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10 questions for a food entrepreneur: Jody Adams of Rialto

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Last month, The New York Times featured Jody Adams in its Women Who Belong in the Kitchen series. For her work as chef-owner of Rialto in Harvard Square, Jody has accrued dozens of awards and accolades. But her impact and influence extend far beyond: she’s a humanitarian, community leader, traveler, writer (with husband and food photographer Ken Rivard) and hero to many in the food world.

Q: What was the seed for what is now Rialto?

A: Rialto has had two lives. Twenty years ago, the Boston restaurant scene was taking off and the owner of The Charles Hotel, Dick Friedman, had the idea to bring in an independently-owned restaurant to the hotel. No one had done that in Boston yet at the time. My partners and I decided that we wanted to be a lively white tablecloth restaurant that combined the taste profiles I’d found in France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey. It was exciting and new, and an enormous success from the get-go.

Then, our second life began seven years ago when I became the sole owner here. It felt important to really clarify and distill things in a different way: thus the focus on Italy. I’m really interested in the regionality of Italian food. As we have from the beginning, we work with local farmers to use New England ingredients to express Italian dishes.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?

A: Assessing my inexperience and the fear that goes along with that, and then transcending that fear. [When I took over Rialto] I was much more publicly recognized than I knew. I had spent all those years in the kitchen. I also had support that I didn’t realize was there, and abilities that I didn’t know I had. I’d never put together a package for restaurant branding and redesign, or managed every detail from uniforms to the color of the chairs to reinventing the menu to hiring the right team to take Rialto where I wanted it to go. I was negotiating all sorts of things that I’d never had to negotiate before. I had been an entrepreneur in a very small arena, the kitchen. The younger people can begin to do this, the better: step out of the kitchen and into the wider world.

Q: How do you define success?

A: Having a financially healthy business, having a team that feels respected, valued and empowered to contribute, and of course happy customers. Success isn’t just business either. It’s about my life. I used to say, “It’s the fewest number of people pissed off at me at one time.” Success is also about fairness. Personal success could mean taking as much [money] out of the business as I can, but I don’t see that as sustainable in the long run. When we opened Trade, some people encouraged me to take a bigger piece of the pie because I’d been in the business longer and brought a lot to the table. But I chose not to do that. At Trade, my partners and I are all equal owners.

Q: How do you manage failure?

A: Go into a corner and cry. I’m not good with failure. I take it extremely personally. I feel personally responsible when something happens, a customer has a bad experience or we’re facing a slow week. It’s a process that I go through, but it doesn’t serve the business. So I’ve learned to face it, name it, discuss it with those involved, and then determine how to recover and avoid it in the future.

Q: How do you cope with pressure? (Any secret recipes for taking care of yourself?)

A: Exercise. When I feel the most stressed, it’s because there is a future of unknowns. Getting a handle on the unknowns and putting them in a mental order is really important. But I do think exercise is vital. It keeps me mentally and physically healthy, and I can handle stress better with exercise. It makes room so I can absorb the stress instead of becoming completely overwhelmed by it. .

Q: What are you going to do next?

A: Move to France. Laughs. I want to try and figure out how to take the work that I do with my husband in our food blog, The Garum Factory, and turn it into something that we can package into a book… and make some money! And my partners and I are always looking at the possibility of other restaurant projects.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in the past year?

A: “It’s going to be okay.” That’s what my husband tells me all the time.

Q: Give us your advice for aspiring food entrepreneurs in 6 words or less.

A: Beware of trends.

Q: You win the Oscar equivalent for your industry. (Oh wait. You have. Heaps of them…) When you take the stage, who do you thank and for what?

There are many people to thank. But first and foremost, I would thank my young self for finding this home in food and for sticking with it. The first place I cooked, in fact, I remember thinking “I’m home” and I still feel that way. Then the people who believed in me, who opened doors for me or pushed me to open my own doors: Julia Child; Gordon Hamersley. My staff and my children who pushed me to be on Top Chef Masters. And my husband who has supported me every step of the way to be able to have almost everything: fantastic family, business, career, travel… But I think it’s really important that people thank themselves first. Because ultimately you are the one who makes it happen.

Q: What about Rialto most feeds your soul?

A: The people. Our staff and our customers. Our staff is the United Nations, people from all around the world. I learn so much from them and the energy and passion and commitment they bring every day is just incredible.

BONUS Q: What has kept you at Rialto for twenty years?

BONUS A: Great question because, essentially, it’s the same thing every day. The food comes in. It’s prepared, cooked, plated and served with care. It’s paired with wine. So where’s the variation? Some days I think, if I didn’t have to navigate the people, I could just cook! But the people bring the variation. Your staff and guests are the hardest part of your business, and the most rewarding.

Rialto doesn’t just open its doors and serve dinner every night. Jody and her team change the menu every month and the region every two months (currently, they’re in Calabria). Jody leads cooking classes, and then there’s the summer terrace dining series: next up is “Root-To-Shoot” on August 7.

Rialto will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this September.

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