Soul Chef Adam Sheff – A Black Sheep Who’s Family Supports Him
The black sheep of the family. That’s how Adam Sheff describes himself. But not in the way you’d think. This is no rebel. No disrespectful—throw caution to the wind—defy convention dissident. Adam (and yes, his last name does rhyme with ‘chef’) thinks of himself that way because he deviated from a life of finance and numbers (the career track he’d originally envisioned for himself) to pursue a life of cooking. Even though he comes from a very accomplished and well-educated family, himself part of that legacy, it was his parents (surprisingly enough) who nudged him toward the kitchen. So he’s the black sheep…but with his family’s full support.
Adam is east coast all the way. His parents met in New York City and started their family on Long Island. Shortly after Adam was born, they moved to upstate New York, and at about the age of six, his family moved to Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was here that Adam and his brothers spent their formative years. From the very beginning, food was a pivotal part of Adam’s upbringing. “Food was always a really important part of my family’s background,” he says. “My mom is from a larger family, so she has six siblings, and I remember growing up, it was always about eating together—there was always food around.” Especially when they would visit his grandparents on Long Island. Adam says that with 26 cousins on the first side of the family, there were always people around, and food in abundance. Adam pitched in to help cook whenever he could. “Growing up around that, I always loved food, and I was always kind of curious about cooking. I was the kid who wanted to make scrambled eggs and pancakes in the morning.”
Although Adam enjoyed cooking, he certainly never considered a career in it. “When I was growing up, my dad really loved computers, and electronics and all that, and it was kind of a new thing, so I learned about that too. I actually really enjoy numbers and business and finance. When I first got to college (at Ohio State University), I studied computer science and engineering, and in Boston (at Northeastern University) it was accounting and finance. So, not your typical chef background.”
After college, Adam found himself in Boston working as a business analyst. Of this experience Adam recalls, “It really was not exciting. Sitting in a cubicle was not my thing—I realized that pretty quickly.” He remembered how his parents had suggested that he go to culinary school after high school, because he enjoyed food and cooking so much. A career in finance or business might have ensured a more stable and lucrative career, but says Adam, “I’m fortunate to have parents who really just want you to be fulfilled in what you do. My family is very accomplished; my dad went to MIT, he’s a doctor, and both of my brothers are lawyers who graduated from Harvard Law School. That’s the background that I came from.” But the world of offices and suits wasn’t for Adam and he didn’t want to conform just because it’s what he thought others expected of him.
Before investing money in culinary school, Adam decided to get a job at a restaurant to see if he actually liked it. He started at a modern American/Italian place not far from Cambridge and Davis Square, and just as he’d quickly learned that cubicle life wasn’t for him, he quickly learned that kitchen life was. It felt natural.
“Usually when you start in a kitchen, you have no experience, so they put you on cold station making salads and desserts and those things. Then I worked out in front in the bar—they had a raw bar—with the customers, and then they started teaching me some other things too. I was only there for six months, but this was just about deciding if this was the right thing for me to pursue.” And it was.
Adam went to the French Culinary Institute in New York—known today as the International Culinary Center. “Originally,” he explains, “it was a culinary school in SoHo, founded by a number of very well known French chefs who’d been in the city for a long time. Over the years they started adding different programs, like an Italian program, and an Indian program, not just French food anymore. So they changed it to the International Culinary Center. It was really good experience. It was a short program—basically just six months, and it was nice to be living in the city again.”
This was a very busy time for Adam. While going to school he also worked at WD~50, a restaurant on the lower east side of Manhattan, and on the weekends he worked at a restaurant in the Hamptons where one of his instructors cheffed. He admits that he may have taken on too much. “I really burnt myself out. It was really exciting, and really interesting, but I just kind of dove into it.”
BECOMING A CHEF
One of Adam’s first major jobs was at the Blue Duck Tavern, in Washington, D.C. During his six years there, he noticed a trend, “D.C. had originally been sort of a steak and potatoes kind of town; not very adventurous. Over the years I was there, though, you could see that people were getting excited about food. All these great restaurants were opening up, and people were supporting them!” When he came to Phoenix, he was thrilled to find the same kind of transition happening. “People seem to be interested in supporting food that’s a little more interesting and different. That’s always exciting, and there are lots of people who are doing really good things around here.”
Adam began working for Hyatt, in their culinary department, of course, and has been with them now for about nine years. He and his wife moved to Phoenix in the summer of 2016, at the time that Hyatt’s new Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa was just coming into being. It was a very exciting time for Adam. He got to watch the formation of the new restaurant, his restaurant, evolve and bloom. As the executive chef, and being new to Arizona, he wanted to create a menu that reflected the story and flavors of the region.
“Coming here was a really good experience for me, because I’ve really only lived on the east coast, aside from living in San Diego for a year, and living in Ohio for college.” Adam believes that food is a very personal thing to people, and that cuisine should reflect and tell the story of the area it originates from. So as a self-professed outsider, he felt it important to learn everything he could about Arizona. “I didn’t want to get it wrong,” he says. “So it was fun to do a lot of research, talk to people, and see a lot of things around here. Get to kind of know what the culture is; where these things come from and why they’re here. And then apply that to all the techniques and skills that I’ve learned. I don’t think the food I’m making is any different from the food I’ve always made, other than the story and flavors behind it.”
Adam says that the January 2017 grand opening of the Andaz resort, and his restaurant, Weft & Warp, was the highest point of his professional career thus far. Of the restaurant itself, Adam says, “It’s a beautiful space. It’s fun. I joke with people that there are more different styles of chairs here than I’ve ever seen in any restaurant, so I like to tell people you should sit in all the different chairs, because maybe a different chair will influence what you feel like eating.” And it is a cool space. Fans of mid-century modern decor and design will fall in love. It’s eclectic and whimsical, light and open, but still hip and modern. “The food concept of the restaurant wasn’t really set, but Andaz is a brand that is about being true to your location, so after learning all I could about the area, we came up with the idea of calling our food contemporary Sonoran cuisine.”
I had to ask: Do you ever wish you would’ve gone the finance and business route? After a little thought, he shook his head. “I think it would’ve been a lot easier on my wife and kids. My wife is amazing. She gets it, and she’s very supportive. But it’s interesting that it’s kind of come full circle a little bit, because I’ve gotten to point in my career where the numbers and the business side of things is actually an enabler for me to do a better job. People are unaccustomed to dealing with a chef who can speak to the numbers as well as, or better than, anybody in the room, and that’s unusual. It’s actually been fun for me to make that a part of what I do. I enjoy being able to look at the business and the numbers and go through all of that. It makes it more interesting to me.”
Adam admits that being a chef is a punishing job; physically, mentally and emotionally. But that doesn’t dissuade him from pressing forward. He loves to cook, and he loves to grow as a person. “I always tell people it’s about being better the next day than you were the day before. There’s kind of a mantra that I like to follow for myself, and I have for a very long time: work hard, stay humble, be proud. That’s who I want to be. There are a lot of chefs, and I think it’s kind of inherent in the business, that with success, egos can get a little out of control. I mean, I’m not the best at this, but it’s not just about how great you are. It’s about being better, doing a good job. Doing something that speaks to you.”
Adam Sheff is one of a kind. Bred from a family of food lovers and high achievers, he could literally go into any number of challenging careers, in any part of the country and succeed. Fortunately for us, he chose to become a chef, and Phoenix was lucky enough to claim him.