5 Lessons for Success from Superstar Chef Jody Adams

Boston chef Jody Adams shares lessons she would tell her younger self.

Jody Adams

F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Inspiring chefs and entrepreneurs share the lessons they wish they could tell their younger selves.

When I finished college, I hadn’t a clue as to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d worked since I was 14, primarily in jobs associated with food. I’d traveled from Morocco to Guatemala and always found myself in kitchens. I loved food and I loved being in the kitchen, but it didn’t occur to me that’s where I was meant to be professionally. Instead I took what I thought was a safe road — got married and studied to be a nurse practitioner. It was a disaster. I was squelched and couldn’t breathe. I escaped both my marriage and my would-be career and found my way back to the kitchen. I’ve been there ever since. I had to be in charge of me, and I had to be me. It had to be food, and it had to be fun.

It’s not always easy figuring out what you need to be your best self or how to get there. Other people’s expectations and the obligations you impose on yourself can drown out the voice of your true self. When I find myself adrift, I try to get back to the thing that makes me feel most like myself and trust that it will put me back on the road again. Here, five lessons I try to think about.

1. Own your failures, but take credit for your successes.

Women are quick to take responsibility for a failure. Their own, the team’s or someone else’s. The flip side is women’s inclination to credit anyone but themselves. They can credit their parents, spouses, mentors and team before they acknowledge having a role in a success.

If I could speak to my younger self, I’d say, “So go for it! But be sure to tell the world who you are and what you’re doing.” I wish I’d adapted this advice earlier in my career. I now believe I have a responsibility both to persevere professionally and to make my voice heard, no matter how hard it is, and sometimes it’s really f---ing hard.

2. “Do one thing that scares you every day.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

Doing something scary builds your confidence. If you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you won’t grow. Each time you fall down and pick yourself back up again, you get stronger and build your confidence. Take risks, and after you do, congratulate yourself.

In 2009, I was asked to be on the second season of Top Chef Masters. I wanted to say no. I was scared. As it turned out, I loved it. I loved the intense challenges and wild hoops we had to jump through. I loved the adrenaline and pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally. And then I lost. I was asked to pack my knives and leave. I was devastated. I hate to lose.

When I got back home, I realized that although I hadn’t come back with a trophy, I came back with something else: a new level of faith in my own abilities. I had cooked for masses of people under unimaginably adverse conditions against some of the best chefs in the country, and I had been successful for far longer than I’d dared hope. And — with the exception of some underdone goat — people had loved my food.

3. Ask for help.

If you want to take strides forward, you’ll need to rely on other people because eventually you’ll reach the limits of your own expertise, abilities and time. Find people who know more than you — who are smarter than you — and let them help you. Successful professionals love to help passionate young go-getters.

When I started running Rialto on my own, I was overwhelmed by what I didn’t know (and keeping that a secret). I thought I should be able to do it all. I finally shared my anxiety with a very successful business-owner friend. She said, “Oh…you need a coach. Everyone uses coaches.” It was one of the best business decisions I ever made.

4. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

Don’t wait for things to happen to you, make them happen. Manage up, down and sideways.

In the early 1990s, Nancy Jenkins was asked to write an article about Boston chefs for The New York Times. At the time, the chefs in Boston were a smaller, tighter group. We were really excited, and we all knew who was to be included in the article. A photographer came to the restaurant where I was chef. After spending several hours photographing my plates, he started to pack up his gear. When I asked if he was going to take a picture of me, he said, “I don’t need to. I already have a picture of a woman.” After taking a breath to suppress the inclination to hit him in the head with a sauté pan, I persuaded him, in the sweetest way possible, that indeed he did need to take a picture of me. I folded my arms over my puffed-up chest in the classic chef pose. That picture made the front page of the food section of The New York Times.

5. Support other women. Always.

Be intentional about helping other women progress professionally.

We control about 80 percent of consumer spending and make up 51 percent of the population. That’s a lot of power. Use it by supporting businesses owned by women. Mentor other women. Be generous. When I travel, the majority of the restaurants I choose are owned by women — not all, but most of the time.

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