Teaching is a necessity: An interview with Chef Brian Rae of Rialto

In the first part of this interview series, we got to know Andrew Hebert, the Executive Chef of Jody Adams’ newest restaurant in Boston. Trade opened to much fanfare, and went on to be voted Boston Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of 2012. The award serves as testament both to the team responsible for the work that goes on day-in and day-out at Trade, and also to just how strong a factor lineage can be. Chef Adams established the ethic; the way to get things done. Chef Hebert carries that torch, and with much success.

Long before Trade, there was Rialto. Helping to keep the home fires burning is Chef de Cuisine Brian Rae.

Rialto has become an institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not only can you sit down to enjoy a meal, a mix of local ingredients prepared with traditional Italian culinary techniques, but you can learn to make your own. Rialto offers up cooking classes, open to anyone wanting to learn. Teaching is in the fabric of this restaurant, and those that work there. It is one of just a few things that came up during my conversation with Brian Rae.

Brian Rae
Brian Rae

Foodie Journal: At what point did you discover that you had a love for food, and wanted to turn it in to a career?
Brian Rae: Well, I went in to culinary school straight out of high school. So, I guess it was in high school, really. I used to work in delis, restaurants, and catering companies when I was in high school. So I think it just developed there.

FJ: And, you went to the Culinary Institute of America, right?
BR: I did, yeah.
FJ: Can you speak a little about how you think culinary school can be beneficial for someone making the decision to get in to the food industry?
BR: Well, I feel like culinary school is great for someone just coming out of high school. They’re used to learning in that classroom environment, and culinary school really can expose you a large variety of things in a very short amount of time. I don’t think it’s the only way to become a cook, but it’s a good option.

FJ: What do you think are the differences between someone that just jumps in feet first, learning while they work in a restaurant, versus someone that went for a more formal culinary education?
BR: I think that eventually you have to jump in, regardless. It’s a process you have to go through. Even when you’re coming out of culinary school, you’re still very, very green. Going to culinary school does expose you to a lot of things, but its not like you’ve had the opportunity to do them so many times that you can say you’re an expert in something. You’re still very much a beginner. But, going to culinary school can at least help to expose you to what all the possible options are in the industry and really help you decide which direction you want to take your career.
FJ: So rather than mucking about, unsure of what career path they want to take in the industry, a culinary student might have a better sense of direction. Know where they want to head?
BR: Yeah, exactly. It gives you a little perspective.

FJ: Once you graduated from the CIA, where do you get your start restaurant wise?
BR: I went to Nantucket, and ended up working at a place called the Straight Wharf Restaurant for several summers. After culinary school I actually went on to a regular college, believe it or not. So while I was doing that, I would work at the Straight Wharf during the summers.

FJ: In reading a little about you, I saw that you went out to Las Vegas and actually were named Las Vegas Rising Star Chef.
BR: Yeah, that was a few years ago.
FJ: Does winning an award, any award, change how you approach being a chef?
BR: Well, any award, I think, increases the pressure. It increases the expectations people might have when they’re coming in and are going to try your food. So, you do have to kind of up your game. The more recognition, the better you have to be. That’s ultimately what people expect. But, I really love the scene. I loved Las Vegas.

FJ: What was the lure to bring you back to New England having been there?
BR: There were a couple of issues, really. My wife and I are both from New England originally, so being away from family was tough. The economic downturn, though, really played a big part. There was a lot of belt-tightening going on in the casinos, and by extension in the restaurants as well. So, things kind of started to get a little weird. It just made sense at that time to come back east.

FJ: When you made your way back to the New England, you ended up work at Rialto. Can you talk a little about the team there, and having the opportunity to work with Chef Jody Adams?
BR: When I got back east, I was real happy to be somewhere that had so many local farms and producers. Las Vegas has some, but not nearly as many as we have here. So, it was really nice coming in to Rialto where Jody already had connections with so many different local vendors and farmers. It was really easy to find my way in getting all these great local products. The team at Rialto is great. We have a 20-year history, so there are a lot of people that have come through the restaurant that respect and love it. The team we have right now is really great. We’re all friends that get along, and are there because we love food. It’s not a job so much as it is something that we just love to do. I think we do a good job of reflecting Jody’s love and passion.

FJ: I know that Chef Adams loves sharing her passion for food with others, teaching them how to do things in the kitchen. A great example of that are the cooking classes that are held at Rialto. As a person at the head of a kitchen, how important is it to be a teacher?
BR: It’s one of the keys to running successful restaurants. You have to train your cooks. Teaching is a necessity. You also have to hire people that are willing to be trained. I just don’t think there is any other way to do it. You have to do things that way, or else you’re not going to be successful.
FJ: Is it something you enjoy?
BR: Yeah! I love putting a cook on to a new station. They might be nervous, some might be confident, but its fun to work with them during those first few days. Then when they make it through a busy night on their own, it’s a great thing to see. Reminds me of when I was a bit younger. I love talking about being a line cook. So, yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

FJ: Final question for you… do you have a food memory that you really love?
BJ: I always look forward to Christmas Eve dinner. My family kind of always does its version of the Italian ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’. It’s always my favorite meal of the year with my family. We have all sorts of things, like lobster, it’s just a great meal. It’s course, after course, after course. It goes for at least 3 hours. That’s probably one of my favorite food memories. It’s actually possibly the best kind of memory since it keeps repeating!

Brian Rae is the Chef de Cuisine at Rialto Restaurant. Rialto is located at 1 Bennett Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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