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Building a kitchen and restaurant culture

Acclaimed restaurateur
Jody Adams on start-ups,
menus and mistakes

Morgan Holzman

Sometimes even top chefs learn the hard way. For Jody Adams, chef/partner of The Sapphire Restaurant Group, Boston, (owners of Rialto and Blu) creating a restaurant is an issue of preparation and education.
“When you open a restaurant there are many overlooked variables if you’re not careful, and not all are food related,” she says. “Some chefs don’t think they need at least three months of capital to support the first three months of business. It is really understanding the business, talking to as many people and reading as many business books as possible.”
There are as many different ideas about beginning a business as there are ingredients; the common denominator is to go in prepared.
“Owning a restaurant is not about writing a menu and feeding people, owning a restaurant is much more,” Adams says. “One of the most important things I learned is that despite designing all aspects of a restaurant, you can never underestimate the influence of the community. Be prepared to change—the customers will tell you what they want.”

The Red Clay experience
Such was the case in 1999 when Adams opened Red Clay in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It closed two years later.
“Red Clay was a great restaurant, a great concept, but was in the wrong location,” says Adams. “It would have thrived if it were on a street corner in a neighborhood. This is a time when chef/owners must be extremely aware of restaurant location. Know your neighborhood and the economy.”
In addition to teaching Adams the importance of location, the Red Clay experience also taught her that spreading creative responsibility is vital for success.
“We asked a number of our chefs to execute a menu without being invested in the dishes. This stifled their creativity and there was no personal ownership in the direction of the menu,” she says.
This discovery helped Adams prepare for her latest undertaking, Blu, which opened in November of 2001 in the Sports Club/LA, Boston. Adams, with members of The Sapphire Restaurant Group, did long-term research on the location and the community in which Blu was to reside.
Adams incorporated other lessons learned to ensure Blu’s success. Adams hired chef Dante de Magistris and asked him to cultivate his own approach to the menu from an outline she developed.
“This imposed his imprint on the menu, giving him pride and ownership,” she says.
Today at Rialto, Adams oversees the menu, but understands that members of her team yearn to let their creative juices flow. Therefore, they are responsible for a dish or two on the menu as well as all specials. Tasting and constructive criticism for each dish is shared among the team before menued.
This gives Adams’ crew a chance to shine, add other influences, and prevents any need for her hands on every dish.
“We taste all dishes together, but it is definitely recognized as de Magistris’ menu,” she says.

A different kind of leader
Adams feels she runs her kitchen differently than most. She likes an intense kitchen, but not tense.
“That distinction is important to me because people feel safe and comfortable,” she says.
Responsibility falls on all members of the team. “My approach is one of support and positive movement,” she says. “My team needs to see a clear leadership structure. There can be no question about who is in charge, or people won’t know where to go.”
She expects her staff to manage their roles and be prepared when dinnertime arrives, whether or not she is on the premises.
“We create a cooperative not competitive atmosphere,” she says.

Past, present and future Adams’ culinary journey helped foster her kitchen environment today. She began her culinary career working under Lydia Shire in 1983 at Seasons in Boston. She worked as sous chef under the tutelage of Gordon Hamersley at Hamersley’s Bistro and later as executive chef for Michela’s restaurant, Boston in 1990. In 1994, Adams opened Rialto with The Sapphire Restaurant Group, in the Charles Hotel, Boston, and she received the only Boston Globe four-star rating in the area at that time.
To this day, Hamersley remains one of Adams’ closest friend in the culinary world. She learned three vital lessons from him:
• Be true to the food
• Be respectful of the ingredients
• Don’t get caught up in trends
create them yourself
If she could invite one person into her kitchen she would pick the
Dali Lama.
“I understand he is one of the most curious people on earth, and he loves life and laughs a lot. I think he is a person in our world right now who has so much to teach,” she says.

Published by Talcott Communications Corporation.  
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