The Adega superstar talks with the Gazette about redefining high-end Portuguese cuisine, high-powered patrons and what it’s like to be a female chef dominating her field.
Jessica Carreira, a founding partner and pastry chef at local Michelin-starred favorite Adega Restaurant, says that when it came to looking for the best place to create a true blue, high-end Portuguese restaurant, picking San Jose was a no-brainer.
“San Jose has the largest Portuguese population on the West Coast and the second-largest in the country,” Carreira tells the Gazette. “Based on those statistics, I wanted to have an authentic Portuguese restaurant in the middle of the Portuguese community.”
Those numbers came through for Adega, a buzzy, adventurous treat of a restaurant that has gained a loyal Bay Area following amongst local foodies and international culinary junkies closely tracking the region’s burgeoning haute cuisine ecosystem. Awarded a Michelin star in 2016, the eatery continues to attract diners with its extensive wine cellar and inventive takes on Portuguese classics, and it remains the only San Jose restaurant to be blessed by the Michelin powers that be.
Carreira, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 2012 then worked abroad in Portugal for three years in a range of Michelin-starred restaurants, jumpstarted Adega in 2015 with former chef buddy and colleague David Costa, right in the heart of her old neighborhood of Little Portugal on Alum Rock Ave. That you are in a modern but functional space won’t be lost on local diners, who often live and die by a mid-century modern aesthetic, and are likely to be just as pleased with the restaurant’s valet parking as they are with its wood accents. Designing a space that was as visually pleasing as it was rewarding to visit was important to Carreira. The creation of Adega was the culmination of a life-long romance with high-end dining.
“Since I can remember, I’ve been going to fine dining restaurants with my parents and I was fascinated by the effortless service, beautiful plates and unforgettable flavors. It was a life-changing experience eating at these restaurants and some of them gave me memories that I will never forget,” she muses. “That is why I wanted to be a chef; I wanted to have a creative way to express myself, but I also wanted to put on a show and offer an experience, a memory, an un-forgettable flavor for my guests.”
She brings diners that experience with a culinary style steeped in tradition, but with a dedication to modern techniques and presentation, an approach which takes dishes like peach crème brûlée and seared fresh scallops with bacon, pomegranate salad and chestnuts to a new — and heavenly — level. And while the entrees may be what diners first fall in love with, it’s on the pastry menu where Carreira really shines, although she is a jack of all trades.
“My role as the pastry chef is versatile because not only am I involved in the creation and execution of the desserts, I also have the liberty to involve myself in other areas of the restaurant,” she says. “I wear several hats on a typical day at work, some days I have to be the dishwasher or the manager. Even though I have to take on so many different roles, my favorite one is always being the daughter and the partner.”
The restaurant’s name is the traditional Portuguese word for a wine bar, and oenophiles won’t be disappointed by the eatery’s voluminous wine list, much of it showcasing a breathtaking number of traditional wines that you’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Europe. Adega also pays homage to its Portuguese heritage — the space’s dining room is elevated by a gorgeous traditional mural made of Portuguese mosaics, and design touches throughout give thoughtful nods to the old country.
The restaurant has become a beacon for the country’s cuisine — in 2017, it hosted three seven-course meals prepared by Adega’s culinary team in tandem with three other Michelin-starred Portuguese rock-star chefs: Alexandre Silva of Loco in Lisbon, George Mendes of Aldea in New York City, and the legendary Pedro Lemos of Restaurante Pedro Lemos in Porto. Luminaries at that $375-per-seat series included local power players like Goodwill Silicon Valley CEO Michael E. Fox Jr.; Team San Jose CEO Karolyn Kirschgesler; Annabel Chang, Alaska Airlines’ Bay Area vice president; and SVCreates CEO Connie Martinez.
Another standout for Adega? Having a front-facing woman chef as both its culinary lodestone and brand ambassador. After having battled it out in kitchens in Europe for a place at the table as a woman, this talented chef’s delight in her well-earned success and legacy are clear.
“Personally, I am very proud to be in this position to show that anyone can be successful if they are driven to work hard for something they believe in and have motivation to fuel that drive,” Carreira says. “There were times where I wasn’t taken seriously in the kitchen because I was a woman and those were obstacles I had to overcome,” she adds. “Hopefully now I can be a role model for any girls that want to follow a dream but may feel like they aren’t good enough.”