One chef makes a full-hearted plea for human connection.

By Matt Jennings
December 11, 2019
MICHAEL PIAZZA

Editor’s note: Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too, and sign up for the F&W Pro newsletter.

Matt Jennings is a New England-based chef and author. He has owned and operated two restaurants in the past 20 years—the acclaimed Farmstead, Inc. in Providence and more recently, Townsman, in Boston. Matt recently underwent major life changes including embracing sobriety and fitness and has pivoted to bring his unique blend of personal and workplace wellness to the food, beverage and hospitality world via his latest project, Full Heart Hospitality, which is a goods, beverage, and hospitality-based consultancy focused on creative and sustainable solutions. 

Pings. Pokes. Dings. Vibrations. How many times today have you nimbly reached into your pocket with your index finger and thumb to pull your phone into your palm, swipe up and check your latest digital bombardment? My guess is at least 10. Notifications are now a way of life. We have reached peak digital, but has all that tech and instant information added value to our human experience?

Life is complex and messy. We are constantly overwhelmed. All the platforms in the world will not solve our ability to truly relate or communicate with one another. These tools have been designed and sold to supposedly help us in being more efficient, productive, connected and successful. But it’s kind of like the aspiring Buddhist who keeps filling his bookshelf with tomes on mindfulness, empathy and understanding, when those beliefs and practices have actually been available to him all along—without the Amazon price tag.

We are floating on a leaky raft in a cesspool of digital stuff, peering over the edge, paddling with a swipe left or right. How long until we drown? What will save us?

Your neighborhood restaurant, that’s what.

Never before has the case for community-minded, neighborhood-focused food establishments been more compelling. We need our neighborhood restaurants more than we ever have. Our favorite local haunts provide us more than a gathering place, they are the inextricable link to what truly matters in our society: the ability to connect with one another and to develop relationships.

Our favorite joints get to know us, and we, them. They welcome us with warmth and hospitality. They make accommodations to place us at our preferred booth, to have flowers waiting for an anniversary, to pour us tastes of wine if we are unsure of an unusual varietal. When at its best, the neighborhood restaurant embraces the ability to craft an experience that not only resonates with us but that brings us back again and again because we feel taken care of, heard and even loved. What other business has this profound of a foundation?

As humans, we need connection with one another, community. and a sense of belonging. Great neighborhood restaurants are an essential thread in the fabric of what it means to come together and to have a tangible experience built on trust, humility and empathy.

Throughout my career of cooking professionally for the past 25 years, it was only when I stepped away for a chef’s sabbatical last year that I realized what I loved most about this business and why I could never leave: it’s people. Food has merely provided the vehicle for delivering what I hope has been thoughtful, unwavering service and product. I am a musician and artist and could have chosen a different medium, but for some reason, food has been my bridge to creating and enjoying the human experience.

Neighborhood eating establishments are in a time of peril. In this moment of vast and rapid real estate and technology development, rents are high and the soaring cost of goods, construction, staffing and labor issues and overall globalism is killing the corner café. Razor-thin margins require astute business acumen and the unwavering support of patrons.

It is my hope that we can all find solace in the true beauty that restaurants provide. It's not the food, the beverage list, or even the dining room service, but the commonality of experience. Taking a journey bellied up to your favorite bar or seated at your favorite little deuce in the window on a snowy night, while the restaurant team swirls around you dropping plate after plate, engaging in the warm requisite banter of the moment—this is to experience one of society’s greatest galvanizing rituals. Because in this moment, we are all on a journey together. Whether serving or imbibing, the symbiotic relationship of restaurant and diner, creates a touchstone for strength in communication, exchange and interconnection.

A taco shop, a sandwich counter, a corner bakery or a Michelin-starred restaurant are all different but exquisitely the same: a commonwealth of shared experience and companionship.

So with the coming new year and the constant distractions we all face, perhaps we can agree that to support our neighborhood kitchens and dining rooms is to support one another and our shared desire and need for deep, human connection. Switch your phone onto silent mode. Slide onto a worn tavern stool or a plush banquette, and give yourself to the experience of dining. Rejuvenation and reconciliation await. We need our neighborhood restaurants. And they need us.

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