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Grilling the Chef: At Healthy Living, Matt Jennings Is Thinking Ahead

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Matt Jennings at Healthy Living Market & Café in Williston - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Matt Jennings at Healthy Living Market & Café in Williston

In July 2019, a year after chef Matt Jennings closed his Boston restaurant, Townsman, he moved with his family to Vermont. He lives with his wife, Kate, a pastry chef, and their two sons in Charlotte, where they grow vegetables and raise animals.

"I've always loved Vermont, and my wife is originally from Arlington," said Jennings, who attended New England Culinary Institute in the mid-1990s. "We've always talked about coming back. Once we were freed up from restaurant life, we said, 'Let's go.'"

Before they opened their Boston restaurant, Matt and Kate owned and operated Farmstead in Providence, R.I. A five-time James Beard Award nominee and former competitor on the Food Network's "Iron Chef Showdown," Jennings, 44, is the author of the 2017 cookbook Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots. He's also the founder of a food consulting business, Full Heart Hospitality.

In Vermont, Jennings has a couple of projects in the works. He's the vice president of culinary at Healthy Living Market & Café, where in January he and his team will launch a new house brand, HL Fresh at Home. It will feature a variety of prepared foods, including preassembled meals, designed to highlight seasonal and locally produced ingredients, Jennings said. The menus will change four to six times a year.

His "side hustle" is a new project with Kate called Red Barn Kitchen. Though the details are still taking shape, the venture will involve growing food and preparing and serving it. There could be a teaching component, too. Red Barn Kitchen will be driven by Jennings' "food ethos" and informed by his interest in creating conversations around food, which he called "an incredibly important part of our social structure."

Jennings talked to Seven Days by phone about long-ago summers, sauté pans and Christmas brisket.

SEVEN DAYS: Name three things you always have in your refrigerator.

MATT JENNINGS: Local milk, now that we live in Vermont and have two growing boys. Black garlic. I just love it, and we use it in a lot of different ways. Vegetables — we eat a lot of vegetables at home. Hardy greens of some sort — kale or mustard greens, collards, Swiss chard. We love hardy greens.

SD: What do you recommend for a holiday gift for a home cook?

MJ: I think that a really great utilitarian pan is something that everybody could use — a sauté pan that you can use for everything from making omelettes on Saturday mornings to cooking a breast of chicken. Something that can take a beating, that's high quality — ideally anodized steel or stainless steel is a great choice.

Also, a Santoku knife. It's a Japanese knife, a really great chef's tool. They're very versatile. I like to use them for everything from vegetable preparation to cutting fish to all sorts of things — cutting my kids' carrot sticks. They do it all.

(Jennings expounded later, by text, on the collection of pots and pans that will do it all: "Having some stainless and some anodized in your collection is the ideal scenario," he wrote. "Different pans/metals for different uses, but a few 'utilitarian' pan styles help slim the selection. I like a great fry pan, sauté pan, a great saucepot or braiser, a nice roasting pan, a small stockpot and a cast-iron pan. You can do everything with that.")

SD: If there's a regional Vermont cuisine, what do you think its defining qualities and characteristics are?

MJ: Well, I'll just say that one of the main draws, and one of the main reasons that Kate and I moved back to Vermont, was because of the incredible food ecosystem that exists here. It is rich with producers and artisans. I believe this state has always represented that.

Food has always been central to my Vermont experience. I think it's pretty incredible ... [and] doesn't really get talked about. There's so much to be explored — from small family farms to small production creameries. There's really a breadth of [the] food industry that kind of goes undiscovered.

I think the casual visitor to Vermont would be surprised at the amount of culinary DNA that we have in such a small state.

Matt Jennings (leaning on case) with staff  at Healthy Living Market & Café in Williston - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Matt Jennings (leaning on case) with staff at Healthy Living Market & Café in Williston

SD: How and when did you get into cooking?

MJ: My first kitchen job was when I was 14, a summer job, peeling vegetables and emptying trash and scrubbing sauté pans in the dish pit in a little café. And I just got bit by the bug, and I never really looked back.

I tried liberal arts school for a little bit, but that was a no-go. I went back to culinary and felt immediately at home, and I never left, for better or worse. 

SD: Can you talk a bit about Red Barn Kitchen, the project you and Kate will launch next year?

MJ: It's meant to be, quite honestly, my passion project and my side hustle. I think COVID has not quite yet revealed what form it will take.

We know that we'll be serving people food in some capacity. The goal is perhaps to do some light home catering, food for off-site events, and maybe the occasional cooking class or workshop.

It's a way for me to keep my hands in ingredients and be inspired, and eventually bring my team there, as well, from Healthy Living. It's a great opportunity to show people how food gets grown and how it ends up on the plate, and to continue the job that I have to encourage the next generation to cook.

We jumped into growing this past year in earnest and learned a lot, and sure made a lot of mistakes. We just love being surrounded by food and the beauty that surrounds it, and bringing it to life.

SD: What do you think the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry will be?

MJ: If I had that answer, I'd probably be a millionaire. That's like looking into the crystal ball right now.

We certainly are coming out of this thing, if and when we do, with great learning about how volatile our industry is — us as the general population, as the consumer.

I hope that this creates a real transparent conversation with the consumer [about] recognizing what immense challenges restaurants have in front of them every single day. Restaurants have needed support from the consumers for years; some get it, and some don't. People can get involved in helping the industry. People can vote with their fork.

SD: What does a chef take into consideration when preparing meals for people to heat and eat at home, as opposed to cooking for restaurant diners?

MJ: Portability — how does it travel? That's important.

For us, it's about some element of storytelling. It's important for us to connect with consumers in a way that's tangible, through the product itself. 

But I also think that food has the ability to transport us. So, when my chefs are designing new items for our menus at Healthy Living, I encourage them to think about what story they want to tell through that food.

How do we get the guests to connect to the dish: where the ingredients are coming from, what the seasonal inspiration might be. It could also be trend-driven. What are the trends that we want to create? Not chase, but create. I'm trying to get my chefs to start thinking about how we can contribute to the brand heritage of a business like Healthy Living.

SD: What are you planning to make for Christmas Eve dinner, and who will you be eating with?

MJ: This year it will just be the four of us: my wife, myself and the two boys. I'm pretty excited, because the chefs [at Healthy Living] have been carving out — no pun intended — a Christmas brisket special, and I think I may just end up being lazy this year. It's been kind of a tough year. I think we all deserve a little bit of a break.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Learn more at healthylivingmarket.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Food Forward | At Healthy Living, chef Matt Jennings is thinking ahead"