By Cindy Mindell
In April, West Hartford, Conn. 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.
His parents are all West Hartford natives. His mother, Sandy Fine, now lives in
Farmington, Conn., and his stepfather, David Fine lives in West Hartford; his father and stepmother, 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, Conn. 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 member 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 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. After working with Billy for six months,
I decided to go to culinary school. 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.
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 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.”
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.
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.