In this episode of the Find Dining Podcast, we speak with Chef Matt Jennings of Farmstead, the James Beard Award nominee and three-time Cochon 555 champion who will deliver the keynote address at the first Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference. We talk about his journeys as a chef and cheese buyer, the importance of the farm-to-table movement, and the proper way to dig for clams.
- Find out more about the Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference
- Matt is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont
- Matt was a cheese buyer for the Formaggio Kitchen in Boston
- Kate Jennings is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Napa Valley
- Paul Bertolli and Michael Tusk are two California chefs that influenced Matt
- The Wall Street Journal featured Matt in this story on buttermilk
- National Public Radio featured Matt in this story on happy pigs
- Matt has filmed an episode of PBS’ Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking with Boston chef Ken Oringer
- Matt won the Cochon 555 competition three years in a row
- Shouts out to Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats in San Francisco and Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa in Boston
- Matt’s former Chef de Cuisine Benjamin Sukle just opened up Birch to rave reviews
Food for Thought:
Out of the Frying Pan Picks:
- Favorite Place to Buy Pork: from Pat McNiff of Casey Farm and Blackbird Farm at the Hope Street Farmers’ Market
- Recommended Cheese: Harbison from the Cellars at Jasper Hill
- Chefs Who Have Influenced Matt: David Miles of the New England Culinary Institute, Amanda Lydon and Gabriel Frasca, and Ihsan Gurdal of Formaggio Kitchen
- Admired Rhode Island Chefs: Beau Vestal at New Rivers, Derek Wagner at Nick’s on Broadway, Matt Genusio at Chez Pascal, Benjamin Sukle at Birch, James Mark at North
Seth: Hello and welcome to the Find Dining Podcast. This is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food. My name is Seth Resler and here’s how it works. Every week, we go to a different city and we talk to somebody who really knows the local culinary scene, sometimes it’s a food blogger, sometimes it’s a food event organizer, sometimes it’s a chef.
And today, I’m really excited, we are talking to the keynote speaker of the very first Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference which is just — first of all, he’s got a long list of accolades that go well beyond that. He’s been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee for Best Chef in at least several years in a row at this point, Food and Wine named him one of 40 — under 40 big thinkers. He was the winner of the Cochon 555 competition three times in a row. Had to retire himself because he have been winning the event. He’s been named one of Mother Nature Network’s most sustainable chefs, Matt Jennings of Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.
Matt: Hey, Seth, how are you?
Seth: I’m really glad that you’re going to be doing this keynote address.
Matt: Well, I’m really glad to be doing it and you should be excited, I think what you guys are up to with this meeting conferences. It’s pretty impressive.
Seth: Thank you for being a part of it.
Matt: Pleasure, pleasure.
Seth: We got a lot to talk about with you today. First of all, we’re going to get into your history, your background, you know, how you got to where you are today and then we want to talk about sort of the amazing things that you’re doing with pork and with cheese over there at Farmstead and talk about some of the great things that are happening in Providence, Rhode Island because this really is a great place for food. I mean, the dining scene there is just — especially in the last few years just become fantastic.
Seth: So we want to talk about that. And then we’re going to play a game called out of the frying pan. But before we get to all that, you have a trivia question for me.
Matt: Well, I figured that it was, you know, apropos of the conference being held here in Rhode Island for the first time ever that we should probably talk clams. You may or may not know that it was around the late ’80s that our little humble Quahog was elevated to the status of the Rhode Island official state shell, so I wanted to throw a clam trivia question your way.
Seth: Go for it.
Matt: Rhode Island is situated in kind of what they call, you know, Quahog country which is really the heart of it runs between Cape Cod and New Jersey and there is an essential piece of equipment that’s needed when you are going quahogging or climbing and if you don’t have it, you’re going to have a lot of hard luck and some pretty bruised fingers, so it’s something to think about.
Seth: So it’s a piece of equipment that you need in order to basically remove the quahogs in the water, is that what it is?
Matt: That’s right, that’s right. The clammer’s best friend.
Seth: Huh. For everything I know about quahogs, I learned from watching Family Guy. There is no city in Rhode Island named Quahog.
Matt: There’s not. No, there’s not.
Seth: That’s a fictional place but Seth MacFarlane is from there, right?
Matt: That’s right, that’s right.
Seth: Hmmm…An essential piece of equipment. Is this like an industrial piece of equipment or is this something small that an would individual use?
Matt: It’s pretty — they started off pretty primitive and have developed a little bit over the years but it’s a tool that’s used with the skills of hand raking which is really the best way to harvest these guys, so.
Seth: We’re going to think about that. We’ll come back to that. While I’m thinking about that, let’s talk about you and let’s start the story with you’re from Boston, you’re born, what happens next?
Matt: Born and raised in Boston. Grew up in JP, Jamaica Plain. Spent some time on the burbs as well, you know, worked as a cook. You know, I got my first experience really as a stock boy when I was 13 in a little local grocery store, kind of being around food and, you know, there’s a little deli attached to the grocery store and the grocery store also owned a little café next door. And so I kind of was coming up the rank, you know, I asked the boss man if I could get involved in the café and he said, “Well, I don’t know if you’re really ready but you can chop some onions here and there or you can peel some cucumbers or, you know, wash some salad greens and when you’re done, do all the dishes and clean the whole place and sweep the floor.” So that was kind of my introduction into, you know, the hard work that it took to be in the kitchen.
