'Top Chef Masters' Chef Jody Adams on Prepping for the Competition and Balancing Work and Family

This driven chef and mom of two kids-Oliver, 20 and Roxanne, 14-divulges her pre-Masters preparation strategy, describes how she balances work and family, and gives advice for feeding picky children

Chef-owner of Boston's acclaimed Rialto restaurant, Jody Adams is used to being under pressure. As a competitor on last night's Top Chef Masters, she delivered a stunning fig and walnut tart with pomegranate syrup for the High Stakes Quickfire Challange, earning her a win and an automatic pass to the finalists' round. This driven chef and mom of two kids—Oliver, 20 and Roxanne, 14—divulges her pre-Masters preparation strategy, describes how she balances work and family, and gives advice for feeding picky children.

iVillage: What made you decide to do Top Chef Masters?

Jody Adams: My children and my staff told me I had to do it—and I’m so glad I listened to them. I’ve been cooking away for over 25 years and I needed to be pushed out of my comfort zone, to do something scary. I'm ecstatic about the buzz that Top Chef Masters will generate about Rialto and how we use New England ingredients in Italian cuisine. But I really hope my appearance garners some extra attention for Partners In Health, the charity I'm cooking for.

iVillage: Tell us about your charity, Partners in Health, and why you chose to compete for it.

JA: Partners In Health is an organization that provides medical care for some of the world's poorest communities. One of the things that makes them stand out is their emphasis on attracting and training local staff—doctors, nurses, community health workers. Having local people on your team helps when it comes to the other big part of their mission—trying to address the root causes of illness in their communities. They spend a lot of time working on issues like access to clean drinking water, or patient follow-through, helping to ensure that someone who has to take medication every day does in fact get his meds and take them. I think a lot of people had never heard of PIH until the earthquake in Haiti, where they've taken a leading role in relief efforts. That didn't happen by accident. They've been on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. They not only know local people—in all likelihood they are the local people. It's been both a privilege and a learning experience for me to support them over the years.

iVillage: How did you prepare for Masters?

JA: I watched as many episodes of Top Chef and Top Chef Masters as I could; I gathered a list of all the past Quickfire Challenges, visualized doing them, and—much to my staff's amusement—took the occasional turn as a line cook. I also gallantly tried to memorize dessert recipes. Truthfully, with the exception of working behind the line, all of my so-called "preparation" just made me more nervous. I did treat myself to brand new knives. My family and staff put the kibosh on me coming up with new tricks. I don't have any foams or colloids up my sleeve at Rialto, and I didn't have any on Top Chef Masters. I was pretty much myself, a little faster maybe, a little more nervous, but my food was a good reflection of who I am and what I do.

iVillage: What was the most challenging thing about Masters? What was the best?

JA: The most challenging part of Top Chef Masters was the unknowns. We didn’t know any of the what, why, how or where of our cooking until the announcement of the challenge itself. I’ve equated it to running a marathon blindfolded and naked. The cameras were on us all the time.

It was exciting to be in the kitchen with so many amazing chefs, and I loved the work of cooking itself—it was like being a kid pumped full of adrenaline and back in the trenches again. Although we were all competing, there was a feeling of camaraderie, with me and the other cooks just trying to do a good job and hang on for dear life.

iVillage: How did your children feel about seeing you on TV, and what did they think of your performance?

JA: My children, who are my biggest fans, are painfully honest about everything and therefore are my most trusted advisors. They both insisted I go on the show and Oliver said when I was waffling, “Mom, if you wimp out now, it will be really obvious.” I had to say yes.

Last night at 10:30, halfway through the show, I got a text from Oliver, who is away at college, “This is great. You have such a good reality TV personality.” Roxanne, who was with me at Rialto for the broadcast, had to endure me nervously squeezing her through the entire show. After I blurted out in the heat of a challenge that "this is about as much fun as interrupted sex," she whispered in my ear, “Mom, this will make you even cooler.” My husband and kids are proud of me.

iVillage: You’re a tremendously successful restaurant chef—how do you balance such a busy career with being a mom and raising a family?

JA: It’s about priorities and keeping things simple. I love my work and my kids know it, but it has also kept me from them. When I'm not working, I’m with my family. My kids will tell you I wasn’t home at night much, but I have brought them with me on work trips to Iceland, Paris and Rwanda. When they were little, it was really hard, but as they’ve gotten older, they see how hard I work and also how important they are to me.

But at the end of the day, the credit goes to my husband Ken. He works at home, a writer, and has been the parent who gets called by the school when one of the kids is sick and is the one who puts dinner on the table most nights.

iVillage: Do your kids have gourmet palates? Do you have any advice for moms dealing with picky eaters?

JA: My kids eat pretty much everything, and both of them went through a phase when taking the most exotic thing in the fridge to school for lunch was really cool. Quail, sushi, escargot—they've all been to the middle-school cafeteria.

It wasn’t always that way. For years Oliver, despite his name, couldn't stand olives; and Roxanne said she hated eggplant. Ken and I took the approach that bringing the family together for meals, meals around a table, was paramount. We've never forced our kids to eat anything, but we have insisted that they taste everything we serve, even if it's just a "no-thank-you helping."

So for struggling parents, here's what worked for us:

1. Sit around table for meals, not around a television.

2. Make meals about being together and talking, not just about eating.

3. Get comfortable with the notion that your kid won’t starve if he opts out of some of what is served.

4. Don’t make special meals for each member of the family.

5. It takes at least 15 tastes for someone to get used to a flavor, so keep insisting that your kids taste things even when they say they hate it.

6. Remember you're the person in charge, not your kid.

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