trips across the sea supplied even more exotic adventure for young Jody.
“My parents were academics, so I pretty much expected to be an academic myself,” said Adams. “We had been to England twice, to Guatemala, Morocco, France, Holland, Italy and Spain and everywhere I went, the food was like a magnetic draw to me.”
Anthropology seemed like a perfect fit, except that Adams wasn’t content to just study people and their food. She wanted to become a food creator. She always liked to bake and worked at catering in college. She knew she could stand the heat and she stayed in the kitchen.
By the time she started working with Lydia Shire, she was an anthropologist among “the people of the food” and had gone native. Academically, that was frowned upon, but for the people of the food, smiles lit up all around Boston.
Three years after working with Shire at the Bostonian Hotel, Adams helped open Hamersley’s Bistro, as Gordon Hamersley’s second in command. In 1990, she took the executive chef position at Michela’s in Cambridge, where she developed a reputation for carefully researched regional menus that combined local ingredients with Italian traditions. By 1993, Food & Wine magazine named Jody “one of America’s ten best new chefs.” In 1994, Jody opened the Rialto in Cambridge. Four months after opening, the Boston Globe awarded Rialto four stars, proclaiming that, “eating Jody Adams’ food at the stunning new Rialto is like stepping into a winter greenhouse just at the moment a spectacular hothouse orchid bursts into bloom, filling the senses.”
In spite of her personal success and overloaded schedule, Adams actively supports children’s advocacy and hunger relief. She is committed to supporting The Greater Boston Food Bank. Share Our Strength presented Jody with the Humanitarian of the Year award in 2010.
It would seem natural that an anthropologist would publish a book of her findings and Adams has done so. Not surprising, “In the Hands of a Chef” is a cookbook (Harper Collins Publishers; January 2002). She co-wrote the book with her husband, Ken Rivard, but not in the style of a monograph or academic exercise. Her book is filled with useful recipes and tips on technique and food that can be done by a simple cook in a typical home. You can meet Jody Adams and see how that is done on Wednesday, April 3 at the Brown Faculty Club. You can also get a signed copy of “In the Hands of a Chef.”
Adams said she hasn’t read Poole’s critique of foodism yet, but she did acknowledge the down side and the hucksters that come with “foodism” as described by Poole.
“Well, there are dollars to be made,” Adams said, “but I am really more pleased with how people have come to appreciate cooks, and how they have brought a dignity to our profession that wasn’t there before. Our industry is one of the largest employers of people who put the health and happiness into all of our lives.”
We’ll have to ask her how she feels about calamari. The General Assembly takes that up this week.
For Reservations to the Brown Faculty Club demonstration, call 863-3023. Learn more about Taste Trekkers at www.tastetrekkers.com/kickstarter. You can download Poole’s book from www.mcclelland.com.