Seth: And at that point, did you know that this was something you wanted to do?
Matt: No, I mean, it was really more summer job type stuff. But, you know, I was kind of realizing I was getting bit by the bug when I was spending more time at the grocery and at the restaurant than I was at home and out with my friends in the summertime just because I loved it. And I also love that reward of, you know, bringing home a paycheck when I was a young kid.
Matt: That was nice and then we’d return to, you know, school in the fall and ended up going to liberal arts college as you would say maybe normal — “normal college” out in Western Massachusetts for a year. It was decided both by administration and my family that it probably wasn’t the best place for me. Let’s just put it that way.
Matt: So I didn’t let get me in too much work done, I was having a lot of fun…
Matt: And we said, “Okay, let’s take a second and regroup here and figure out what it is that I want to do.” So I took a year off and in that year off, the only thing I knew how to do was, you know, work in the kitchen from my previous experience. So I proceeded to do that for a year and really fell in love with it and that was kind of really when I got bit by the bug and I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so. And on the following year, you know, I ended up going up to culinary school at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont after my year off and that was off to the races from there. It’s really, really great place and I learned a lot.
Seth: So once you graduate from culinary school, where do you go?
Matt: I graduated from culinary school and spent some time, bouncing back and forth between California, the West Coast and Boston on my internships and landed a job as a cook in the city in Boston and actually opened a couple different restaurants there and was just working really hard and, you know, doing 70, 80 hour weeks and going out and partying hard at night and doing what young cooks do. And I just kind of reach a point where — I think I was working so much and so hard that I had kind of, you know, lost that love for food from a consumer standpoint.
So I decided to take a little bit of a break and gave my notice in at my restaurant job and, you know, took a couple of weeks and ended finding a listing in the newspaper for a cheese buyer which I thought was really interesting and it was for this hollowed institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Formaggio Kitchen which I had heard a lot about as a young cook in Boston. All of my chefs sort of always talked about it and would source products from there, but I never actually been. So I went to Formaggio for an interview and walked in and was essentially hired on the spot.
Seth: Now, when you got hired there, did you have a particular specialty in cheese?
Matt: I didn’t, I didn’t. I’ve just been a cook up to that point and my mentor to be, if you will, Ihsan Gurdal, owner there, I think really saw how passionate I was around food and, you know, we ended up spending a lot of time that day in the shop just talking about the ingredients that he was selling and I think that, you know, he really liked that. So he ended up — he did call me back for a second interview but, you know, in that process, I think he’d made a decision already that I was somebody that he wanted on the team.
So, you know, started there and really was brought in as somebody to learn the entire department of cheese and charcuterie at Formaggio and to begin sourcing the product. So Ihsan really took me under his wing, showed me quite a bit about charcuterie and cheese and how to source it and what to look for and sent me all over the globe buying products for these two shops that he owned. I went to Europe, you know, Italy, France. Spent some time in Austria as well and would bring back products for the shops. So it’s really an amazing experience. And I got to do things and see place and meet people that I never would have. And included in that was a beautiful young baker and one of the catering managers there at Formaggio at that time, who is my wife to be, Kate.
Matt: So that’s how we met was at Formaggio and the rest as they say is history.
Seth: And congratulations, I know that you just had your second child.
Matt: We did. Yeah, yeah. We just had another baby boy, so been busy.
Seth: Yeah, I’m sure it is. I’m sure it is.
Seth: Tell me a little bit about what you noticed as you went from place to place and how that informs, you know, the cheese that is produced?
Matt: Being able to see what I was able to see in Europe really just opened my eyes to a new way of looking at food. You know, it was the ability to go to an open markets and buy products on the street from the farmers. It was, you know, the ability to visit some of these producers in their homes and on their farms and see firsthand the amount of hard work and passion that goes into the products. And, you know, that was the stuff that really kind of just kept hitting home with me, you know, to see these people who have dedicated their lives to creating, maybe it’s just one single product, you know, maybe it’s someone on the hill side in the side of Tuscany that makes one cheese and that’s all they do. You know, that stuff really resonates with me.
And so, I wanted to be able to find a way to bring that back to the U.S. and so I was able to do that through Formaggio for a while. And then when Kate and I decided it was time to kind of move on, you know, she wanted to pursue her pastry career and I wanted to see more of what the U.S. had to offer in the way of artisan foods to know. At that point, you know, the U.S. is really starting to blossom and artisan producers were kind of coming out of the woodwork and there was no better place to really explore that than California. As most who had movements I would say kind of start in the, you know, Bay Area and kind of resonate eastward for the most part. You know, we thought like it would be a great place to go and explore the next, you know, world of cuisine on the West Coast that we haven’t seen yet.
So Kate went and applied at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California in the Napa Valley and she got in and so we moved to Napa. So we got to see the West Coast side of things as well which is really fascinating and see what was going on out there simultaneously as to what was happening at home. And, you know, again, we’re kind of struck by the intensity of the farm-to-fork movement, if you will, out there and, you know, which is now ubiquitous in the world and, you know, seen all over the place.
It was still back then pretty interesting in noble when you had chefs performing their culinary skills right on the farm and chefs that owned farms and — who were working directly with producers. And it was really about cultivating those relationships really.
