Chef Jody Adams owner and creator of Rialto, has won numerous accolades for her restaurant.
Chef Jody Adams owner and creator of Rialto, has won numerous accolades for her restaurant.

Open Table: Cambridge's High-Powered Restaurant World

With so many top chefs jockeying for a position, Cambridge can now lay claim to being a fine dining destination. And you thought Harvard college life was competitive.
By Leslie B. Arffa

"We get this question a lot: Why is it that Cambridge is sort of overshadowing Boston as far as James Beard Award recipients, the people who are writing cookbooks, the overall number of destination restaurants in this area?” says chef Will Gilson of the restaurant Puritan & Company.

With his boyish, bearded face and the word “eat” tattooed on his left wrist, Gilson looks very much the part of the young upstart in the Cambridge culinary scene. Mason jars hang from the ceiling of his restaurant, and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” blares in the background as food preparation commences behind him.

Gilson’s Inman Square venture is one of two Cambridge restaurants, along with Kendall Square’s West Bridge, that were recently named to Bon Appetit magazine’s list of “50 Nominees for Best New Restaurant in America.” The two new kids on the block join already well-established Cambridge restaurants like Rialto, Oleana, Harvest, and Craigie On Main to form a veritable culinary powerhouse collection right in Harvard’s backyard. With so many top chefs jockeying for a position, Cambridge can now lay claim to being a fine dining destination. And you thought Harvard college life was competitive.

Origin Stories

Fresh from receiving a degree in anthropology from Brown, owner and founder of Rialto Jody Adams, like any college grad, wanted a job. She had worked in the food business her entire life—for a catering company, for a cooking class, for a cheese buyer—but never in a restaurant. She interviewed with Boston restaurateur Lydia Shire and was hired to work in her Seasons restaurant.

“I knew how to cook, I was a good cook, but I didn’t know how to cook in a restaurant. I was covered in burns and cuts and I was making mistakes and I got yelled at and I cried,” says Adams, sitting in her office in the Charles Hotel, surrounded by shelves of cookbooks.

She quickly rose through the ranks, from line chef to sous chef to head chef to the chef owner of Rialto 20 years ago. She became the sole owner in 2007, the same year Rialto was named one of the best restaraunts in the country by Esquire. She has garnered almost every conceivable award including being named the James Beard/Perrier-Jouet Best Chef of the Northeast in 1997.

For Adams, Cambridge’s culinary successes can be attributed to its talented, intelligent inhabitants as well as its history of forward thinking in the realm of dining.

“Cambridge, I think, is where the genesis of interesting, forward-thinking cooking started: at the Harvest,” she says. Adams refers to the Harvest restaurant, long a staple of any student’s Parents Weekend, which has been in Harvard Square since the 1970s. Adams’s husband worked at Harvest as a server in his twenties, one example of the many personal connections among Cambridge restaurant professionals.

“Harvest started as an intersection of food and design and big thinkers,” says current Harvest Executive Chef Mary Dumont.

In explaining Cambridge’s culinary successes Dumont emphasizes the residential nature of this college town. “I think the unique thing about Cambridge is that people are very, very thoughtful. The clientele tends to be not as transient as Boston. People tend to live and work here and it means something to them to support the restaurants that are in Cambridge,” she says.

Science of Simple Cooking

When Adams categorizes Harvest as a forward-thinking restaurant, she refers to its innovative emphasis on farm-to-table cooking. “Harvest was the first farm to table restaurant,” says Dumont protectively, noting that it was opened at the same time as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in California. “It was farm-to-table before people really knew what farm-to-table was.”

When Adams created Rialto, she, too, wanted her restaurant to focus on farm-to-table. In “Portlandia”-esque fashion, she initially listed the exact farm from which each item on her menu originated. “We made a commitment from the very beginning to work with farmers,” she says noting the environmental, health and taste benefits of using locally grown food.

The chef community in the early days of Rialto was very much connected to Harvard’s campus.  Harvard’s Schlesinger Library houses the papers of Julia Child, a culinary legend with many connections to Cambridge. Harvest is rumored to have been one of Child’s favorite restaurants, and the founders of Harvest, Ben and Jane Thompson, designed all the pottery that Child used on the set of her show. Child also happens to have been one of Adams’s mentors.

