Jody Adams on Rialto’s Longevity

[Longevity in the restaurant business is rare. Super Chef asked Jody Adams for her secret in keeping her restaurant Rialto so long — Editor]

I’ve been in the kitchen for the better part of three decades, long enough to go from a “rising star” to being called an “institution.” So much has happened! The old hierarchy of ethnic categories, with French at the top (and the US at the bottom), was just starting to break down when I got into the business. Chefs were still blue collar workers instead of celebrities.

In the last three decades, both cooks and diners have become more educated about food, and diners’ expectations have ballooned proportionately. We no longer demand just good food — we want passion, drama, and novelty along with it.

Some chefs deal with this by reinventing themselves or their restaurants every few years. They’re often quite good at reading trends and anticipating culinary fashions. To be honest, I’m not terribly good at that, and the times I’ve gotten in trouble have been when I tried to be something I wasn’t.

Instead, I know my strengths and I try to play to them. This isn’t rocket science. I’m a good cook, and I’m good at developing relationships with people. If you eat in my restaurant more than a couple of times, I will almost certainly know you.

I’m also aware that my life and my business does best when I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone, whether it means meeting new people or tweaking my menu. This all adds up to a restaurant who knows and values its clientele, and who tries hard to keep things interesting.

My love of cooking grew out of my family life — my mother’s a great cook and reader of classic cookbooks — and we traveled. Twice, my family lived for extended periods in Europe. And I have an anthropologist uncle who married a Guatemalan woman. So, when I was I kid, we would drive to Central America, eating all along the way. All of us loved food and the feeling of connection that arises from eating together.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that my success was a natural outgrowth of all those great family meals I had as a kid. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. I hated leaving the kitchen. Walking up to strangers, introducing myself and asking how things were going was agony. But to me, making a connection is the essence of hospitality.

A few nights back, I worked the antipasti station in full view of the dining room. There were people conducting business meetings whom I’d never seen before, but there were also two tables of businessmen who visit Rialto weekly. At another table a pair of Harvard professors, best friends, were having their monthly dinner together. In the corner of the room I saw an under-the-radar businessman/philanthropist huddling with two colleagues.

During a lull, I strolled out into the lounge. Two women were sharing a meal to mark one’s life transition to a small apartment. Sitting at the bar was a single woman with a dinner reservation. She could have waited for her husband in the dining room, but she had just visited her dying father and the bartender was a familiar, sympathetic face. Among the crowd of students and young people in for our $1 oysters on Monday nights I recognized the step son of a respected restaurant critic here on a TV shoot, a Latin American family in the restaurant for the second time, and a young couple celebrating an anniversary — they had been married in the plaza outside Rialto a few years ago.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I know the people eating in Rialto. Or, if I don’t recognize someone, I introduce myself.

This goes beyond just recognizing who’s eating on table 24. A few years ago, I made a decision to integrate the not-for-profit part of my life with the for-profit restaurant work. I realized that I could have a far greater impact on the world’s problems by making Rialto a place where people raised money and made connections than I ever could by simply making my own donations. While this has undoubtedly attracted new people to Rialto, it also has drawn me into the orbit of people and ideas that have enriched my own life. Some nights, it seems Rialto is less a restaurant than a salon or people celebrating old home week. Many of these people have become personal friends, and it feeds back into Rialto’s mission, because taking care of our clients becomes even more important. A regular customer recently paid me in incredible compliment: “Your restaurant is a hearth.”

Even the best food, the most welcoming environment can get stale if everything stays the same. Every now again you need to shake things up, including yourself. At Rialto, this keeps the staff fresh, customers interested, and the press alert for new food wrinkles. Rialto’s orientation is primarily regional Italian, but I’m not afraid to introduce novel ingredients if they enhance a dish. Dukkah, an Egyptian mixture of ground toasted seeds and nuts puts in an occasional appearance on my menus. Right now, I’m serving lamb accompanied by cracked farro flavored with hops. I didn’t know anything about hops, so I spoke with several artisan brewers to get their suggestions about which hops might be suitable. Now, the lamb is one of our most popular dishes.

In December 2008, we started our $40 three-course menu in response to the recession. In August 2009, I travelled to Spain to eat at El Bulli. In September 2009, I biked through Umbria with 15 people. Both of these last trips had an effect on my menu.

I’m also one of the competitors on the new season of Top Chef Masters on Bravo. The invitation frightened me to death, but accepting it has proven to be the right move. My clients keep asking about when the episodes showing me will air — they’re rooting for the local team.

Three years ago, after 13 strong and successful ones, Rialto got a big makeover, menu and restaurant. I wasn’t reinventing myself as much as I tightening our focus from general Mediterranean to primarily regional Italian (my original specialty). My approach to the food would be the same, even if the palette of ingredients and techniques was a little more specific. The dining room and bar were made lighter, airier. Keeping the name Rialto was a signal to all of my clients that what they loved most about dining with me wouldn’t change.

Of course, I pay attention to PR, to advertising, and to our web presence. Rialto lives in the well loved, always buzzing Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, next to the Kennedy School and surrounded by Harvard University and the city of Cambridge.

But none of that would help if our core mission weren’t being satisfied. I believe our job at Rialto is to deliver on the promise that we will serve the best Italian food and drink in the most hospitable environment. That approach sustains us. Our clients are faithful. It doesn’t mean that we’re considered the hottest spot in town, but day-to-day and when the economy turns south, people know that, for their money, Rialto is going to offer them what all of us want: a place where we’re known and valued.

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