Seth: When were you out there in Napa?
Matt: 2000 to 2002, right in that area. So it was kind of really the beginning of that kind of farm-to-table revolution, if you will.
Seth: Correct me if I’m wrong, but sort of the wine came up first in Napa, you know, because they’ve been doing it so long and that it became sort of a tourist destination for wine and then the food sort of followed that. And really, you know, one of the big things is that Thomas Keller came in…
Seth: …with the French Laundry. Is that happening at that point?
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean, I would say that the influence of local artisan producers and farmers on California cuisine has been around for decades, you know. I mean, when we were there it wasn’t there was anything new but there are a lot of kind of younger chefs spinning off and doing their own projects and bringing that ethos into their restaurant. And so you’re kind of seeing the second resurgence of it. You know, you had the kind of disciples that were coming from places, you know, like Chez Panisse and Alice Waters and you had the disciples coming from Thomas’ restaurant, you know, and other great locations that were doing these things and kind of creating their own version of farm-focused restaurant. And so that to me, was really interesting seeing that next generation come up.
Seth: And just so that we’re clear about what we’re talking about, I mean, when we talk about the farm-to-table movement, let’s do it the easy way, tell me about we’re not talking about.
Matt: We’re not talking about industrialized food, I mean, I think that’s the bottom line, you know. We’re not talking about food that’s made without great attention to detail and small batches, created from responsibly sourced ingredients. The sustainable food movement is that focus on, you know, the ingredients and the cuisine that creates, you know, the opportunity for sustainability through the items themselves and the utilization of products as well as for the people that work on these farms, you know, creating socioeconomic ability for small farms to survive. That’s really what we’re talking about.
Seth: Are there any Bay Area chefs that you really came to admire?
Matt: Yeah, certainly. I mean, you know, the one that comes to mind right away, of course, are you know, folks like Paul Bertolli and Michael Tusk, you know, I mean, the list goes on and on. But, you know, I think more importantly then, you know, real individuals, it was being able to create the experience of seeing all these different kitchens and how they operated and talk to the chefs and talked about what inspired them and understand why they thought out certain ingredients. Those experiences were, you know, can never be duplicated for me, so…
Seth: So you do your time in California, how do you wind up back on the East Coast?
Matt: We were kind of reaching the end of the Kate’s schooling and we needed to decide what we wanted to do and where we wanted to end up. We kind of realized after I was provided the opportunity to open Ferry Plaza Market with Cow Girl that it was either going to be moving into the city or it was going to be moving back east and we kind of — were just feeling like maybe it was time to go home and do our own thing.
My mom had recently retired to Little Compton, Rhode Island which is about 30 to 40 minutes up to Providence. And so we came home and visited her and in the process, kind of fell in love with Southern New England again and, in particular, Providence at that time and so said, “You know what, maybe this is the time that we move back.”
Seth: And you started with the cheese shop?
Matt: Yeah, we did. We started with the cheese shop and, you know, we had kind of been searching for a location and I knew that I was going to do something by myself and open my own business. Kate at that time was working at a local bakery here and she was kind of continuing to hone that experience. While I was looking, you know, I was having a really hard time and really defining what I wanted to do and kind of finally said, “You know what, my most recent experience is in retail, let’s focus on that and Kate can do some baking and we can sell her baked goods and, you know, maybe I can do some cooking classes here and there and stuff like that.” So we looked for location for a while, couldn’t find much. And then just kind of stumbled into what was then the cheese shop of Providence and had been there for about 40 years, had been passed down from a couple different owners. So I walked in and met with a woman and said, “Have you ever thought about selling?” And she said, “No, this is something that I’ve done my whole life and I want to hand this down to my grand kids,” and so I said, “Okay,” and, left and continued my search for a location and she ended up actually calling me the next day and said, “Okay, what do you have in mind?”
Seth: Makes you wonder what the grand kids did that night, huh?
Matt: Yeah, right. Once we started talking, I kind of knew that this was going to be, you know, probably our first independent project.
Seth: This is 2003, right?
Matt: Right. So we moved forward on the space and started doing our renovations after we purchase the cheese shop. And really, the focus was to kind of just get the inventory up to par and bring in some new items and reintroduce the shop to Providence. And so after the races we went and really just kind of ramped it up from there. She started producing some stuff for the shop and, you know, her chocolates or her pastry and desserts and stuff and I was sourcing items for the store and doing some of the charcuterie and it was really just — that was the very beginning of kind of the mom and pop type shop for us.
Seth: Was there any thought in the beginning that this would eventually become a restaurant as well?
Matt: Yeah, I mean, we always talked about it and we had a lot of customers that would come in and buying products and cheese and charcuterie and say, “I wish I could get a, you know, glass of wine,” and we could do a cheese tasting and so then I started kind of doing some rogue cheese classes. I’d pull in some stalls at night and draw the shades and we’d, you know, do some tastings and we had a lot of fun with that. And I said, “Yeah, I would love to be able to expand, you know, the product and offerings but we just don’t have space.”