According to Adams, Schlesinger librarian Barbara Haber was interested in connecting with chefs and held Monday meetings there once a month, called First Mondays. Former Harvest chefs Chris Schlesinger and Steve Johnson were both First Mondays participants. “We’d go and just talk about various things that were happening in the food world,” says Adams. These meetings lead to the formation of the Boston network of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on sustainable food.

Ana Sortun of Oleana is another Chefs Collaborative member. “The whole reason we [purchase directly from farmers] is that it tastes better,” says Sortun, who purchases her vegetables from Siena Farms, operated by her husband. “My husband grows the best vegetables that I’ve ever had in my life. No one can beat him as far as I’m concerned,” says Sortun.

Sortun opened Oleana “on a shoestring budget” in Inman Square. “We were looking for a space in a Cambridge neighborhood that had an off-the-beaten-path location,” says Sortun. “We felt like it was up-and-coming, and we got excited about being a part of that growth.”

Before opening Oleana, Sortun had worked at Casablanca and 8 Holyoke, the precursor to Sandrine’s. Oleana has since become a culinary landmark, and Sortun received a James Beard award of her own in 2005.

Sortun’s emphasis on simple ingredients contrasts with another major culinary trend: molecular gastronomy, pioneered by Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià, a culinary advisor to Harvard’s Science and Cooking course. Puritan & Company’s Gilson—who also buys his food straight from a farm, run by his father—doesn’t have much patience for the high-concept trend toward technical innovation in food.

“As a chef, you see kids coming out of culinary school that for a while all just wanted to do molecular gastronomy,” says Gilson. “And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but you still can’t chop, you still can’t make a sauce without having to read a recipe. You want to figure out a way to manipulate it rather than making it correctly the first way.”

He asks with a smile, “How many times do you want foie gras that you can tie into a knot?”

Adams also emphasizes simplicity over complicated scientific maneuverings to her cooking. “I like taking a fig and eating a fig,” she says, “as opposed to taking the fig and completely deconstructing it and blowing it up and freezing it and creating something that looks exactly like a fig but has a different flavor or a different texture.”

Still, Adams credits the pioneers of molecular gastronomy with pushing restaurants in new and exciting directions. “It’s a continuum. It’s ever changing and continues to be really exciting and sort of forward thinking because we have this international community of interesting thinkers here in Cambridge.”

Bridging the Gender Gap

Adams, Dumont, and Sortun, of Rialto, Harvest, and Oleana respectively, form a triumvirate of highly successful female executive chefs. Although more women than men enter culinary school every year, the number of male executive chefs far outstrips that of their female counterparts both nationally and globally.

“Restaurants are hard: If you want to have a family, if you want to have kids, it’s not easy,” says Adams, referencing the late, labor-intensive nights required for working in the industry. “Usually someone has to make a decision about what they’re gonna do in terms of their lives. In our case it was my husband who was the parent at home night in and night out with our kids.”

Still, Adams notes that there are many female head chefs, but they may not recieve the same level of recognition in the media. “If you look at publications of chefs, it’s either 100 percent men in the picture or mostly men in the picture,” she says. “The media is not seeking out women. They’re not making the effort to put women in the picture.”

She says that this disparity between achievement versus perception of achievement is one that women face “across the board in every field.” Adams goes on to reference a recent New York Times article about Harvard Business School’s struggles in enhancing female success at the school.

“It’s about creating a culture that allows for women to be successful,” she says. As an example, she recounts once noticing that the Rialto kitchen “was way out of whack in terms of the percentage of men to women. We asked what are we doing? Are we doing enough to make it a welcoming place?”

“I’ve noticed [the large number of female chefs],” says Dumont. “I’m not sure why it’s happened here, but I think it plays into the camaraderie we have and the admiration we have for one another.”

New Kids On The Block

The power trio has welcomed some new additions, both male and female, to the Cambridge restaurant scene. Alexis Gelburd-Kimler, manager, and chef Matthew Gaudet co-founded one of the latest culinary hotspots, West Bridge, a little over a year ago.

