Matthew Jennings Profile: Going Whole Hog

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

Matt Jennings at Farmstead. Photo by Alex Gagne.

From the archives: This article is from Rhode Island Monthly‘s April 2013 issue.

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.

Throughout the day, Jennings handles multiple tasks and shifts quickly from one duty to the next; he and Perez go over menu changes one-on-one in the dining room, when he explains that several VIPs — Nantucket restaurant owners — will be coming in for dinner tonight, and a chef friend Brian Young, from Citizen Public House in Boston, tomorrow. Jennings wants to “murder him with food.” Then it’s back in the kitchen to prepare pierogi stuffed with beef and Moroccan spices. His hands cut and mold the dough while the markings across the top of his fingers come into the light, HAND MADE, one letter for each digit. Next, he’s portioning out pressed wild boar on a scale and then prepping boudin noir. He hauls a plastic container holding connected casings of blood sausage, separates each one from the chain, then cuts one in half and pan-fries it for us to try. He loves this stuff so much, he eats half himself.

 

A photo from Matt Jennings’ Instagram account.

Jennings has become much more than a master cheesemonger, chef and restaurant owner. At thirty-six, he’s made Food and Wine’s list of “40 Big Food Thinkers 40 and Under,” he is a two-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast award in 2011 and 2012, and as of early March, he is a 2013 semifinalist. The Beard awards are like the Oscars of the restaurant world, honoring the finest food professionals in the United States on May 6 at Lincoln Center in New York City. Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se have won awards in the past. Jennings represents the state of Rhode Island on a national level at events both near and far, building relationships with renowned chefs along the way. Perhaps it’s those relationships that have helped him get to the top; that, and an ability to create stunningly imaginative cuisine using the best New England ingredients he can get his hands on.

He’s garnered notoriety for his outspoken social media personality and food photos on Twitter and Instagram, gaining more than 13,000 followers between the two, including award-winning chefs who regularly communicate with him. It’s awesome for him as @MatthewJennings, but annoying for @MattJennings, who often gets tweets from chefs and fans all over, but refuses to give up his Twitter handle, even when offered tempting gift baskets from Farmstead.

Like many chefs, Jennings grew up eating good food. He spent his first four years living with his parents in a dormitory at Milton Academy boarding school, where they would eat all their meals in the dining room with the girls. Later, his parents divorced and his father, John Jennings, a landscape architect, moved to Wellesley, where he worked in their vegetable garden. They cooked together, too. “He was right there learning how to barbecue, and he would be at our kitchen counter rolling out pizza dough with me and having a ball, you could see it in his face,” says his dad.

His mother, Jan Porter, moved to Jamaica Plain then to Little Compton, where she maintains a history of family recipes, including one of her son’s favorites for Yorkshire pudding that goes back generations. “I was one of those kids where my mother always had something going on the stove when I was home,” Jennings says. Both parents remarried, and he became close with his stepfather, now deceased. He points to a bluefish tattoo on his hand, remembering fishing on the Cape and along the Charles River as a boy, and hunting for quahogs and cherrystones on Nantucket. “There were tons of bluefish on Nantucket,” says his mother. “There was always too much, so we’d mix it up with cream cheese, dill, lemon juice and onion and make a bluefish pate.”

His stepfather’s side of the family owned an old whaling cottage on the island, so Jennings spent many teenaged summers there, picking up his first food-related job at a small grocery store. As a stockboy, he’d shelve sodas and fold newspapers, and he helped with prep at their nearby cafe: peeling onions, washing dishes, cleaning the walk-in.

When it came time for college, he pursued a liberal arts degree at Hampshire College, but it was short-lived. “It was agreed upon that it wasn’t the best place for me, both by the administration and by myself and my family,” Jennings says. “We all made a decision that maybe I should take some time off and figure out what I wanted to do.”

It all came back to cooking. “The only other thing I knew was food,” he says. Back to Nantucket it was, and this time, he lived there year-round working in a kitchen.

He spent part of the winter season food road-tripping across the country, and when his time off came to an end, Jennings chose culinary school. He enrolled at NECI and spent the next three years in Vermont, cooking, learning about farm produce and visiting his first slaughterhouse as part of a class. “It was the first time any of us had ever been,” he says. “To see that side of it was pretty eye-opening; the process of bringing an animal in, and the next thing you know…. It’s hard not be shocked as a part of human emotion.”

Now he’s known for his whole animal butchery and nose-to-nail philosophy, even documenting the step-by-step process of breaking down a whole goat on Instagram. He and his good friends, chef Jamie Bissonnette of Boston’s Toro and Coppa, and Chris Cosentino, born and raised in Newport, “Top Chef Masters” winner and chef of Incanto in San Francisco, so believe in this way of cooking that Jennings named the trio the Hoof and Snout Mafia, which has been recognized in The New Yorker.