And, of course, as soon as I said that, this space next door became available. I don’t know, it was a former salon of sorts and we said, “Okay, now is our opportunity.” So we rented that space, busted a hole in the wall and did the build out in there. And Kate and I actually, we had just gotten married. This is now 2005 and going into 2006. And we had the space leased and we’re beginning renovations and we said, “You know what, we’re going to take our honeymoon.” We had hired our first employee to hold down the shop while we were gone and the restaurant at that time was under construction and my father is an architect, so I handed him the drawings and I said, “We’re going on our honeymoon, we’ll be back.”
So while we were on our honeymoon, my father took it into his own hands to kind of create the restaurant. So we came back to a restaurant that was pretty much built out and ready to go. And I said, “Okay,” I walked into the space and I said, “Oh, boy, we’ve got a full restaurant here, so much for our little wine bar right here,” you know, we’ve got all this room. We’ve got the full kitchen. We’ve got the whole thing so let’s do this, you know. And I said, “We don’t need to hire a chef, we’ve got me. We don’t need to hire a baker or pastry chef, we’ve got you, so let’s do it a shot.”
And so that began the introduction of the restaurant space and we started very simply and it was really just charcuterie and cheese plates and wine and we didn’t even have a full liquor license, you know, when we started. We kind of grew into it very organically. And so our single employee that we had would be if he worked the shop, I was working in the kitchen and Kate was doing the baking and then so our schedules were just — it was crazy. You know, I had one cook that work with me. I didn’t have a prep cook so I’d come in at, you know, 7:00. I do the prep, then I leave and take a nap for an hour and then I come back and service all night and then wake up the next day and do the same thing.
Likewise, Kate was coming in at, you know, 4:30, 5:00 doing the bake off til about 2:00, going home, you know, walking the dog, doing whatever she had to do and then coming back and jumping on the door at 4 o’clock and working in the front of the house for the rest of the night. So we were killing ourselves, you know, for sure, for the first couple of years and we really kind of held back from hiring anyone because we wanted to, you know, do it ourselves and have as much control over it as possible and let’s face it, you know, we were cheap, we didn’t have any money and we wanted to make sure that this thing was going to fly. So we dumped our hearts and souls into it for, you know, the first few years and that’s just the way it was.
Seth: All right. So I want to come back and I want to talk more about the exciting things that you’re doing at the restaurant. I also want to talk to you about sort of the culinary scene in Providence as a whole because I know that you’ve been a really big player and really shaping the entire city and the dining scene there.
So we’re going to come back, we’re going to talk about that plus we’re going to find the answer to trivia question and we’re going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan.
Okay. I want to tell you about this event that Matt Jennings is giving the keynote address at that is the very first Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference. This is an event for anybody who plans their vacations around food, who plans their travel around food. It’s really about the intersection of food and geography. I mean, different foods come from different places and, you know, the location really informs the cuisine. And so we’re going to explore that. We’re going to talk about that and we’re going to show you how you can explore the world through food and Matt’s going to talk a lot about that.
And then we’ve got a lot of great sessions that are all focusing on different cuisines, different regions whether it’s the chocolate of Madagascar, whether it’s the history of rum in New England, whether it is ice cider from up in Vermont, whether it is barbecue from Memphis, whether it is Peruvian ceviche, all kinds of cool stuff. Go online and check it out, it’s over at TasteTrekkers.com, T-A-S-T-E-T-R-E-K-K-E-R-S.com.
We are talking to Chef Matt Jennings of Farmstead in Providence. He is the keynote speaker at the Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference happening September 20th, 21st and 22nd in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s also been shortlisted for best chef northeast by James Beard a number of years now, won the Cochon 555 competition several years in a row. And I’ve seen you all over the place now, by the way. I just saw you quoted in a Wall Street Journal article — I didn’t even know the Wall Street Journal had articles on food. You just — there was an NPR story that we’d just heard nationally that you are in I think over the weekend. You’re filming something for PBS, right, Moveable Feast, is that…
Matt: Yeah, we just did — we just did a shoot for a PBS show called Moveable Feast focuses on kind of regionally getting some chefs together and creating a nice meal for a bunch of folks that’s pretty farm-driven. So we had a good time with that. We did it with our buddy Ken Oringer from Clio, so that was good.
Seth: All right. So we’re going to dig in to all that. But first, you had a trivia question for me. Tell me what it was again?
Matt: What we were talking about was Quahogging which is kind of a great past time here in Rhode Island and there’s a very specific piece of equipment that’s needed to successfully go clamming. And so I was asking you if you knew what that is.
Seth: Piece of equipment and it’s something that an individual can use. I mean, I’m thinking it looks something like those post holers that you use when you’re digging a fence post but…
Seth: It is similar?
Seth: I don’t know what it would be called though other than a clam digger. I don’t know. What do you call the equipment?
Matt: You’re right there. I mean, it’s called a bull rake and they have typically three to five tongs on a rake. Basically what happened was by the ’50s, there were two groups of quahoggers that were kind of competing for, you know, those clam resources in the Narragansett Bay. They were the dredgers, you know, who used the boats to kind of drag metal dredges across the bottom and they could harvest really large numbers of clams.
But the other school was the handrakers, you know, who used their own muscle power and the handrakers were always complaining that the dredgers were, you know, wiping the quahog population out, damaging the clams and putting them out of work. And eventually, the handrakers won out. So today, dredging there against the bay is very restricted. It’s not — you know, disallowed altogether in most areas. So bull rakes are the rakes that those hand dredgers use to harvest their clams and if you’re a good Rhode Islander or good New Englander for that matter, you got at least one or two bull rakes hanging in the garage.