“I drove by the space every day on my way to Aquitaine, where Chef Matt and I worked together. And years before that, too, always saying to myself, ‘How is there not a restaurant in that space?’ When I started casually looking at spaces I went by it again for probably the 150th time and cold called it.” Gelburd-Kimler’s whim paid off. She claims to still watch the video of herself walking into the space for the first time.

Gelburd-Kimler, like Gilson, is a tattooed restaurateur adding an element of youth to the restaurant scene. “We want people to know that it’s possible to eat great food and listen to Jay-Z at the same time,” she says.

Hip-hop aside, her managerial decisions appear to be working. West Bridge is making waves in the Boston restaurant scene, also appearing on Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants list.

Gelburd-Kimler recounts the initial shock of hearing about accolades that West Bridge has received. “When the Boston Globe review came in at 3-and-a-half stars, I cried my eyes out, got excited, and then freaked out because now the bar went from being not really set anywhere to being set really high. Every time you get accolades the bar gets set higher and higher, and people’s expectations change, and that’s scary.”

Gilson’s Puritan & Company has also enjoyed good reviews. “The reviews make us want to be even better,” he says. “[When] you start getting on list like Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants, and you don’t make the 10, you want to strive for it.”

Gelburd-Kimler, who hails from New York, equates Cambridge with Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. “I myself am a little more of a free spirit, and Cambridge is filled with lots of free-spirited folks, from the students to the professionals to all different folks. Cambridge was where a restaurant had to be for me,” she says.

Gilson echoes Gelburd-Kimler’s praise for Cambridge. Besides Puritan & Company, he also founded the Cellar, located closer to Harvard’s campus, and has always been attracted to the “neighborhood vibe” of Cambridge. He tried unsuccessfully to purchase three different Inman Square locations before securing the space for Puritan & Company.

“For me, I’ve always enjoyed the fact that on either end of the street that my restaurant’s on is two little schools called Harvard and MIT. You’ve got some of the smartest people in the world going to school on either end of the street that you work on.”

Healthy Competition

This high level of camaraderie among chefs both female and male was one practically drilled into me throughout the course of my conversations. With so many talented chefs in the area, it would be easy to presume that the same sort of cutthroat competitive atmosphere would exist in Cambridge as it does in New York and San Francisco. Yet all the chefs insist that the Cambridge community is a supportive one. Still, one wonders if all this talent leaves them anxious about continuing to raise the bar.

Adams recalls seeing Gilson sitting down for many meals at the bar at Rialto. “I’ve been to his restaurant, and I think it’s great. The more restaurants the better. The more reason that someone has to think about Cambridge as a destination for food, the better off we all are,” says Adams.

She admits, however, that “there’s a healthy sense of competition.”  “We know that when one boat rises all boats rise. I don’t think there’s really edgy competition. It’s healthy. You have to be competitive if you want to be the best,” she says with the knowing smile of someone who has often been labeled “the best.”

Gelburd-Kimler shies away from any mention of the competitive nature of the restaurant business. “Jody’s much wiser than I am” she says. “It’s an intense, business but I would say the majority of the intensity comes from within. I try to not look at anything else and stay focused on our vision.”

“It’s a family and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” she concludes, noting that West Bridge relied on the support of other restaurateurs in the area. “They would say, ‘don’t lose your mind this week, you got this.’”

Gilson, like Gelburd-Kimler, defers to the elder stateswomen of the Cambridge culinary scene. “I wouldn’t be able to run the kitchen the way that I do if I hadn’t learned how Ana Sortun does it, or if I hadn’t been to Rialto and watched Jody create a whole new bar section to her menu.”

The competition isn’t likely to die down, Sortun is opening a new restaraunt in nearby Summerville to be named “Sarma” in a matter of months.

“I don’t necessarily feel a lot of competition. I feel an admiration that this is a great city. I want to either learn from them and be with them,” says Dumont. She cites New York and San Francisco, two cities that she has previously worked in as places that experience an intense cutthroat competition.

“When people talk about great food cities they mention New York, San Francisco, and Chicago” muses Dumont. “I’ve worked in all of those cities and it doesn’t make any sense to me.” However, she concludes, “We’re too busy making good food to care.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Sept. 20, 2013

An earlier version of the caption accompanying the photo of Inman Square restaurant Puritan & Co. incorrectly stated the first name of the head chef. In fact, he is Will Gilson.

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