A Madison chef’s divine intervention

Jason Kierce heads a kosher-certified restaurant

Chef Jason Kierce loses sleep over the price of pastrami and longs for positive food reviews. And, like other executive chefs in Madison worth their salt, he worked his way up the ranks. But Kierce, executive chef at Adamah, the cafe inside Hillel, the UW’s Jewish student center, also knows where to find the net used for blessing new metal utensils in Lake Mendota before they get washed back in Adamah’s kitchen.

Quiz Kierce on any vegetable and he can tell you the exact steps to deem it “kosher.” And during certain holidays like Passover, Kierce – who isn’t Jewish – knows that he must cook without legumes, seeds or flour. So how did this Christian from Birmingham, Alabama, become the head chef at one of the two kosher-certified restaurants in Wisconsin? Some might say it was divine intervention.

It’s a blustery, inside-out-umbrella morning on campus, but inside Adamah, the coffee is hot. Kierce heads to a study room on the second floor of Hillel where he says he had one of the great theological conversations of his life. Pulling up his sleeve to reveal two tattoos on his left arm, one from Hebrew Scripture and a passage by Jesus Christ, Kierce laughs that people might think he is confused. “But something clicked in the last six months,” Kierce says. Despite his personal beliefs, when referring to the Jewish community Kierce says, “I don’t say ‘they’ anymore, I say ‘we.’ ”

Settling into his chair, Kierce explains how he moved to Madison with his wife in 2001. He worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County for a couple of years before joining the private sector. After a stint in commercial banking, Kierce says he was ready to “reinvent himself.” The tipping point came about seven years ago when Kierce took a client to dinner at downtown steak restaurant Johnny Delmonico’s and walked past the open kitchen. “I could see the chefs in all their whites. I saw fire flying up and heard chefs screaming ‘I need this, I need that,’ ” Kierce says. “I was in awe.”

Kierce decided to take the leap. A mutual friend introduced him to chef David Heide, owner of Liliana’s Restaurant, who told him, “Jason, I would hire you as an accountant, but I don’t know if you can hold a knife.” Heide agreed to let Kierce work in his kitchen to learn some basic skills until hiring him fulltime. Kierce then worked in the kitchens of Graze and the former Blue Marlin before moving to Johnny Delmonico’s, the restaurant that sparked it all. Kierce’s first executive chef position came at the short-lived Chi Asian Fusion, but, having never burned a bridge, he returned to Johnny Delmonico’s, where he worked as executive chef for two years.

He moved on to downtown’s Cento, but during his tenure there Kierce realized he was missing out on family time with his two children, now 9 and 10 years old. Kierce’s wife, director of weddings and care coordinator at Blackhawk Church, then introduced him to someone at Blue Plate Catering. He was hired to run the kosher food division for Blue Plate’s food operation at Hillel; when Blue Plate and Hillel split ways shortly afterward, Kierce stuck with Hillel. Before long, he was hired as executive chef of the new cafe, Adamah, which means “land” and “sustenance” in Hebrew.

Struggling to come up with an identity for Adamah, Kierce landed on a traditional Jewish deli theme with a Mediterranean twist. Embracing the iconic matzo ball soup, Kierce found peace with the costly Reuben sandwich (as kosher beef pastrami is pricey, Kierce says).

While most who eat at Adamah don’t keep strict kosher, Kierce, as the chef of a kosher-certified restaurant, must adhere to kashruth, the governing set of Jewish food laws, when cooking. Contrary to popular belief, kosher doesn’t mean food that has been blessed by a rabbi – it refers to food preparation. Following kashruth can come with its own set of challenges, such as not being allowed to relight his stove’s pilot light. “What other chef has to deal with this stuff?” Kierce laughs. Joking aside, Kierce has come to cherish the Jewish community and its traditions. “I believe in having something that is yours, that you can hand down from generation to generation.” Kierce says. “I want to be a part of helping people grab hold of something that makes them feel alive.”

Star Dishes at AdamahA Madison chef’s divine intervention

Ain’t No Challah Back Girl
This cleverly named sandwich is flavor-packed with smoked brisket, sumac coleslaw, mango jalapeño barbecue sauce and pickled vegetables served on a challah roll. Holla.A Madison chef’s divine intervention

Matzo Ball Soup
This is Adamah’s best seller. Kierce says he has received lots of matzo ball recipe advice from “bubbes,” Yiddish for grandmothers. In the floater-versus-sinker debate, Kierce opts for a floating matzo ball, which should melt on the tongue. Served in a clear broth with a hunk of challah bread on the side, this $5 lunch is comfort food defined.A Madison chef’s divine intervention

An Israeli dish made with savory marinara sauce, three poached eggs and two pieces of toasted challah. “My favorite thing is to pop open the yolk and use the bread–no fork [involved]–to scoop it up. So good,” Kierce says.A Madison chef’s divine intervention

Sweet Potato Hash
A scramble made with two eggs, sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, blistered tomatoes, caramelized onions and harissa. Not exactly a Jewish deli signature, but Kierce tried taking it off the menu and people complained.

Erica Krug is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.