Delicious dish: The Domestic Diva brings it all together

Hilary Adams and her daughter McKenzie

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/2/10] 

Hilary Adams’ earliest memory of the Rutland Farmers’ Market dates back to the 1970s. She was just a child then, tagging along with her father, a farmer himself.

It was a bright summer day. Only around six vendors were there — hard to believe considering the size of the current market.

Amidst the farmers was a folksinger. Adams recalls that between songs, the man gazed upward remarking, “Look, there’s not a cloud in the sky.”

It’s a pleasant memory that has always hung with Adams, and one that she now recalls fondly each week as she sells her gourmet creations each week at market as the Domestic Diva.

The path to Adams’ arrival at the market, however, was not a direct one. While she explains that she was “always intrigued” by cooking, it was not until relatively recently that she considered it as a career.

“My mother wasn’t much of a cook,” Adams said. “But my grandmother, whom I never got to meet, was a great cook.”

She jokes that the first meal she ever prepared was at the age of 3 when she made her family a mud pie — from real mud.

“I think I was born with it, but lost it,” she said.

Growing up in Shrewsbury, Adams had the experience of being raised in a rural agricultural community. Her father, Dick Adams, was a dairy farmer, though the cows were sold off long ago.

Today, Dick keeps his thumb green by growing for Hilary, rounding out her business as the Domestic Diva and Our Farmer’s Funky Foods.

Her passion for cooking was renewed a few years back when a foodie friend got her a subscription to “Epicurious,” the culinary magazine.

“Before you knew it, I was making graham crackers from scratch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Adams had begun working as a server in restaurants around the area. In 2004, while at Café Provence, chef Robert Barral recognized her culinary talents, telling her that she was on the wrong side of the line.

“So he sent me to NECI (the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier),” Adams said.

She describes her decision to go to school as a “big leap,” a sink-or-swim moment that she knew she had to take.

“It freed me a lot,” she said.

Adams looks back on her time at NECI as being impossibly valuable from a technical perspective.

“It teaches you how build a cookbook,” she said. “It gives you the tools and the knowledge, but the rest is up to you. You’ got to make it yours.”

To round out her degree, Adams had complete a series of six month internships in area restaurants. She chose variety from around the county that offered her dis parate experiences such Hemingway’s, Table 24 the Killington Grand and of course, Café Provence.

As she bounced from restaurant to restaurant Adams was constantly developing and revising business plans.

“I always knew I wanted to be in business for myself, doing some kind catering or meal delivery service,” she said.

Being able to work from home is important Adams as is having the freedom to develop her own style.

During this time, the local food movement along with the resurgence and growth of the Rutland farmers’ market community, was getting a lot of attention. In particular, there was a lot of buzz around the new Winter Farmers’ Market.

“My daughter MacKenzie had been going to the winter market a lot, and every week she’d come home with such great food,” Adams said.

One day, MacKenzie came home with a plan.

“She told me, ‘Mom, this is where it’s at.’”

She informed her mother that the farmers’ market was the perfect location to try out Hilary’s business idea.

The following week, Adams accompanied her daughter to market.

Upon entering, she was awestruck – surprised and amazed by the diversity of vendors and how much local vegetables and meats were readily available.

That enthusiasm has yet to wane. “Some of the farmers think I’m crazy,” she laughed, noting that most of them have by now gotten accustomed to her excitement and passion for what they grow.

By the end of her visit, Adams had her business plan. She decided to get a booth when the market moved outside in May.

“That first week was a deluge,” she said of her soggy debut at the summer market.

In addition to the rain, there was a fair amount of early jitters.

“If I had only sold three cookies, I would have been happy.”

At the end of the day, she sold a lot more than three cookies.

Customer interest in her stand grew steadily. Meanwhile, Adams continued making her rounds to the farmers and growers.

From the start, using local ingredients was part of Adams’ plan.

“We’re so blessed to live in Vermont where all this great food is available,” she said.

Adams began acquiring food directly from the growers, creating her weekly menu based on what was available and giving prominent recognition to the growers used.

She notes that her turn at the market’s “Shop with the Chef” event was when everything began to click with the farmers. The items she prepared highlighted all aspects of the market, right down to the handmade cutting board she procured from a neighboring vendor.

At market the Domestic Diva’s booth is easy to find: Just look for the cheery mother and daughter team decked out in pink. Her table presentation is enticing and often decadent, drawing passersby in with smells and sight that compel them to sample a taste or two, and usually, make a purchase.

Offerings range from down-home comfort food like chicken and dumplings and chocolate chip cookies to standout creations like her “almost-famous” artichoke spread and a mildly spicy root vegetable curry.

On a recent Saturday, Adams’ unique take on a Monte Cristo panini blended traditional flavors with fresh mangos and local cranberries to great effect.

Fellow vendors have also become accustomed to Adams’ frequently delivered gifts. “I like to feed the farmers back,” she said. “I want to show them what I’ve done with their food. I like them to be proud.”

Indeed, cross marketing is part of Adams’ plan. In no small, way she has connected the dots at the market — tying all its various pieces together to create a unified product.

“It’s not about me,” she said, acknowledging a cooperative spirit common in close-knit, rural communities like her native Shrewsbury.

“There are many different parts, and by putting those parts together we can highlight the community in a new way,” Adams said of the farmers’ market’s role. “Without those parts we, we wouldn’t have anything.”

Stepping back a moment, Adams is surprised by how much her business has grown in less than a year. She is also grateful to be accepted by the market community.

Looking ahead, the Domestic Diva wants to continue to grow her catering business. She’s also got an eye toward opening a restaurant at some point – prominently featuring local food, of course.

As she watches the community’s interest and passion for locally grown and produced food, grow she is her usual enthusiastic self: “I really think Rutland can become a Mecca for showing people how you can make it all work.”

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