Seth: Are we talking about areas that are under some amount of water?
Matt: Basically, we call them the flats. You get ocean water that will come in and cover it for a certain amount of time and depending on the tides, when the tides go out, you know, will leave behind some tributaries and some areas that have left some tide pools and things like that and you want that kind of dense heavily, you know, moistened sands is what you’re looking for. You know, the quahogs live very just below the surface in the bottom sand or mud. They have a couple little siphons that stick up into the water and you look for those little holes where they’re, you know, sticking their siphons up and you go at it with your bull rake. And if you’re lucky, you end up with a nice half bushel because every Rhode Island resident is allowed a half bushel of hand raked quahogs per day as part of the law here. So we’re lucky, we got to kind of go out whenever we want.
Seth: So let’s get back into the Matt Jennings biography here. We’ve now gotten to the point where you and your wife have opened up Farmstead and it has become a full blown restaurant. Did you have a vision for what the restaurant would be?
Matt: I mean, first and foremost, you know, food for me has to be delicious. It has to taste good. Everything else comes after that. So first, you work on making it taste as great as you can and then you work on how it looks and the design of your plates and all that sort of stuff. But even before that, the most important thing to me is where it’s coming from. So, you know, we’ve always been very committed just because it’s who we are to sourcing out those relationships with, you know, small producers and relationships with the ingredients because we know that the food, at the end of the day, can only be as good as the ingredients that we start with.
So that’s why we’re driven towards farms and small farms. We like supporting local families and keeping, you know, the local economy at work. So all of those things are important to us, but really, it’s got to taste good, you know, it’s got to be responsibly sourced. So, you know, we always knew that we wanted to be able to express those ideas in the restaurant without being preachy.
You know, it’s very important to me that we didn’t kind of stick that stuff in somebody’s face because let’s face it, you know, where we’re at with this style of cuisine and this style of food is that still not everybody can afford it, you know, and I think that there’d been great strides made via, you know, offering EBT and food stamps at Farmer’s Markets and, you know, doing some outreach and doing some culinary demonstrations in lower income areas but for the most part, you know, if you’re walking down the street, in your neighborhood to your Farmer’s Market, you know, you’re probably living in a nice area. So we wanted to make sure that we tried to keep it as accessible as we could for everybody.
So those were all important elements when we first began and, you know, it’s been interesting to watch. I mean, we started really simply, you know, our food I think has gone through a little bit of an evolution as I think happens in great restaurants. You know, you — I’m not saying we’re a great restaurant but, you know, I think these sorts of things happen when you put yourself in a place where, you know, you’re committed and you’re passionate and you really care, you know. When you care and you work hard to show people that you care, then there’s a great result that occurs. You know, for us, the result has been having an amazing team and having people who want to work here who are committed and who are excited everyday about the products and who engage with customers and tell the story and, you know, we wouldn’t be where we are without our people.
Seth: Let me ask you, in addition to cheese, the one other thing that you have become known for is pork. Tell me a little bit about that.
Matt: Yeah. So for whatever reason, the swine and I have a great affinity for each other. I think that, you know, one of the things that has always turned me on is utilization and so being a penny pincher and a business owner, you learned to utilize your products the best that you can so that you’re maximizing your profit. And when the pigs started coming into my life, you know, I think I broke down my first pig when I was 20 with the chef that I worked with and was able to kind of experience how best to utilize each part of the animal.
You know, I was fascinated by that and kept wanting to learn about that more and more. So, you know, I worked into situations where I was, you know, doing some charcuterie at some of the restaurants that I worked at or at Formaggio, you know, doing some work there to learn a little bit more about the pig and sell some of the items through the shop.
So when I opened Farmstead, it was a no brainer that I would continue that, you know, would continue my relationship with whole animals and being able to cook, you know, head to tail, if you will. So it’s something we’ve always done since day one and something we’ve always been committed to and I think it just comes with the territory, you know. It’s part of being a well-rounded cook and unfortunately, these days, our cooks are not learning as much as they should about butchery and animal husbandry end use. And so we made it a goal of ours in our restaurant to be able to teach our young cooks about that as well. You know, I think butchery is a really important part of the whole package of becoming a cook.
So that lives on here in a lot of different ways, the charcuterie that’s created in-house. You know, we’ve also participated in a lot of kind of hog cooking competitions which we’ve fared well at and so there’s a good relationship there between us and the pig.
Seth: Let me ask you about sort of nose to tail cooking. I have to imagine that when you work in a restaurant, there are certain dishes that are in higher demand than others. How do you balance out and make sure that you use the whole animal given that? I mean, do you have to get creative or what do you do?
Matt: Sure you have to get creative, but like I said, it’s also about making it delicious and I think it’s about educating your consumer and so if you have customers who are willing to try something new, then you work with them and you say, “if you like that, you’ll love this and you got to try this head cheese that I made”; “well, what’s head cheese?” Well, you know, you explain it and this is part of being a butcher and a cook is learning to maximize the usage of these animals, you know. I mean, these animals have paid the ultimate sacrifice, right? They paid the ultimate price, they have put themselves on our tables. So it’s really our duty to use them and use every part of them and not be wasteful. That’s the mentality behind it.
