Master Chef At Michela's Tells Of Trials at the Top

WITHOUT stepping out of Michela's restaurant, executive chef Jody Adams leads tours around Italy's culinary landscape.

When her menu features the foods of Campania, an area on the southern coast of Italy, the attractions may include an antipasti of delicacies from the sea; a Pizza Margherita Bianca, its five cheeses and carmelized-onions sizzling on a thin crust; and an entree of monkfish braised with fennel, oranges, and pistachio pesto.

Ms. Adams exudes not only a lively passion for food, but also a sense of discipline that enables her to serve a restaurant full of hungry ``travelers'' here at Michela's in Cambridge, Mass.

Although she studied anthropology in college, Adams got her start in Boston working at Seasons restaurant with Lydia Shire, one of the pioneering female chefs in the country, who continues to wow Boston diners at her current restaurant, Biba.

``Part of the reason I chose to work for Lydia was because she was a woman,'' Adams says, as she takes a time-out from preparing for a soon-to-arrive dinner crowd to talk with this reporter.

One staff member arranges fresh sunflowers (Adams's favorite) in a large vase at the side of the bar, while silverware and glasses clink in the background as tables are set.

Partly because Shire was in charge of the kitchen where she worked, Adams rarely felt any gender bias early in her career. But she feels it more now at the executive-chef level.

She sees this resistance manifested in a ``subtle neglect'' of women chefs by the media. Attention often focuses on them as women instead of as chefs, she says. At culinary events, ``the [only] people the press really takes seriously are the men.''

Adams has experienced firsthand the difficulty women sometimes have ``coming to terms with really being alone'' in positions of authority.

``Women are so oriented toward being part of a community that to [have] a position where there are separations between the people that work for you and yourself'' can be challenging, she observes.

She tries to maintain a tone in her kitchen that fosters good communication. Calmness and composure pervade the dining room, even though her days average 10 to 14 hours, during which she's ``always pushing, trying to stay ahead of the next crisis.''

``It's essentially working under stress all the time, and I really thrive on that,'' she says with a laugh.

When it comes to balancing a family life with her career, Adams, who is married and has a four-year-old son, Oliver, sees herself as fortunate. ``My husband is a writer and works at home. That doesn't work for everybody. I don't know what we would do if Ken had a 9-to-5 job.''

She has joined a local chapter of the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (see story, left). Among other pursuits, ``the organization is working to make it possible for women in the field to have families without burning themselves out. So they're talking about doing swing shifts and [job] sharing,'' Adams explains.

Last summer, Food and Wine magazine named Adams one of ``America's 10 best new chefs.'' While the honor doesn't pay the bills, she says, ``I think that it enhances my confidence and makes me stronger as a result.''

Awards help, but what really keeps Adams' career sizzling is her zeal for working with food, which is reflected in her original recipes.

Adams likes the ``instant gratification'' her job offers. ``We may cook for 250 people tonight, and then it's over: We make something, it's eaten, and it's gone.'' What remains is the satisfaction of both diner and chef.

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