Executive Chef Ali Waks Adams, at the Daniel Hotel’s Coast Bar + Bistro in Brunswick, seeks to go beyond just creating food—she dishes up experiences as well
“One summer when I was 7, I woke up early and made scrambled eggs with Hebrew National salami, green peppers and onions for my dad and my little brother. When we ate breakfast, it tasted like the most delicious thing I’d ever had,” recalls Chef Ali Waks Adams, a dish made all the more memorable by the pleasure of “just eating it together.”
Now, on a cold morning in Brunswick, Waks Adams is mixing fresh eggs into a well of flour and salt and hand-rolling it into tiny pasta. “It’s called frascarelli,” she says. “It sounds fancy, but they’re just little soft pasta morsels you boil quickly and serve with a little olive oil and salt. It’s really simple—you just have to care about it,” she says, gently using her fingertips to swirl the mixture around. “I did my stage in an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. My chef was from Abruzzo and she taught me to make pasta. She was amazing. She put so much of herself into the food, there were nights when we all sat out after service and all these other Italians would come by. We would drink wine and eat pasta and I listened to them speak Italian and argue about food, having no idea what they were saying but understanding everything.“
Waks Adams learned to care about food from her grandmothers. One is from Ukraine and the other is from New Jersey with parents who came from Russia; both are Ashkenazi and cooked traditional foods.
“I grew up on Long Island, but have this ingrained immigrant grandma sense of cooking food,” she says. “There’s meaning and tradition in the food. There’s a dish called kasha varnishkes. It’s the last thing I cooked for my father. We make it on Yom Kippur to remember those who are no longer with us. It starts with onions cooked very slowly in chicken fat until they’re almost black. It’s an ancient aroma—the scent of many grandmothers in many kitchens for over a thousand years.”
This is what Waks Adams aims to do as a chef with dishes like her pastrami short ribs with rye gremolata (a topping of breadcrumbs and fresh herbs), an echo of a New York deli pastrami sandwich on rye; or her Philly cheesesteak with homemade Cheez Whiz—to “have every dish evoke something in you, bring you a sense of memory, and momentarily take you out of your life.”
The desire to provide an experience through food has steered her culinary career on an unusual path. You might not think that a previous stint as a Shakespearean actor in New York would inform her cooking. But as she hand-rolls pasta, she says, “There’s theater here. People want to see you working. You have to present an elegant urgency—it can’t look stressful and there’s never a mess, but there’s always something about to happen.”
She also brings theater into the themed events she creates, like a Zelda Fitzgerald birthday dinner party complete with lipstick marks on the napkins and Picasso-style drawings on brown paper tablecloths.
She presents themed dinners at the Daniel Hotel’s Coast Bar + Bistro in Brunswick, where she is the executive chef. “I’m thinking of a late-’80s theme, then ’20s and ’50s. Also, I’d like to do ethnic themes like Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Mittel Europe. And, of course, literary dinners like the Big Night [referring to the novel by Joseph Tropiano and subsequent film about two immigrant brothers trying to run a successful restaurant], which I’ve been wanting to do forever.” There is no shortage of ideas to pursue.
Waks Adams has also been part of a unique food exchange between local businesses dubbed Meta Marge (after the Large Marge character from Pee-wee Herman’s Big Adventure). “Working to develop such a fabulous collaboration in a small community has been so much fun,” she says. “It’s one of those projects that really gets your creative juices flowing.”
The exchange works something like this: The coffee shop Dog Bar Jim passes one of its coffees to Moderation Brewing, which uses it to make a beer, then passes the beer to Vessel & Vine, which uses it in one of its cocktails; Vessel & Vine then sends along one of the cocktail ingredients to Flight Deck Brewing, which makes another beer with it; then Waks Adams uses the beer in a dish and passes an ingredient from that dish to the coffee bar to use in its next coffee.
Never afraid to break the rules a little—like moving to Maine to start her career as a chef—Waks Adams worked in restaurant management in Philadelphia after leaving New York, then headed to culinary school at The Art Institute of Philadelphia.
“I remember telling someone in Philly that I was moving to Maine for the beets,” she says. “You can taste the salt in the ground. It reminds me of the way food tasted as a kid—like the ocean is right there. When some people think of Maine, they think of blueberries or lobsters. For me it’s root vegetables.”
The thriving farmers’ market in Brunswick has inspired her to cook with local ingredients and to combine flavors. But she hasn’t been afraid to experiment with some unusual ingredients—like the invasive green crabs whose population has been booming along the coast and nibbling at the local shellfish. “The ugly truth is that they really don’t taste very good,” she says, “but you find a way to work with them.” She likes to let them crawl around in batter before dropping them live into sizzling oil and serving them hot.
At the end of the day, what she seeks to bring to her table is more than food. It’s an experience rich with memory, culture and tradition. “You never know who’s going to sit down at your table,” she says. “Someone may appreciate a subtle flavor, like which olive oil you chose to put on which variety of heirloom tomato. Someone else may appreciate what it looks like. Or they may just enjoy sitting down at a table and being served.
“With every meal I serve, I try to create the whole experience—the presentation, the lighting, the music—and I try not to overthink it too much. If I can evoke something in each person I serve, that’s what I want to do.”