BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Nathaniel Adam dreams of one day owning a 20-seat fine dining restaurant he’ll name after his late brother Eric. For now, though, the culinary savant is content with winning cooking competitions while leading a team of 20 as the executive sous chef at the Boothbay Harbor Country Club.

Adam’s brother Eric Jones died in February, and Adam said he was not only his best friend, but his inspiration and role model as a chef. When he lost him, Adam thought his career as a chef was over because he couldn’t be in a kitchen without becoming sad from missing his brother.

“I was no longer able to cook, and I lost my passion and drive to do it,” he said. But as time passed, Adam began to realize that not cooking wasn’t what his brother would’ve wanted. “He would want me to carry on, become the best and make him proud.”

Adam said his brother helped him during competitions, drove him to be the best chef he could be, and he doesn’t think he’d be where he is today without Eric.

“I miss him dearly, but I keep him very close to my heart as I continue to push through everyday making progress to become the best,” he said.

The most recent competition victory — at the Damariscotta Oyster Celebration in June — earned him the title of International Oyster Chef of the Year. All for a 23-year-old who’s never taken a cooking class in his life.

“I have no schooling, and I’m self-taught after years and years of hard work and dedication,” Adam said during an interview on the deck of the country club’s clubhouse. “I’ve just been honing everything I’ve done to keep getting better.”

Adam was born in Detroit but grew up in Southwest Florida. As one of four boys being raised by a single mother, food was often at a premium, so Adam learned to be able to prepare food for himself, and he developed an interest in the science of food preparation.

“My dad wasn’t around, and my mom worked three jobs, so we were always hungry and learned to cook for ourselves,” he said. “My older brother inspired me, and we bonded over cooking.”

He said he began cooking with his brother Eric when he was 9 and got his first cooking job at a country club in Florida when he was 14. But he wasn’t very serious about the job for about three years.

Adam said he started taking his work seriously when he was 17 and realized he could make a career out of being a chef. He said he understood that food and cooking was all he knew, so he started committing to learning as much about the craft as he could.

“Now I own about 37 food-related textbooks and study whenever I can in my free time,” he said.

WORKING AS A CHEF
Jones went to Johnson & Wales University, known for its prestigious culinary program, but he convinced Adam that it wasn’t worth the expense. His brother told him he needed to get hands-on experience, which wasn’t the kind of experience provided by the university.

He needed to continue working and perfecting his craft, and he did, until one day a member at the country club worked out mentioned that he was opening a club in Maine and was looking for staff. Owner Paul Coulombe brought Adam up to Boothbay Harbor three years, and since then, he has gone from a cook to the second in command at the club.

“In 40 years, this is the most talented young chef I have ever had the privilege of mentoring,” said Executive Chef George Schimert. “Technique you are taught, but talent you are born with. His ambition and passion led him to where he is today.”

Schimert said Adam has good hands, a way-above-average average intellect with an inherent knowledge of flavors, pairings, contrasts and plating. He has a total grasp of systems, procedures and execution of cuisine, Schimert said.

At the country club, which has three restaurants — Paul’s Steakhouse, Grille 19 and Over the Ledge — Adam is the executive sous chef. That means he writes the menus and recipes for everything produced in the kitchen and country club operation. He develops the schedules for all kitchen staff, runs the kitchen and both restaurants and ensures all of the products are in top notch quality.

Adam handles all issues related to the staff, sometimes including hiring and firing. He helps Schimert with with costing, and the duo splits the workload on ordering and inventory.

He uses a local egg farmer and stocks up on produce at the farmers market each Thursday. He likes to create unique dishes with familiar ingredients, and he said he favorite thing to cook is scallops because of their endless flavor.

“In Maine, it’s a lot about fried seafood, but I’m not a huge fan of lobster,” he said. “I think there’s better shellfish out there, but I cook it because I have to.”

He said despite not liking eating lobster, he did some tastings and played around with recipes until he came up with one he liked. Whatever he is doing is working. Just ask some of the club’s members.

Gary Lustgarten said Adam is a brilliant young chef whose talents of creating menus that are both unique and delicious are on par with any great restaurant he’s had the privilege to dine at.

“His professionalism and personality make him even more wonderful,” Lustgarten said via email.

Juliette Cohen said Adam has an extraordinary gift which he uses to the fullest potential to delight and transport his patrons. His food creations are works of art that are exceptionally pleasing to the palette, and whether at a wine dinner or at a regular meal, it is not uncommon to hear ooh’s and ahh’s when his dishes are served, Cohen said.

