Food can be a comfort, and Chef Ali Waks Adams’ food did not disappoint.
On Sunday, Jan. 17, I attended the second of a series of three pop-up dinners in Brunswick at Enoteca Athena. Butter + Salt Pop-up is the brainchild of Chef Ali Waks Adams. The theme of this dinner was American Comfort. My intention was to report on the evening: the story behind the theme, the food and the chef. I quickly changed my mind after asking Chef Ali a few personal questions. Chef Ali’s food is creative, thoughtful and scrumptious; a chicken pot pie I won’t soon forget. Allow me to share how she got here.
CP: Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City, lived in East Hampton from ages 3 to 11, and moved back to NYC until age 29. At 29 I moved to Philly, where I lived until about 18 months ago.
What did you do before becoming a chef?
Before working in the kitchen I worked in special events, theatre (onstage and backstage) and public relations, respectively. I enjoy the logistics that go into creating dramatic moments.
Where did you train to be a chef?
I learned to cook by cooking. I started cooking at about age 11, we’d moved in with our dad, who was a working single parent, and we had this Irish housekeeper Teresa who looked after us when my grandmother couldn’t and she was a terrific lady, but a terrible cook, and I was a greedy piglet who liked to eat well, so I started cooking dinner for my father and brother a couple of nights a week. I hosted my first dinner party in eighth grade.
Since I don’t like to do things like a regular person, I went to culinary school about six years after I opened and closed a restaurant, worked as a sous chef, a bartender, a hostess and a server.
I learned an enormous amount while working in restaurants. I learned about BBQ while doing PR for a restaurant called the Smoked Joint in Philadelphia, and later working for a pit master from North Carolina, while he opened a barbeque place in Philly — I learned that heaven tastes like a hunk of smoky pork pulled off a shoulder with some hot pepper vinegar and a few crunchy sea salt flakes. I'm always training, always learning; four years ago I had my first taste of Szechuan, now I dream weekly of dan dan noodles and cucumbers with garlic and chili.
How did your background inform your cooking?
First of all I come from a large boisterous and hungry Jewish family; if we weren’t talking about aches and pains we were talking about food; where we ate, what we ate, how we cooked it, how they cooked, how they should have cooked it, what we were eating when we went to buy it, where we bought it, who has the best this who has the best that, how far we traveled to get it, where we parked, or how many subways it took to find it and what we discovered to eat while we were there.
My taste memories are fried clams from a paper bag on the dock in East Hampton, hot dogs from the real Nathans and who could forget those fries, fresh picked jewel berries stolen from neighbors back yard, a hot bialy fresh from the oven with Breakstone's butter, Joe's pizza by the slice, boiled perogies with onions, whitefish salad on a everything bagel, beets, hummus and branola bread with shredded carrots and sprouts from a commune commissary, and carob brownies baked by Hari Krishnas.
Why did you choose to move to Maine?
I had a really bad year; my year of magical thinking. I had finally landed what I thought was the dream job, chef in a modern Jewish deli. I was just hitting my stride, getting press, having other chefs drop in, when my dad was diagnosed with stage four skin cancer — he was gone in about nine weeks. I wanted to go home; my dad was my home and he was gone, so I had to figure out what home was to me at this point in life. In short, I wanted a kinder and gentler existence. I had come up here a few times, to Bailey Island, with my husband and his family.
Why are you doing pop-ups?
There’s much less financial risk than trying to open a physical location especially when we do it the way we do. We know how many seats are sold and our budget, so the risk-reward ratio is pretty good.
One more pop-up in this series to go. Like Butter + Salt on Facebook and you’ll be the first to know.