Matt Jennings Dishes on His Hobbies & Where He Fell in Love
Matt Jennings has plenty to be proud of. Father, husband, successful restaurateur and chef, this 12+ year industry veteran has racked up multiple nominations from The James Beard Foundation and a devoted following of enthusiastic restaurant patrons. Townsman, his wildly popular brasserie-inspired Boston restaurant, proudly serves some of the best seasonal dishes in New England.
Chef Matt Jennings
Despite all that achievement, this self-effacing entrepreneur is incredibly personable — a down-to-earth artist who admits his greatest obsessions are family and cooking. To hear him tell it, he’s just a regular guy who fell hopelessly in love with hospitality — and his future wife — inside an artisanal cheese shop.
You have a reputation for a certain intensity — focused technical execution, rigorous staff training, unapologetically bold food. Do you have any quirky qualities or interests that fly in the face of that persona, anything people might be surprised to know about you?
I’m either at work or I’m with my family. Those are my two obsessions, my two loves. If I’m not at the restaurant I’m with my two boys who are five and two, and my wife who is a pastry chef. And that’s really about it. I have a lot of personal hobbies that people probably don’t know about, everything from collecting records to — I’m an artist as well — a lot of painting and drawing. I kind of keep that stuff for me, but the rest of my life (for better or worse) seems to find its way on the internet.
In terms of your team, what are the characteristics you look for in people who might be interested in joining the staff?
I think first and foremost we look for people who are hungry in terms of not wanting to limit themselves to learning just one thing. I think the best cooks are the ones that are down for whatever, that are willing to throw themselves into the process, learn as much as they possibly can by whatever means necessary. The technical abilities — I can teach people how to work sauté or how to work on a hot line or execute a private event, but I can’t teach them how to have a sense of urgency and have a good work ethic. Those are the first two things that I look for in anyone. I came up as a kid washing dishes and stocking grocery store shelves until I was ready to get myself involved in prepping for the kitchen. I kind of worked my way up from nothing, and I really have an appreciation for other people who’re in a similar situation. They’re fewer and far between these days. The generations have shifted, and it’s a new time out there. But I think people who’re willing to throw themselves to the mercy of the process of becoming as good a cook as possible, those are the folks who do the best with us.
You seem to be really active on Twitter and Instagram — to what extent do you think social media has influenced your business and the restaurant industry at large?
I think what it provides for me is connectivity. It provides me personal connectivity to other chefs who I might not get the chance to spend time with on a regular basis. I can check in and see what people are up to, what ingredients people are working with, what is inspiring them. People can get inspired by looking at my feed too, so that’s definitely a reciprocal relationship. And I think also with our guests and our consumer base, it’s neat for them to have a peek behind the scenes of what’s going on in our restaurant and potentially in my life. To be able to share things with them on a level that’s a little more personal is always a great way to engage. I love everything from sharing photos of farm visits to putting up recipes on Instagram.
As a 12+ year industry entrepreneur, is there anything you wish you’d known when you first started out?
There’s a bunch. I’ve been told some really great sage pieces of advice over the years, and I learned a lot more lessons myself. One of them: if you find yourself with less than five haters you need to go out and find yourself two more. I think there’s something about that that’s really true. It’s great to be driven by a passion to show people what you can do, to overcome the negativity that can exist out there and let that fuel you. I think that’s a great piece of advice. Getting out of your own way is another great thing that I’ve learned. Sometimes the easiest solution is that which comes first. You end up overthinking things sometimes, and that can be to your detriment. Also, just being true to yourself. One thing that we’ve never faltered on is making food and creating hospitality experiences that we feel passionate about, that we believe in, that we know are interesting and dynamic — even if most of the world might not recognize it at that time. Typically, people come around, and I think if you stay true to yourself and to what you want to create, eventually people see the light and it’s really rewarding.
When it comes to the way (some) diners behave, what drives you most crazy?
The problem with the modern age that we live in is that everybody feels like they own the restaurant. There’ll always be challenging diners that have a sense of entitlement (we call them “discerning”), but you learn to work with everybody and that’s part of what this gig is. Hospitality means you’re going to encounter some great guest experiences, and you’re going to encounter some shitty guest experiences, and it’s your job to be able to turn the bad ones into good ones. We’ve made our own bed, and we need to sleep in it. The only line that can get crossed for me really is when guests are rude to my staff. That’s just something that I don’t put up with. On a couple of occasions, rare although it might be, we’ve had to ask a guest to leave for being rude to one of my staff members. I just don’t think there’s need for that. We’re all here to create an experience and a memory and a good time and when guests cross that line, then I have to step in. Protect my family, you know?
Favorite Boston haunt or go-to spot?
Yeah I mean there’s so many — for breakfast it’s the [Deluxe] Town Diner in Watertown. I’ve been going there forever since I was a kid, and now I’m able to take my kids there. It’s right around the corner from where I live, so that’s a great weekend influence in our personal lives. Neptune Oyster Bar for me is a quintessential New England spot. To tuck in at that bar to a toasted lobster roll and local oysters, drink some great wine — that’s a great spot for me as well. Trillium Brewery — downtown’s only brewery makes world class beers and is just around the corner from us. We find it so inspiring, under great family ownership with total commitment to quality, and we love what they do. Another spot that’s my favorite because I met my wife-to-be there is Formaggio Kitchen — an awesome Cambridge specialty food and gourmet shop that continues to be where I buy my cheeses and charcuterie when I’m not making them myself. Just a great, welcoming, knowledgeable staff and incredible product.
So you meet your wife [pastry chef Kate Jennings] at a cheese shop? How did that happen?
So I had been working as a cook in the city for a while and was kind of burned out and decided to take a little break. I replied to an ad in the Boston Globe for a gourmet retail shop manager slash cheese buyer position that I thought sounded interesting. I went over and applied and was hired on site by the owner. I came back for my first shift the following week, and this tall, leggy blonde with a white apron and cut-off jean shorts answered the door, and I knew that was it. She was working as the catering manager at the time and also in the bakery there. So we fell in love under hanging salamis and big hunks of Parmesan.