One weekend in New York City, after cooking a whole hog Cochon 555 dinner at the James Beard House, Jennings and Bissonnette “got stewed and tattooed.” They spent a day crushing food, woke up the next morning, ate more and drank Tecates and Fernet at the Breslin, and then it was off to New York Hardcore tattoo parlor to make the Hoof and Snout Mafia official. Jennings’s branding appears on his thumbs; Bissonnette’s mark is on his right forearm; Cosentino’s is yet to come. It’s a forever bond for like-minded people, and one that solidifies Bissonnette’s first memory of his buddy, and many more in the offing: “Waking up with a screaming hangover, and going, ‘Man, why the eff did that guy make me drink so much?’ ”

 

Matt Jennings kidding around in the kitchen. Photo by Alex Gagne.

There’s a European market in Cambridge, Massachusetts, set off on a side street in a quaint neighborhood, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Boston but close to Harvard University. Inside Formaggio, there’s an immense glass counter stocked with more than 300 cheeses, many unrefrigerated, from all over Europe and North America. Eighteen-inch links of soppresata and Spanish jamon hang from hooks suspended on a railing near the ceiling. Cheesemongers are quick to offer a rundown and a taste.

Twelve feet away is a charming bakery stocked with pastel French macarons and cookies. The shop smells like pungent cheese crossed with baked almond biscotti. All around in the nooks and crannies of every corner are locally produced and imported jams, olives, condiments, pastas and more; everything the aspiring home cook or professional chef could ever want or need. On the beer and wine shelves are options from Napa Valley and Westport, Massachusetts, small craft breweries and even a six-pack of  ’Gansett.

After opening a restaurant at the base of Squaw Valley, coming back to Boston to work at Salamander and then Truc, it was a want ad in The Boston Globe for a cheese buyer at Formaggio that brought Jennings here in 1999. “I walked in the front door and it was this food lovers’ Mecca. It was like a museum. I was just blown away,” he says. He spent an hour exploring, then asked if the Turkish owner, Ihsan Gurdal, was available. “He was, I met him, and he basically interviewed me on the spot.” Why would he, a chef, want to work here? His answer: To connect with food on all levels. “My first impressions of Matt during our initial interview were his thirst for knowledge of cheese and his unparalleled passion for food,” Gurdal says. He was hired.

It’s easy to see that Formaggio was at least the initial inspiration behind Providence’s Farmstead, now celebrating ten years. It all started with a love story. On Jennings’s first day at Formaggio, he was greeted by a “beautiful, tall, leggy blonde” who showed him where to hang his coat and taught him how to work the coffee machine. Months later, Jennings and the catering manager, Kate, began dating.

For two years, he sucked the marrow out of the experience of working at Formaggio, traveling to the United Kingdom, Italy and France to bring knowledge back to the shop. Gurdal was his mentor, teaching him about cheeses, the charcuterie program, the housemade prepared food — everything. But when Jennings tried to sneak in American cheeses from upstate New York and Vermont, Gurdal wasn’t impressed, at first. “He was European-focused, and he would look at an American cheese and go ‘that shit,’ ” Jennings says with a laugh. “I did not make much headway with American stuff at that time, but I was visiting American producers and starting to meet people.”

The relationship between Jennings and Kate grew, and soon Kate was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America’s baking and pastry program in Napa Valley. The two packed up and drove to California where he took a job with Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods as their assistant wholesale manager. Through this job, Jennings built relationships with renowned chefs like Paul Bertolli, and he’d volunteer to work at events. Though he and Kate loved life on the West Coast, they decided to return to New England once Kate earned her degree.

The time was right to open their own cheese shop in 2003. They chose Providence as a good middle ground between Boston and New York, and because it allowed them to be closer to family. Wayland Square was perfect because of the neighborhood feel and proximity to Brown. They married in 2005, and when the space next door became available in 2006, they expanded. Their initial idea was to do wine and cheese pairings in the new space, but when they saw the renovated room, it might as well be a restaurant. Now people come to the bistro, even more so than for the cheese.

Lately, they’re shifting focus to the restaurant because of a surprise visit from the Rhode Island Health Department, right before Christmas. It happened after an article on preserving appeared in The New York Times and another on Matt’s Meat Club in The Providence Journal. Jennings, trained by experts, was curing meats and preserving housemade jams and jellies, and he wasn’t aware that this required certain variances. But he was shocked when their attention shifted to the cheese, which Farmstead has been doing the same way for ten years with approval after multiple inspections and no problems. “It was at a very vindictive time of year,” he says. “It’s holidays like that that make or break retail and it broke us.”

They were forced to shut down the shop temporarily, and as of the first week of March, Jennings was unsure whether Farmstead would be able to continue with its retail business. “We want to do the right thing. We want to follow the rules, and if we know what the rules are, we’ll do that,” Jennings says. “But there’s a great amount of ambiguity as to what the precedent is for us to follow. There needs to be reciprocation on the communication.”