“He is able to pull the most delicate flavor in a wine and pair it to actually improve the taste of the wine,” she said. “We look forward to each meal Chef Nathaniel prepares with anticipation of experiencing his latest creation.”

BEATING THE COMPETITION
Adam has had different experiences at each of the cooking competitions he’s entered. He was named the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year last year during the Harvest of the Harbor event in Portland when he was just 22. His winning entrée was lobster composed of caramelized shallot, lobster agnolotti, lobster Newburg and hazelnut brown butter.

He said he has gotten stares at contests, and some older chefs hold grudges against him because they don’t think a 23-year-old could possibly know what he was doing in the kitchen.

“At the Claw Down (in Boothbay Harbor), I was the youngest and there were definitely people giving me dirty looks,” he said. “But I won, so it was worth it.”

At the oyster event in Damariscotta, where he was named International Oyster Chef of the Year, he said it was a good atmosphere with all the chefs working and helping each other.

“It felt like even though I won, we all won,” Adam said.

Adam said he highlighted the oyster and brought out its natural flavors rather than masking it, and judges said that was why he was named the winner. He paired the oyster with simple, light flavors that matched well, he said.

“I was never a fan of raw oysters until I came to Maine due to their mucus texture, and oysters where I live (in Florida) are nowhere near as good and flavorful,” he said. “But being in Maine and having my first oyster really changed my thoughts and love for them, and now my fiancé and I eat them any chance we get.”

PRESENT AND FUTURE
On a busy night at Paul’s Steakhouse, Adam said you hear food sizzling, pans clanging, plates hitting the window to be served, people calling out new orders and yelling for runners. The cooks are focused and cranking out food with ease as Adam communicates to his team and keeps the kitchen controlled.

“It’s a beautiful thing, a busy night in the kitchen,” he said. “The intensity keeps us going as we push through to put out the last tables before we begin to break down the kitchen to do it all over again.”

He said he maintain a very calm demeanor whether the kitchen is busy or not. It’s important because he needs to keep control of the kitchen and maintain a good pace.

“Plating dishes like Mozart playing the piano, with comfort and ease, I jump in everywhere to keep us all on track, selling food in the middle, jumping in on pantry and even cracking out sauté pans to take some weight off of the dishwashers,” he said.

When he’s not in Boothbay Harbor with his fiancé, Megan Conway, from May until October, Adam is in Naples, Fla., where he operates his private chef business, Savor the Flavor. He provides in-home fine dining experiences to high-end clientele, and last year, the business brought in about $40,000 in sales in just four months.

He uses locally sourced products and makes everything from romantic dinners for two to wine and appetizer parties.

“It’s a pretty good gig that pays the bills,” Adam said with a smile.

Adam doesn’t plan on staying in Boothbay Harbor for more than just a few more years. He wants to train under a Michelin-rated chef to learn everything there is to know about fine dining with the goal to open his own restaurant — named Two-Seven-Eighteen, in honor of my brother Eric, shortly thereafter.

Despite his experience in fine dining, Adam said he’d also like to own a snack shack that serves burgers and other grilled food, and he loves breakfast, so owning a breakfast joint is in the plans too.

“People think breakfast is simple, but it’s easy to mess it up,” he said.

Adam is planning on getting married in 2020 to his fiancé, Megan Conway, and he hopes to focus more on the private chef business so he can devote more time to her and to living life.

“In the last 10 years, I haven’t taken many vacations or spent any free time seeing the world. I let restaurants consumed my life,” he said. “(Megan) jokes that restaurants and cooking are my mistresses.”

When he decides to leave the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, Adam hopes sous chef Dillion Sabins-Sprague is the one chosen as his successor. Adam has watched Sabins-Sprague go from dishwasher to sous chef in a short period of time, and he said he’s the perfect person to continue with Adam has accomplished the past few years.

“It’s rare to find employees like him. He’s a machine, and I don’t know how he handles everything he does,” Adam said.

Without having years and years of experience, Adam said he’s constantly trying new things to make sure he’s always learning and growing as a chef. He said every chef runs into a creative wall during their career when they end up questioning if they’ve made the right career choice.

“Every chef second guesses themselves because of how this job consumes you,” he said. “Some chefs settle, but I always want to get better.”

Adam said even the best chefs in the world learn something new every day. He doesn’t aspire to become a chef who can be seen making chicken on the Food Network, but he is on the waiting list to appear on an episode of “Chopped,” a competition where three chefs have to make dishes based on specific ingredients that are judged by a panel of professional chefs.

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