And once you talk to people about that in particular, I think they begin to understand it a little bit more and they become a little bit more willing to try new things. And, you know, we love taking whole animals in because it forces us to really use our brains and, you know, when we have a day where I get couple hogs and, you know, a hind quarter of beef and a lamb and all of our fish in the backdoor from our fishermen, you know, we got a lot going on and my guys are scrambling and we’re trying to figure out to maximize everything, you know, within the couple hours that we have. That’s when you’re at you best as a cook and you’re really using every part of your brain to think about, “Okay, what’s this going to be, what are we going to do with this, how this going to get prepared, what do we have in house that we can use to make this taste interesting and delicious,” and, you know, challenge yourself and when you continue to challenge yourself, that’s when you create the best food.
Seth: And you mentioned the competitions and talk to me about Cochon.
Matt: Yes. So, Cochon, I hooked up with a number of years back. We had found out that there was this guy who was planning on hosting pork cooking competitions around the country. I think I was introduced to him by a buddy of mine in the Bay Area who’s a butcher, who was coming off being a chef at the time and moving into his butchery business, Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats, and putting out together with Brady and I said, “You know, you got to do Providence, man. I’m doing all this stuff here and there’s a lot of other people that are doing interesting things there and, you know, you got to come, we should do a Cochon on Providence,” and it wasn’t originally scheduled for his tour. And he said “I don’t really, you know, I don’t know if I’m going down to Providence, I’m focusing on major markets right now, but, you know, I’ll keep you posted”.
And then he ended up reaching out to me because he — it was his goal in every market to kind of have a dark horse or an underdog, you know. So he said,” I’m doing Boston and I’ve got this chef, this chef and this chef but we kind of want an underdog. I want somebody to kind of come in, you know, that goes…that somebody that — people that know too much about” and so I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And on the first year, we decided to do it. So we entered and we won. We, you know, kept it really simple the first year. I think we just did kind of like three different items basically.
The goal is — at every Cochon is always to create food both for an audience of up to 500 as well as a small selection of kind of carefully planned menu for a table of judges and then the vote is split between the public and the judges.
So we were kind of able to do a little bit of everything, you know. For the public, we focused on doing kind of that real flavored-driven kind of simple rustic cuisine that we are known for and then for the judges, we kind of got to play around and do a little bit more refined platings and some really interesting stuff for them which was also something that, you know, we were interested in. And so out of those two different opportunities, we took home the golden piggy for the first year and won and knocked all the, you know, prominent Boston chefs off the stage which is a pretty great feeling.
Seth: Let me just say that having lived in Providence and knowing this, people from Providence take special pride when they’re able to outdo people in Boston at something, right? I mean, there’s a little bit of…
Matt: Well, I mean, I think for me, it was even sweeter because I’ve grown up in Boston and, you know, had worked in alongside or within, you know, shouting distance from a lot of these guys and I think, you know, they looked down on Providence in a way, right, and we’re kind of like, “Oh, you know, it’s Jennings from Providence, you know,” or whatever. And so to win that first one was pretty awesome and I think was really great for the city, you know, here as well.
Matt: I took some pride in it. And then that kind of put us on the national stage as being a place that was dedicated to this type of cooking and so it was kind of nice, you know, I was like, “Yeah, exactly, you know, we can do this for a while. It’s about time people, you know, notice what we’re up to,” and so that kind of was a good feeling. And then, you know, subsequently, we were invited back the next year and won again and it was a new list of contenders and so felt even sweeter to kind of take on, you know, some new folks. And the third year, we were invited back and they had brought in some of their big guns, you know, wonderful chefs who are dear friends of mine now who kind of define the Boston culinary scene like Lydia Shire and some others.
Seth: Yeah, I mean, she’s like the godmother of Boston in a lot of ways, I mean…wow!
Matt: Yeah. And, you know, some of Barbara Lynch’s restaurant represented there as well and we won the third time and so that was really awesome and it felt good, you know, it felt like, okay, this is something we’re great at and our team was really stoked on it and so it just felt great to be able to go up to my hometown and show people that we can represent. So that was great.
Seth: Well, that’s fantastic.
Matt: Yeah. So we had those three wins under our belt and then kind of the fourth year, Brady called me and said, “Are you in or out?” And I said, “You know what, every year that this thing comes around, we worked — I mean, there’s so much work. Not that I have any problem with that, but my guys had never been able to enjoy it.” I’m like, “You know, we go, we bust our ass for a week getting this thing done and prepped up. We drive up there. We throw down. We win a trophy and then we pack it all up and we drive home.” So I’m like, “I would really love the opportunity to actually go and enjoy it and walk around and take my guys and, you know, make a day out of it.” So I said, “Why don’t I kind of collaborate with you and I’ll help in some other ways and, you know, if some charcuterie you want, we can provide that, if it’s some other things here and there, we can help out but I think I don’t want to compete this year.”