He’s discouraged, but hopes he and the health department can come up with a solution together. “That’s one of those things that ruins small businesses here, and it’s just unfortunate, especially when I think we’ve worked really hard to be in a place where people respect what we do on a local and a national level, and I think we bring something to the state.”

 

The person he is in the kitchen is a stark contrast to who he is around family and friends. He and Kate have a three-year-old son, Sawyer, and another boy on the way in May.

“Sawyer is Matt all the way. He has his personality and his tendencies. He’s got this laugh that draws you in,” says Jake Rojas, Matt’s friend and owner of Tallulah on Thames in Newport. “The kid says such random things and wears such random clothes. You just want to hang out with him. And Matt is the same way.”

After an early morning of serving imaginary ramen to dad or playing superheroes, it’s off to daycare for Sawyer and the restaurant for Jennings, then Kate picks Sawyer up in the afternoon and puts him to bed at night. Owning a business means long hours, and most days Jennings is on the line in the kitchen. “Our biggest challenge is he wants to see Matt more, and Matt is here [at the restaurant] at night,” says Kate. “There were a lot of nights where he was like, ‘Where’s dad? Where’s dad?’ ”

They’re learning to balance business and family, and so far it’s working. They’ve hired a wonderful team, whom they say they can trust to help run the business. Jennings is now able to leave early on an occasional weekday night to spend time with family.

Perhaps he’s such a good father because he’s a big kid himself. Every year around March or April, he and a group of Rhode Island chefs pack into a GMC Envoy owned by Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway, and they head to Montreal for a weekend of food debauchery. The group includes chefs who also work with their wives: Wagner, Rojas, Chez Pascal’s Matt Gennuso, New Rivers’ Beau Vestal, as well as Ed Reposa, former owner of Thee Red Fez. On the way up, they bring “dashboard charcuterie,” a spread of housemade sausages, cheeses and smoked meats for the road. They document the trip on Twitter with the hashtag, #chefsinCanada.

On their last trip, they dined at Sugar Shack, owned by Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. Thirty minutes outside of the city and in the middle of the woods is this rustic dining hall with communal tables and a complete maple sugaring operation, open mid-February through May. The group explored the grounds, climbed up a hunting stand to view the farm’s pigs down below and then gorged on a feast of whole animal meats washed down with bourbon and whiskey. During dinner, Jennings noticed a bear skin hide on the wall, then threw off his T-shirt and made a move for it. “He pulled it down and put it on, and we all took pictures and posted them on Twitter,” says Rojas.

He and Jennings bonded three years ago at Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Local Food Fest. “As soon as I saw the tattoos, I started talking to him,” says Rojas, whose own body is marked with Texas-themed ink, like a Longhorn and a rattlesnake. The pair have a similar ethos in food, sourcing from farms, local fishermen and meat purveyors. Rojas’s cuisine is modern and artistic, and Jennings is rustic yet imaginative. Coming from two high-end restaurant owners, it’s fascinating to learn some of the places the pair visit, and some of the trouble they’ve gotten in together.

On a recent visit to Rhode Island, they took celebrity chef and Food Network TV host Tyler Florence to Olneyville New York System. “All the way. Three or four each. And large coffee milks,” says Rojas. “[Tyler] thought they were disgusting.” On another outing to New York City, Jennings and Rojas paid a late-night visit to Papaya Dog; they ended up getting kicked out after squirting quarts of mustard all over each other.

Yet Jennings is compassionate and generous. When an event this winter organized by Boston chef Barbara Lynch, the Blizzard Bash, was canceled due to — go figure — a blizzard, he and a group of other chefs headed to the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter to serve food. And when he’s out with a group of friends, forget it: He wants to buy everyone dinner. At the Farmstead holiday party at a restaurant in Boston, “I thought Kate was going to kill him,” says Bissonnette. “He kept seeing people at the bar, and he kept saying, ‘I want to buy their dinner! I want to buy their dinner!’ ”

“I feel like I have to play the bad guy, because he will do that,” says Kate. “Sometimes I have to cut him off.”

When it comes to his own success, Jennings says he’s never satisfied. He volunteers for events all over the United States, seizing every opportunity. He plans the schedule for the year, hands it to staff, and they look at him with wide eyes.

“It’s just who he is. It’s what I love about him, but it also drives me crazy,” says Kate. “He never is able to pat himself on the back for it. He’s always pushing for more. He knows he can’t be everything to everyone but, in the same breath, he definitely tries.”

Jennings is not content yet, even when discussing his James Beard nominations, a spread done on him in Art Culinaire, and the four cooking competition trophies that stand by the bar in the restaurant. “I am just in love with food. I am in love with the way it brings people together,” Jennings says. “When there’s strife in world, you can come into a place like this and you can sit down and have a great meal and you can escape for an hour. There’s incredible value in that, and I love being a place that can provide that to people.”

 

 

WEB EXTRA: For an article on Matt Jennings’s favorite spots for Cheap Eats, click here.

 

 

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