Chef Adam Greenberg talks about cooking up a big win on the Food Network
By Cindy Mindell
In April, West Hartford fans of Chopped, the Food Network’s culinary face-off, got an unexpected thrill when native son Chef Adam Greenberg snagged the Season 5 championship and $50,000. Now executive chef at Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant in Washington, D.C., Greenberg got his start at some of the best Greater Hartford eateries.
The 36-year-old Chopped champ married Anna Beyer last year. His parents are all West Hartford natives. His mother, Sandy Fine, now lives in Farmington, and his stepfather, David Fine lives in West Hartford; his father and step-mother, Peter and Janice Greenberg, live in Massachusetts and Florida.
Recently, Greenberg spoke with the Ledger about how he found his way into a culinary career and what’s next for one of the best-known chefs of the current reality-TV show world.
JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Tell us a little bit about your West Hartford roots.
ADAM GREENBERG (AG): I grew up on Walbridge Road near Elizabeth Park in West Hartford. We were a very Reform family. I went to Solomon Schechter Day School for kindergarten and then to Hebrew school at Congregation Beth Israel, where we went for High Holidays. I was a member of the Mandell JCC when I was living in the area. My grandparents were members of Beth El Temple for 60 or 70 years; my grandmother now lives at Hoffman SummerWood in West Hartford. I went to Hall High School for freshman and sophomore years, and then went to Suffield Academy. I was trying to go to play baseball and there were smaller classrooms and a better setting for me.
JL: What sparked your interest in cooking?
AG: Growing up, I really liked cooking as a hobby. When I was 10, my stepfather taught me how to use a pizza stone and we would make personal pizzas. I enjoyed watching him cook and spending that time in the kitchen. He and I would watch Emeril and Julia Child, and Great Chefs of the World on PBS. There was no Food Network or the whole reality TV game show.
When I first started cooking, my parents weren’t too excited about it. They never put the pressure on me, that I had to be a lawyer or a doctor but, generationally speaking, when my parents were growing up, if you worked in a salon or as a cook or a bartender, that wasn’t looked upon as anything more than just a trade.
Now, obviously, everybody loves it and they’re happy. The irony is that the work isn’t any easier but the job has become glorified with things like celebrity chefs. That’s great and it’s something that I’ve taken full advantage of and that I enjoy, but I never started this thinking that would be an opportunity.
My family knew Rich Rosenthal [founder and president of the Max Restaurant Group] and my mom knew Brad Karsky when he was general manager of Max A Mia Ristorante in Avon. So as a favor, she called him and he had a conversation with me and asked, “Cooking isn’t your background and it’s a really hard industry. Are you sure you want to get into this?” I said I’d give it a shot and see where it went. So, I started at Max A Mia, plating desserts and doing tedious, nominal tasks. You’ve got to start at the bottom and work your way up. I started to really enjoy it: the camaraderie in the kitchen, the lifestyle of late nights and working a lot of hours. It was all a rush for me. I moved stations at Max A Mia and learned a lot. I used to cut myself a lot and people thought I was a mess. Then, for the opening of Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford Center, I was brought on to work a station and cook. I didn’t do as well there and after three months moved on to work for Billy Grant at Bricco in West Hartford Center. There, I looked at the chef and said, “That’s what I want to be.” Billy would huddle us all before service and we would talk about the night, how many reservations we had and the food. Growing up, I loved sports and was a good baseball player and it had that team feel to it: this is the coach getting us pumped up and ready for service. On New Year’s Eve, we all had a glass of champagne together after the night and a toast and Billy thanked us for all our hard work. It was really awesome energy and seemed to be something that I succeeded at, the first thing I knew I was a little better than okay at it.
After working with Billy for six months, I decided to go to culinary school. I had spent a year between Max A Mia and Max’s Oyster Bar, so I was 20 when I started at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. I went to class from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., then worked a job from 2 p.m. until midnight, five days a week. I really loved it.
The business evolves and changes as you grow up but it’s no less exciting to me; it’s just different. It was fun to be 20 and make no money when bills weren’t a huge concern and stay out until 2 in the morning and party. Now, it’s great to be able to make some money, have these great opportunities and provide for my family.
JL: Has the American culinary scene changed since 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash?
AG: Those were real turning points for the idea of fine dining. The way I define myself as a chef is that I want to be able to cook the same kind of top-quality food that I made at Gramercy Tavern, that people pay a lot of money for in New York City, but make it more accessible for more people in different settings. Especially after the recession hit, we all knew that we needed to drop prices and embrace every guest who walked through the door. So at Barcelona, we said, “If somebody walks through the door and they just want olives and a glass of wine and to spend $10, we’re going to put our arm around them just as we would if they were here to spend $200.”
All these chefs proved that they could create awesome meals and experiences with $19 or $25 entrees instead of $50 entrees. Now, you were getting the quality of fine dining, but in a casual setting. It made everything more approachable and accessible. A lot of chefs now are very supportive of each other; it’s not this cutthroat attitude of not liking the restaurant across the street. It’s way more collaborative; you see a lot more chefs doing dinner together. You see a lot of chefs in t-shirts on the line, and it’s cool to be a hipster, as opposed to the tight, ironed white shirt, the way it used to be. I think it’s important for the guest to have really great food at affordable prices, especially in today’s restaurant climate.
There are still some really great fine-dining restaurants out there like Eleven Madison Park and French Laundry, and those belong in the world but those are the exception. I think chefs want to be more accessible to allow everybody to enjoy. I don’t know a lot of people who got into this to be millionaires; they love what they do. And if you love it, you want to pass it on and share it with as many people as you can rather than make it an exclusive thing.
