F&W Star Chef
Chef: Matt Jennings
Restaurant: Townsman (Boston)
Experience: Farmstead (Providence, RI); 21 Federal, West Creek (Nantucket); Salamander, Truc, Formaggio Kitchen (Boston); Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods (California)
Education: New England Culinary Institute
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My family and my mom. I was lucky to grow up in a house where we celebrated food. My mom’s side of the family was heavily English, as my grandfather was from England, so they were always celebrating the rustic country foods that England is known for. My dad’s side was German, and there was some Irish influence as well. I’m a mutt, but it worked out in the end. From a young age, probably the most important thing I learned was how to create flavor. How to use salt!
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
When I was a kid, I cooked for my mom in the summer times. My sisters and I would trade off who was going to cook and who was going to wash the dishes. I always tried to make sure I was on the cooking end. I probably made hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, quickly followed by some sort of fish on the grill, being in New England and all.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I wouldn't be afraid to jump in there and get your hands dirty. From-scratch pasta’s a great one. It can be fun for new cooks to try to master dough. I’m still trying to learn how to master it and this is 20-some-odd years later. Any dough, whether bread or pasta or gnocchi or dumplings—that’s probably the best place to start. As a kid, I used to do pizza nights with my dad. We would turn the kitchen into a complete disaster. I’d end up with flour in my pockets the next day at school. But that’s part of cooking; you’ve got to be able to jump in and enjoy it.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand is one I received as a young cook from a chef and still reference to this day.
Ma Cuisine from Fernand Point is one I love to go back to, to see what the old guys were up to.
Tom Colicchio’s Craft of Cooking was a great influence when I was starting out.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Our baked potato gnocchi. The point of the dish is to have the ultimate experience of a baked potato. We make the gnocchi from a flour that we mill from roasted and dried potato skins. We serve them with roasted tomato sour cream, some great aged 10- or 12-year provolone, and some crumbled chorizo. It’s classic; it’s fun; it’s interesting. We try to keep things innovative without being pretentious. At the end of the day, it’s all about flavor, and it’s a really flavorful dish.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You need to be willing to take risks.
One technique everyone should know.
Everybody should know how to brunoise. If you’re spending time at the cutting board working on your knife skills, you’re dedicating time to learning in the kitchen.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’ve been cooking with fire my entire life, and continue to enjoy learning how to do it well. I’d love to learn how to bake breads in a wood-fired oven.
What is your current food obsession?
We’re on a total pepper kick: Drying our own for our own paprika and other house-made spices and hot sauces, pickling, preserving them. That flows through to our love and respect for Middle Eastern food. We’re really into marash and urfa and Aleppo peppers—all these beautiful things that originate from that part of the world.
What are your talents besides cooking?
Snowboarding when I can squeeze it in. I’m a music geek; I love listening to and finding new music and playing when I can, often with friends. I play bass and vocals, mostly punk and post-punk, and some hardcore.
What is the best bang for the buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Buttermilk. It’s so versatile, a great base for marinades, vinaigrettes, in desserts of course, and custards. It’s underutilized and under-appreciated.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I’m totally in love with this maple syrup from the Quebec provinces right now called 70 brix, which is the scale in which it’s first measured. It has a deep maple flavor that’s hard to find in most—and I’m a total maple geek. We’ve been breaking it into salad dressings, things like that. I get it from Societé-Orignal. They’re purveyors of artisan food products from Quebec, and they’re good friends. On our many trips to Canada, we’re always going on new adventures with them, meeting farmers and finding new products.
They also have a camelina oil, which is my more savory secret weapon, made from these seeds of a brassica plant. It’s a fantastic finishing oil with a very unique flavor. That’s on my top five list of ingredients of all times, for sure.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
On my day off, it’s a Manhattan—shaken for as long and as hard as it can be, and poured into the coldest glass available. I’m a basic guy when it comes to my Manhattans—I like some sweet vermouth and a really great bourbon, normally Blanton’s, and that’s about it. We love our Pappy but not in the Manhattan. I like to garnish it with these Griottines cherries; they’re made in France, with Oblachinksa Morello cherries grown and hand-harvested in the Balkans. They have an almost candied texture to them. They’re delicious, but they’re intense, so one in the bottom and that’s it. If you don't have one of these, I'll settle for a maraschino. Just like grandpa had his Manhattan. I'll raise a glass to him. I don't think he'd mind.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I’d keep it lowbrow for the campfire. I like to improvise, so I’d probably bring some dried pasta and some homemade jerky that we could snack on while hiking. If we had pasta for dinner, jerky for the trail and a little spirit packed in a flask to get us through the cold nights, we’d be all right.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
We don’t have much in our fridge—a lot of yogurt, a lot of condiments and a bottle of Champagne. Usually for me it’s a bowl of cereal when I get home from work, standing in the kitchen. I’m a sucker for some of the childhood cereals like Kix and Corn Pops. My wife is a health nut, so I have to temper those with kasha every now and then.
Who is your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I’d take Alain Ducasse to meet our buddy Martin Picard at his Sugar Shack in Montreal, to have some not-so-traditional French-influenced cuisine. The last time I was up there, Martin sent us a plate with crispy duck necks and maple syrup and some blood sausage on the inside, which reminded me of Alain Ducasse, so that would be fun, to take him up there.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
Toronto. It’s got an awesome scene: Great restaurants, a beautiful downtown, wonderful hotels, an amazing market, amazing Chinatown—the best of Old and New World. From Boston, Porter Airlines will get you there for cheap. I’d definitely recommend Parts & Labour, my buddy Matt [Matheson]’s place. I'd make sure you hit OddSeoul, which serves Korean-inspired share plates that are so dope. Also Sanagan's Meat Market, Mother's Dumplings and Falafel World on Bloor St. West. Last time there they made me a sandwich that had falafel and schwarma on it, awesome.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next imaginary project, what would it be?
A neighborhood family restaurant for aging punks like myself. Unpretentious, and inexpensive. Sunday night specials, a spinning pastry display case like the ones in old diners, counter service, those tall red plastic Coca-Cola cups for cocktails, and huge tumblers of cocktails. All cocktails on draft, including a rotating, daily “shandy.” The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the Melvins on the record player, straight vinyl. Outside, we’d have a patio with comfortable weatherproof lazy boys, and a barbecue smoker where I'd be working the wings and slabs of ribs. Next to me, a game of horseshoes would always be going on. That sounds so good I might have to do it.