A 23-year-old self-taught chef uses what his mentor calls “God-given” talent and a maturity beyond his years to win competitions — most recently for the title of International Oyster Chef of the Year — and lead a staff of 21 at the busy Boothbay Harbor Country Club.
Beneath his easy smile and breezy, down-to-earth demeanor, Nathaniel Adam is becoming something of a phenomenon. In less than a year he has taken home four prestigious awards for his culinary skills.
The executive sous chef of the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, Adam entered Boothbay’s annual Claw Down lobster bite competition in September 2017 and took home the Judges’ Choice Award.
Then, in October, he was crowned 2017 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, Judge’s Choice, at the annual Harvest on the Harbor competition in Portland.
One of the judges, Pamela Laskey, owns Maine Foodie Tours and won the 2017 Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year Award for Maine. She said the judges were all surprised when they learned Adam was only 22 at the time and self-taught.
“What a natural talent,” she said. “We were all very excited by the unique combination of ingredients and presentation.”
In June, Adam went before another group of food-wise judges, this time at the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort, to compete for the title of the Damariscotta Oyster Celebration’s International Oyster Chef of the Year, pitting his culinary skills against seven other chefs from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Once again the youngest chef with the least hands-on experience, Adam won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice Awards, preparing a raw oyster on the half shell with a jalapeno-rhubarb mignonette and lemon parsley oil, bacon foam, lemon pearls, caviar, shaved celery and a rice chicharrone, or puff.
No one was more surprised than Adam when he took both awards.
“All the chefs were really good, and we all got to work together. We helped each other prep and execute our dishes,” Adam said. “Everybody had a great oyster, and there were a bunch that I would have happily lost to.”
One of the judges Adam wowed at that competition was Food Network Magazine’s vice president of digital culinary content, Michelle Buffardi.
“Chef Adam’s preparation really celebrated the oyster,” she said. “I could have eaten a dozen more.”
Born in Detroit and raised in Bonita Springs, Florida, Adam has never received formal training. He started cooking at a young age for his single mother and three brothers.
“I was inventing and creating things that I look back at now and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ I was failing miserably, but I was having fun,” he said.
When Adam isn’t dazzling crowds of foodies and judges, he can usually be found in the kitchen at the Boothbay Harbor Country Club, where he manages a staff of 21, which he holds to his own high standards.
When he has to let someone go, he handles the situation with a maturity beyond his years. “At the end of the day it’s not personal. I do what’s best for the operation. I have high standards, and some people just don’t fit into those standards,” he said.
Executive Chef George Schimert praised Adam’s maturity.
“He’s way beyond his years in his emotional maturity,” Schimert said. “Aside from his God-given natural talent, his leadership qualities are that of a 50-year-old, and he’s a great teacher to his staff. He leads by example. He’s an exceptional human being.”
Adam asked his co-worker and now fiancee, Megan Conway, to marry him while they were vacationing in Lyon, France, last winter.
“I figured Lyon was the best spot to do it because they are the two loves of my life,” he said. “Lyon is like the heart of food.”
Conway, who has known her future husband since they were teenagers, is his biggest fan. They met at the Hyatt Regency at Coconut Point, in Estero, Florida, after attending the same high school but not connecting. Adam, 16 at the time, worked the salad bar.
“It’s been really cool watching him grow from that time,” Conway said.
Adam said his main goal is to find the best ingredients and treat them with the proper technique. “I try to get the best flavor and keep the integrity of the ingredient without breaking it down. I’m always trying to give people something they haven’t had before and do something I haven’t done before. I give a dish what it needs — simple, elegant flavors that match and enhance.”
For all his scientific experiments and gourmet creativity in a kitchen, Adam resorts to comfort food in his off-hours. “I love burgers, dogs, country-fried steak, grilled cheese and PB&Js,” he said.
“If I could choose anything I wanted for dinner, it would be a plate with some ribs, collard greens, some pinto beans, potatoes and cornbread. And sweet potato pie,” Adam said. “That’s what I grew up on. It’s in my blood.”
When not in Boothbay, Adam and Conway live in Bonita Springs, where he has a private chef business, Savor the Flavor. For more information, see savortheflavorpcs.com.
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