JL: Do you have experience with Israeli cuisine?
AG: We do Mediterranean at Barcelona. I do mess around with different versions of hummus and falafel, using different Middle Eastern spices, ingredients, and influences. Chef Mike Solomonoff’s cookbook (Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking) is incredible and I’m a huge fan of his. Israeli cuisine is becoming more popular for sure. A restaurant owner in West Hartford Center is opening an Israeli-Mediterranean restaurant and apparently he hired one of the best Israeli chefs out there. With Mediterranean, you see more seafood; Middle Eastern has more goat and lamb, but you see the spices change up a lot. I’ve never had the opportunity to go to Israel but I’ve heard the spice markets there are just incredible.
JL: How did you become a contestant on Chopped?
AG: Six years ago, we all went as a Barcelona Restaurant Group – five chefs, one from each restaurant – to be interviewed at the studios. They chose Christian Petroni, who was our chef in Greenwich, and now owns Fortina in Stamford and Westchester. Beth, the producer, really liked me; I just didn’t get chosen. So for the next four years, I would email her every so often and say, “Hey, I’m still available; I would really love to get on. Am I doing something wrong? Do they not like me?” and she would tell me, “It’s just a process, don’t worry, I’ll try to pitch you again next season.” I kept being annoying and persistent and over the years, I’d seen people I know, that I’d worked with in Providence on the show – about 15, and four or five won. I said, “I know these people; I can cook as well as them.”
I told the producer, “If you can get me on, I’m not going to let you down, I’ll at least win the $10,000.” So this year, I got my shot.
I came in with a real open attitude and thought, “If you don’t win, don’t be upset; not many people get the opportunity to do this. Just give it your best and see what you can do.”
I thought I could win but I also wanted to be realistic. And that’s sort of how I felt about the championship. But after the first round, I did really well and I thought, “I could really win this.”
After the finale, they didn’t show it, but I yelled out, “Hey, Beth, are you up in the producers’ booth? I told you that if you gave me a shot that I’d represent. I won the championship and now I’ve won the grand championship. I knew I wouldn’t make you look bad!” They told me that they were all crying in the booth because they were happy. If I had gotten my shot four years ago, who knows if I would have done as well?
JL: What did winning feel like?
AG: It’s a really surreal experience. It’s a lot of fun, it was an honor; obviously, the money’s great. It’s more fun to see my parents and sister and nieces and nephews really happy. My niece is seven and she went to school the next day and all the kids high-fived her. Andy Pforzheimer, the owner of Barcelona, came down to D.C. to surprise me at the viewing party at the restaurant.
It takes 15 hours to film each round and we went through a really grueling week together. They filmed the four semi-final rounds in November, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the finale on Friday. At 5 in the morning, we had to meet at the Starbucks across the street. You go in, you get your jacket, they give you a tour of the studio, and then they start. The filming goes on until 9 PM. I’ve stayed in touch with the other three finalists and we’re all friendly. With the money that I won, I sent each of the other chefs a knife with a note thanking them.
JL: Do you have a favorite cuisine or specialty cuisine?
AG: I’ve been doing Spanish food for a long time but I love comfort food; that’s my favorite kind of food – everyday food. Now is grilling season so I love not cooking inside and getting on the grill. I like fish and seafood in the summer, and in the winter, I like soups. I love matzo-ball soup. I love food from when I was a kid growing up, something that evokes a memory; I just make it better. People ask if I cook at home. I cook every day at work but I cook at home two or three nights a week at least. I enjoy a simple whole grilled fish with some tomatoes and asparagus. I love garden food. I love this time of year because you don’t have to do much to a tomato; you can put a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt on it and it’s delicious.
I cook matzo-ball soup for my family all the time. They used to make chicken water when I was growing up; I make chicken stock and then make the soup again. My stepmother, who is Catholic, makes great matzo-ball soup, and she’ll make it when I’m sick.
JL: Do you have your eye on another challenge or dream?
AG: My next goal is to open a restaurant. I’m working now on conceptualizing something. Where I want to open it, I don’t know. I have some partners and some people who are interested and we’re talking through ideas right now. I thought my whole life that I would eventually open a restaurant in West Hartford, but there’s something about a city that I very much enjoy.
Summer recipes from the kitchen of the Chopped champ
Roasted Corn & Watercress Salad
For the roasted corn salad:
10 ears of corn, husked
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallion
1 cup piquillo peppers, julienned
1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup basil leaves (loosely packed), torn
1/4 cup cilantro leaves (loosely packed)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
For the watercress salad:
1 cup watercress
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 tablespoons crumbled feta
Roast corn on the grill over high heat until charred. Remove corn from grill and let cool, then cut kernels off the cob and transfer to a mixing bowl. Combine roasted corn kernels with remaining ingredients. Mix well to combine. Plate 3/4 cup corn salad. Toss watercress with olive oil, lime juice, and a pinch of kosher salt. Then arrange on top of corn. Top watercress with crumbled feta.
5 lbs fluke
2 cups grapefruit juice
1 cup orange juice
1 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons celery salt
6 oz celery, small dice
6 oz cucumbers, peeled & small dice
6 oz red onion, julienne
2 bunches cilantro, chopped
Cut fluke into 3/8-inch dice. Set aside. Combine grapefruit, orange and lemon juices, vinegar, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk together to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning. Combine fish with the celery, cucumber, onion, cilantro and marinade. Mix well to combine and season to taste with salt. Let ceviche sit for 30-45 minutes before serving.