So we kind of backed out. We decided to kind of just take a backseat and you know what, my staff went up an awesome time and have really got to kind of experience the events from the other side which I think is always very important for people. And so we had a great time. Plus, you know, my really good friend Jamie Bissonnette had decided to compete that year and he was kind of like, “Are you in? Are you going to do it?” And I said, “I don’t know. Are you going to do it,” and, you know, we couldn’t really decided what we’re going to do and then finally I said, “You know what, I don’t want to compete against anyways. Like, we’re best friends. So why don’t I go and take a walk around and drink bourbon and you can compete and I know you’ll win anyways, now we can party afterwards.” So that was kind of the decision that was made.
Seth: Nice. Now, you talked about Providence and the City of Providence. Talk to me about the fabric of the dining scene because I imagine when you moved in in 2003, first of all, you’ve got this sort of old guard of the Italian places up on Federal Hill which is what Providence is known for and some great establishments like Alforno that have been there for a long time. And you’ve also got Johnson and Wales University there which is a fantastic culinary school. And now since you’ve been there, there’s sort of almost like this new crop of chefs that have come up. So talk to me about what’s going on in Providence in the dining scene as a whole during your time there.
Matt: Well, it’s changed a lot. I mean, my goodness, you know, when we opened, there’s definitely the Hill, right, and there was everything else. Providence is very much known for its Italian, you know, section it’s Little Italy, if you will. And while, of course, it’s still a huge part of the fabric of the city. There’s been a lot that’s happened in 10 years and there have been a lot of new kind of attempts at bringing Providence into kind of a 21st century of food, if you will.
And I think a lot of that has to do and the credit is owed really more to the farmers more than anything else. You know, Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts is really, in my mind, kind of one of the most fertile, amazing landscapes in the country for small farmers and we’re so lucky to be here and to be situated in an area that has those rich agricultural roots but can also draw from the influences from the ocean which is nearby. So there’s a lot that’s going on here and always has been. But only within the last 10 years, I think, has there been kind of that caliber of cook that’s getting spun out from maybe some of these big name restaurants that want to do their own thing and want to create and want to use the right ingredients and want to focus on making really great food from locally driven sources. So we’re seeing a lot more of that in New England and in Southern New England in particular.
So, you know, when we opened, it was never with the intention of creating or promoting that movement, it was just because we wanted to do our own thing and we wanted to make good food. I mean, it’s very simple, to be honest. You know, I just wanted to have a place and serve great food. But, you know, well, I’m not wanting, you know, of course, to take any credit for the movement that’s taking place here, I think that just by a virtue of us kind of having the commitment that we do. It showed people that it’s possible here and so I think that it started to kind of generate some interests.
And so truly taken off and like you say, there are some places now that kind of that next generation. You know, now that we’ve been here 10 years, there’s that next generation that’s coming up right behind us as it always happens in communities and we’ve got some great cooks who are opening their own restaurants. Just comes freshly to mind, you know, my old Chef de Cuisine has opened his first restaurant downtown to rave reviews and, you know, that’s what it’s all about.
Seth: Who is that, is that Birch?
Matt: Yeah, Benjamin Sukle at Birch, yeah. And Ben is, you know, is a wildly talented cook and has a great place downtown. And so, you know, that’s what it’s about and that’s what I think is most fascinating to me about food, you know, is that it’s an evolution and it should always be an evolution, you know. And down the road, whether Ben, you know, decides he’s going to be in that location for 100 years or not, he’s going to have cooks that are going to come and go and then his cooks are going to go, you know, and add to the culinary landscape. And so, you know, that’s what it’s about and that’s progression and that’s fascinating to me, you know.
Matt: And I think that in a town like this, you know, it could be viewed that, you know, we all compete with each other and it’s so small and we share the same customer base and, you know, it’s too many restaurants for such a small city but, you know, the reality is that we all make each other stronger. I’m sure that we share a great amount of customers, but, you know, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander and what’s good for me is good for those guys and what’s good for those guys is good for me. You know, I want to see them opening. I want to see more happening in the city. It adds vibrancy and, you know, makes this a destination. So that’s kind of what’s happening right now and what’s going on in Providence.
Seth: All right. Well, Matt Jennings of Farmstead, are you ready to play a little game?
Matt: I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best.
Seth: Okay, here we go. This game is called, Out of the Frying Pan. I’m going to ask you for a series of rapid fire recommendations. You just tell me the first thing that comes to mind.
Seth: First, you’re obviously known for pork, where do you go to buy your pork?
Matt: Well, I go to the Farmer’s Market to buy my pork. We have a couple of great Farmer’s Markets in Rhode Island. The one that I would focus on would probably be the Hope Street Market which still has a number of weeks to go here in Providence. And in the winter time actually, it moves to Pawtucket and that there is one of the most vibrant indoor Winter Farmer’s Market there in Pawtucket. And specifically, I will go probably and shoulder tap my friend Pat McNiff at Casey Farm. He raises some beautiful hogs and likewise for Blackbird Farm in Smithfield’s. They have some beautiful pork as well. Those are my go-tos.
Seth: All right. Let’s say I’m walking into your cheese shop for the first time. I’m feeling adventurous, I want to try something new, what do you recommend and where does it come from?
Matt: Well, I think, let’s see, this time of year, I probably send you towards a Harbison which we’re going to be seeing a little more of from Jasper Hill Farm coming out very shortly in this season and it’s a soft ripened cow’s milk cheese, kind of built in the style of a Vastran Mandura banded with a piece of spruce and beautifully unctuous, creamy and very decadent. So that’s my go-tow right now is Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm.
