While the South End Writes author series has hosted culinary luminaries before (Chris Kimball, Joanne Chang, Gordon Hamersley), and some brought gifts from their kitchens (Kimball: cookbooks to sell to benefit the branch; Chang fabulous chocolate-chip cookies), none actually prepared a meal for library patrons at the South End branch until Jody Adams did so on December 5. The induction burners she brought to the beloved but outmoded branch had to be powered by extension cords, and one electrical circuit --dating from the 1970s-- quit altogether, but somehow a fabulous campanelle pasta with slow-roasted tomatoes was produced, accompanied by an arugula salad with shaved celery root, minced celery, baby kale and a champagne-based dressing topped with Reggiano Parmesan cheese, the latter freshly ground by Adams's husband and partner, photographer Ken Rivard. The audience was thrilled.
FOSEL board member, architect Michelle Laboy, who worked with Adams on several restaurant projects, described the Providence-born chef as a genuine and creative culinary star, dedicated not just to fabulous menus in expensive establishments but also as someone committed to working closely with local farmers and purveyors, using a finish carpenter from Pawtucket and a metalsmith from Western Massachusetts, for example. Adams, who ran Rialto restaurant in Cambridge for 22 years until it closed in 2016, was awarded four stars within months after it opened by the Boston Globe, is also dedicated to child advocacy and hunger relief organizations. She was made Humanitarian of the Year in 2010 by Share Our Strength, an organization engaged in fighting childhood hunger. "I cooked beautiful and expensive meals at Rialto," Adams said, "but it is important to recognize food is important for many people so I balance my work with my efforts at food banks and related organizations. It's scary to think you wouldn't have enough to eat so I am honored to do that work."
Adams, who is currently is the chef-owner of Boston-based Porto, Trade and Saloniki (which has a second location in Cambridge), met cooking pioneer Julia Child accidentally when she washed dishes for a fundraiser sponsored by Planned Parenthood. The daughter of two librarians (father at Brown University, mother in the Providence Public Library and later at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford), Adams had just quit her first career (as a nurse practitioner) and her first husband. Not having had a television in the family she grew up in, she had no idea who Child was but it was the start of her culinary career. She was hired by Lydia Shire at Seasons, where Gordon Hamersley was the sous-chef, and where she "burnt myself and cut myself" on the way to becoming a star chef herself. She opened up Hamersley's with Hamersley and his wife, Fiona. When she started at Rialto, Joanne Chang, of Flour, and now herself the owner --with her husband-- of a four-star restaurant, Myers & Chang, was her first pastry chef.
Adams described running restaurants as a "tough business," where navigating a very challenging labor market is critical. "A good manger is hard to find," she reflected. Creating a team that feels invested in their work environment requires her to spend a lot of time teaching her employees on the ins and outs of it, which she enjoys. "We are looking at educating our staff so they understand our business. We open our books to them so they know how their jobs have an impact on the business." In a competitive labor market, Adams says, "this is what sets us apart."