Going Whole Hog

James Beard Award nominated chef juggles family, success and recent opposition while representing the Rhode Island culinary scene on a national level.

It’s a Wednesday morning at Farmstead in Providence’s Wayland Square in late-January, and Matt Jennings returns from a meeting wearing his chef’s whites. “I usually wear blue,” he says, “but nothing was clean.” He sports sleeves of colorful tattoos, a cropped haircut that draws even more attention to a blue mockingbird tattoo on his neck and a newly grown mustache that comes and goes, coined the “creeper look” by friends, but no beard. Wrapped around his wrist is a white sweatband embroidered with a monkey wearing a chef’s hat. He collects wristbands and fun T-shirts and he often gets chef’s swag sent to him. 

“We’re going to put you to work rolling gnocchi,” he says, handing me an apron. We walk past the bakery area stocked with biscotti and shortbread cookies, the charcuterie case, the cheese counter where 100 wrapped varieties tempt on the counter, and into the kitchen. He’s making blood gnocchi for a dinner at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival in South Carolina in February. 
The gnocchi is made with potato, cheese, flour, egg and pasteurized beef blood from a local slaughterhouse, and it’s hand-rolled on a pasta board, called a chitarra. Jennings shapes dough into one-inch pieces then gently glides each one across the notched surface with a fork.
He’s like a machine; each comes out quick and perfect. I, on the other hand, need some help. “I’m going to roll and pass it to you and show you how to do it on the board,” he says. “Flour the board up, get that nook on the bottom and then slide it off gently.” He encourages me as I fumble, adds more flour to prevent the mounds from sticking, waits until I get at least two or three up to his standards, then says, “Okay, I’m going to bang out the rest.” 
He’s a teacher in the kitchen as much as he is the boss. He’s greeted with “sir” and “chef,” yet he smiles and compliments a quiet staff member on her tortilla-making skills and cavorts with his sous chef, Jorge Perez, whom he calls Georgie. 
At one point, a cook, Nick, is preparing fresh cavatelli with a young female intern, Casey, from the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Vermont, Jennings’s alma mater. Before they get to work, chef and Nick discuss how it should be served. 
“I think we need a crunchy element on there, so we’re thinking about doing some of that *bruciato again,” Jennings says. “What are your thoughts on that?”
“Sounds good. Do you want me to dehydrate some chorizo instead, or…?” says Nick.
“I thought about that, but my one concern is that it’s going to be salty between the cod, the chorizo, the clam juice. I think *bruciato would be good.”
Together they decide the ingredients. Later, Nick brings over a portion of the cooked pasta for Jennings to taste. “It’s really good,” he says, approving the texture, shape and size. 

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