Seth: In the course of your career, talk to me about some of the chef who have mentored you or that you’ve admired and who have influenced what you do today.
Matt: Well, there’s quite a few. You know, the ones who I think have really influenced me just off the top of my head would be Chef David Miles from formally of the New England Culinary Institute. He was one of my instructors and mentors up there. Just all around great guy, super positive, really wanted kids to engage with their communities and, you know, entrench themselves in learning as much as they could about the food culture where they lived and so that was instilled me from David at a very young age.
Amanda Lydon and her husband, Gabriel Frasca, who now owns a couple places out on Nantucket but I worked with Amanda to help open one of her restaurants or her first restaurant in the South End in Boston called Truc which was a small little French Bistro right on Tremont Street. And I learned a lot and the time that I spent there and that it was the first glimpse that I really got about, you know, how hard owning your own business is and the hours that get put in and the commitment level that you have to have. So Amanda is somebody who I hold with very high regard and her family is wonderful as well.
I would also say Ihsan Gurdal, who, you know, is not a chef but is a food aficionado and Ihsan taught me a lot in the retail side of things while I was at Formaggio and kind of a whole new way of how to understand and appreciate what great food is and the artisans that create it, so.
Seth: All right. What about other chefs that are in Providence, I mean, who should we — and I know there are so many but who else do you really admire what they’re doing in Providence?
Matt: I would say most certainly if driving just down the Hill from me, Beau Vestal at New Rivers is one of my closest friends here and also just a great chef, super talented, super dedicated to quality. You know, he is very much into the Rhode Island seafood, you know, as well and shellfish and does some charcuterie of his own and just a really great guy, very passionate, you know.
Derek Wagner at Nick’s on Broadway, you know, another person that I’ve met very early in the game here and Derek operates breakfast, lunch and dinner out of his restaurant on Broadway and he’s just extremely dedicated and very interested in kind of moving the whole scene forward and progressing here with the producers that we have.
I would also say Matt Genusio at Chez Pascal. You know, Matt was actually the first chef I’ve ever met in Providence. I knew him because I used to sell product to him when I was at Formaggio. He was buying some items from us up there. So I moved to town. I went and knocked on Matt’s door and said hello. You know, again, Matt is another one that’s just put himself on the mix everyday and has just really interesting ideas. You know, he just — he’s been really into sausage making, so he just put in a whole little sausage counter in the front of his restaurant. They cut a window out of the front wall and you can walk up now on the summertime and get sausages right out of the side of the restaurant there as little takeaway. It’s just brilliant and he’s got his sausage truck Hewtin’s Dogs of course, so.
Those guys and many more, you know, and that’s what’s nice is that they’re kind of getting peppered all over the state. You know, the new generation of guys, you know, as I mentioned, Ben Sukle at Birch, James Mark over at North. They’re doing some really interesting things and James has some great experience and he’s doing some really kind of very focused Asian influenced cuisine on the west side now that has a great following. So a lot of good stuff going on.
Seth: All right. Last question. You’re a heavily tattooed fellow. You got a favorite tattoo, which one is it?
Matt: I think the favorite is probably whatever the next one is going to be. I still got some room left and, you know, and probably to my wife’s chagrin, I’ll continue to be a collector for years to come but I think probably my bluefish is the one that I’m the most proud of right now. It’s on my top of my left hand. My stepdad passed away a couple of years ago and he and I would go out bluefishing all the time and bluefish was very big in my family as I was growing up, you know, we’d always put bluefish on the grill in the summertime and my mom make bluefish pate and I don’t know, it’s a very kind of New England thing and he’s always really meant a lot to me so I wanted to kind of dedicate that to him so I’ve got a big blue on left fist, so that’s probably that means the most.
Seth: All right. Well, Matt Jennings of Farmstead, thank you so much. We’re really excited to see you at the Taste Trekkers Conference. Thank you so much for coming in and do the keynote speech and I know people are thrilled to hear what you have to say. People can find Farmstead at 186 Wayland Avenue over on the east side of Providence. They can also find it online, FarmsteadInc.com. What about you if people want to follow you on social media, how can they do that?
Matt: They can find me both on Instagram and Twitter @MatthewJennings, all one word, M-A-T-T-H-E-W-J-E-N-N-I-N-G-S.
Seth: Your Instagram feed is fantastic, by the way.
Matt: Oh, thank you very much. Thanks, yeah, well, you know, we have fun with it. It’s a lot of people — my guys make fun of me here, you know, because we’ll do a menu change and I’m like crouched over every plate trying to get a sexy shot of it. But, you know, they’re beginning to understand that that’s business, too, you know. If it puts butts in seats, then it’s worth it, right?
Seth: Right, right. Definitely. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Matt: Thanks very much. I appreciate it.
Seth: All right. My name is Seth Resler. This is the Find Dining Podcast. A couple of notes before we go. You can find links to many of the places that Matt and I talked about on the website. While you’re there, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or however else you want. You can go to TuneIn or Stitcher Radio. You can also follow us on Twitter, We are Taste Trekkers and you can find us on Facebook as well. And if you like to be a guest on the show, you want to come on and talk to us about the culinary scene in your city, just click the Contact Us link and send us an email, we’d love to have you on.
Thank you so much for listening.