Here in the heart of the Midwest a New York city chef has found her voice and created a style of cooking she calls New Heartland Cuisine, melding French cooking techniques with local, seasonal farm fresh foods in a unique casual fine dining atmosphere (and a fabulous wine list.)

Owner and Chef MJ Adams
with her head in a stove

Chef MJ Adams

Take a strong desire to be the best, mix in some classical training in French cooking at The French Culinary Institute. Add a pinch of volunteer work at the then fledgling James Beard Foundation. Mix well. Next stir in a variety of positions in some of New York’s best restaurants then transplant the mixture into the heart of the Midwest. Add locally raised meats and produce, sustainably produced. Roll it with a whisper of Slow Food philosophy and a commitment to farm to table principals and you have Chef M.J. Adams, who together with her business and life partner Walter Albasi own and operate The Corn Exchange Restaurant/Bistro in Rapid City South Dakota. Here in the heart of the Midwest a New York city chef has found her voice and created a style of cooking she calls New Heartland Cuisine, melding French cooking techniques with local, seasonal farm fresh foods in a unique casual fine dining atmosphere (and a fabulous wine list).

Chef Adams’ story is a uniquely American success story. Born Mae Jean Adams in Seattle Washington in 1961 she spent much of the time in her early years on beautiful Vashon Island playing and taking in the sun, the surf and the ever present rain. When her mother became ill she was sent to live with her grandmother in Mitchell, SD where she first discovered the rugged beauty of the prairie and the simplicity of frontier cuisine. After her mother’s death her father remarried and she moved with her sisters and brothers to the hardscrabble boomtown of Newcastle, Wyoming. There she attended Junior and Senior High School, graduating in 1979. Then it was off to Casper College in Casper Wyoming on a theater scholarship. She graduated in 1983 with an A.A. in Theater. After graduation her and her first husband, who had a scholarship to study screenwriting at NYU in New York city sold their furniture and moved via Grey Hound bus to New York City arriving with only a few dollars and a couple of suitcases at the Port Authority bus depot in Times Square.

They say if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. She landed a job at Woman’s Day Specials in Manhattan as an administrative assistant and later as a business manager. It was in Manhattan that she discovered her passion for food and began working as a volunteer for the start up of the James Beard Foundation. From 1987 to 1989 she coordinated the Meet the Author series there, arranging events for the foundation bringing together readers and noted cookbook authors. In this capacity she became acquainted with many of the culinary stars of the day including Craig Claiborne, Nika Hazleton, Julia Della Croce, Eileen Yin Fei Lo, Mark Miller and Jacque Pepin (she would later be his student at the French Culinary Institute). She had found her calling. She quit her job at Woman’s Day and entered the French Culinary Institute, graduating in July 1989.

The first job she landed out of culinary school was at Brooklyn’s landmark Gage & Tollner restaurant cooking under the renowned Edna Lewis. She then worked with Matthew Tivy at Manrays Le Petite Femme and with Tom Valenti at Alison on Domick Street where she was pastry assistant and later promoted to Pastry Chef. She worked as Line Cook at Henry’s End in Brooklyn and as Sous Chef to David Page at the famous Home restaurant. Her last year in New York she spent as Head Chef at Seasons restaurant where she received a rave review from New York Times food critic Eric Asimov in February of 1996. Some of MJ’s freelance work has taken her to Dean & Deluca, food styling for Hershey’s Cocoa, recipe tester for The Food Group and private Chef for Brooke Astor. She was also one of only four women chefs to win a Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association scholarship to journey to California and study under Madeleine Kamman.

In June of 2008, MJ will attend the James Beard Foundation awards as one of 30 chefs from across the country who have been selected for their long-standing support and commitment to America's culinary artisans. She will prepare 900 buffalo empanadas featuring 777 Ranch meat. She will be joined by culinary luminaries as Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza (Los Angeles), Mark Vetri of Vetri (Philadelphia), Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora (Washington DC), Cal Peternell of Chez Panisse Cafe (Berkeley), Peter Hoffman of Savoy (New York City).

In the fall of 1996, after more than twelve years in New York City she left for Rapid City, South Dakota to be nearer her family and open a restaurant. The first Corn Exchange opened as a bakery in December of 1996 but was destroyed by fire in May of 1997 along with seven other businesses in downtown Rapid City’s largest ever fire.

Out of the ashes and with the aide of local citizens and then Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) Corn Exchange The Restaurant was reborn in March of 1998 as a thirty five seat rustic bistro featuring what has come to be known as New Heartland Cuisine, fine wine and savory desserts. MJ has single handedly raised the bar for food excellence in the region. She has championed local sustainable agriculture a local farm to table movement. She is a member of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association from its inception. She is a member of the James Beard Foundation, The Slow Food Movement and Chefs Collaborative and serves on the Board of Directors of the Black Hills Farmers Market She has also worked closely with Corporation for the Northern Rockies in Montana, another sustainable agriculture organization.

MJ and The Corn Exchange have been featured in Food Arts Magazine, (June 2000), Elle (January 2002), Lexus Magazine (November 2002), three times in Gourmet (October 2003, June 2005, October 2007). She was showcased on Rachael Ray’s Forty Dollars a Day in March of 2005, and subsequently in the magazine Everyday With Rachael Ray. The Restaurant was also written up in the August 23rd Travel Section of the Washington Post, as well as the September 3, 2005 travel section of the New York Times. The Corn Exchange was recommended in an article in CNN online Travel. Most recently she was featured in the November, 2005 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, Frommers Budget Travel and South Dakota Magazine and had a feature recipe in the September 2007 issue of Bon Appetit. The restaurant was also selected by Food & Wine magazine in October of 2006 as one of America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences! MJ and Walter travel extensively in the US and Europe but make their home in Rapid City in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.

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