Matt Jennings remembers when, as a teenager, his mother warned him not to venture to downtown Boston alone. A couple decades later, he owns one of the city’s hottest restaurants on the one-time seedy border of Chinatown and Downtown Crossing. “It’s definitely a good time for this neighborhood. It’s changed so much,” says the chef-owner of Townsman, which is set inside a shiny residential tower.
Before joining Boston’s burgeoning culinary scene, Jennings—a Massachusetts boy from Jamaica Plain and Wellesley—thrived in Providence, Rhode Island. There, he ran Farmstead and La Laiterie, known for its pristine cheese selection, with his wife and pastry chef, Kate.
“As much as we loved Providence, we missed home. We knew at some point we wanted to come back and cook for the people of this city,” says the James Beard-nominated chef. It was the right time. Ever since opening this winter, Townsman, a lively bistro with a showpiece crudo counter, has been luring guests with charcuterie boards, beef cheek-stuffed pierogies, and suckling pig. Jennings’ food is imaginative, but it’s also rooted in a reverence for Northeast ingredients—a natural preference for a chef who grew up on dinners spun from the family vegetable garden, and hunted grouse and pheasant with his grandfather.
We knew at some point we wanted to come back and cook for the people of Boston.
“Connecting around food was important to us. I learned to appreciate it my entire life,” Jennings reflects. “But I was also the kid in the highchair eating frozen peas and Velveeta sandwiches.”
While attending the New England Culinary Institute and snagging a post at Cambridge’s Formaggio Kitchen helped catapult his career, Jennings traces his culinary dreams back to his first job at a local grocery store. Just as his shift re-stocking the soda case ended, the cooks at the café next door, run by the same owner, arrived for the evening.
“I would peek in and see their cut-off pants and the burns on their hands and I was like, I gotta get in there.” After convincing his boss to give him a whirl in the kitchen, he was “bit by the bug.”
That he liked what he saw beyond that café door is a blessing for Bostonians. From his great-grandmother’s proprietary German mustard, to a joyride in search of a revered Quebecois sugar shack, here are 10 culinary-fueled memories that inspire Matt Jennings.
My great-grandmother was this short, feisty German woman who made incredible spicy mustard. When I was in my 20s working on Nantucket, after she had passed away, I wanted the recipe. So I called my grandmother. She said she would send it to me, but that it was top secret and I couldn’t share it with anyone. A week later I got a manila envelope in the mail with the recipe tucked inside a legally binding document I had to sign. Different incarnations of this mustard have wound up on my menu, and at Townsman we serve it with charcuterie and cheese and use it to marinate pork. We even sell it to go. It’s ubiquitous, but lovingly so. (Photo: True Natural Taste)
Mom’s Yankee Gumbo
Taking inspiration from classic New Orleans gumbo, my mother made this with all kinds of New England seafood, like swordfish and clams in a tomato broth. We all used to kid around that “mom’s making the Yankee gumbo again,” but in retrospect it was so good. Now I’m at the age where I’m convincing her to make it for me when I go see her on long weekends. (Photo: Mangia.tv)
My stepfather was a fisherman and we would go fishing a lot on the Cape. He made an incredible bluefish on the grill, simply rubbed with mayo and gin and sprinkled with dill. I’m not sure how he came up with the gin. Maybe he was drinking some and decided to use it because the bottle was there. I still cook fish this way and drink a gin and tonic to reconnect with one of my family’s iconic recipes. (Photo: BSC.edu)
Death in the Dining Room at Del Posto
I was in New York for the James Beard Awards a few years ago and had a blowout meal at Del Posto. Mark Ladner made this one dish he called “Death in the Dining Room,” which is essentially seafood broth with glass eels. He brought out two big basin-type bowls and two pots and put them in front of us. First he poured the eels into the bowls, then a mix of different vegetables. They all whirled around together and the image just stuck with me. That was the coolest shit I’d ever seen.
Pasta at Cà del Re
We were in Piedmont and snuck away for a night to this agriturismo where the chef/owner did all the cooking and his wife served us. It was just this beautiful Italian farmhouse meal that was simply made with ingredients right from their surroundings. There were bottles of Barolo and hand-cut tagliatelle and agnolotti with farmer’s cheese and roasted grapes. Then we wound our way back through the countryside to our hotel. It was all so memorable. (Photo: Facebook/Cá del Re)
Jamie Montgomery is a cheesemaker in England who makes well-known British farmhouse cheddar. I got to spend time with him on his farm in Somerset where canvas-wrapped cheese hangs and ages in these big, amazing barns. Three times a day they’ll open the doors and let the mist roll through. One day I was eating the cheese in the middle of this foggy barn and I thought to myself, How did I get to be so lucky? I remember exactly how it smelled and tasted. Jamie is devoted to his craft and it’s one of the reasons I love this wacky food world so much. (Photo: Cowgirl Creamery)
Foie Gras Pancakes at Cabané a Sucre Au Pied de Cochon
I’ve known Martin Picard for a while, but had never been able to get to his sugar shack outside of Montreal. Then, one night after service, I jumped in a car at 2am with some chefs from Rhode Island and we were there in time for opening day, kicking maple syrup and drinking Jameson. Marc’s Dr. Seuss-inspired cuisine includes pancakes and syrup with foie gras and pig head stuffed with smoked veal. It was a completely convivial Canadian experience. (Photo: Hurry Hill Farm)
French-Meets-South African Feast at Le Quartier Français
In 2005 Kate and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon. We rented a car from Cape Town and drove out to the wineries, having impromptu picnics in vineyards. I love those types of experiences. But we also had an insane meal at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek. It was a 12-course event and we were there for three and a half hours. I can’t remember the specific dishes, but what I loved about it was that it was a French nouvelle expression of South African ingredients straight from the farm, complemented by all these beautiful, local wines. (Photo: Facebook/Le Quartier Francais)
Farmstead Chicken Livers
I love a nicely seared chicken liver, but you don’t see it on menus too often anymore. Chefs like to turn them into mousses instead. The chicken liver dish I made at Farmstead was my version of liver and onions, with housemade guanciale, onion rings, and a splash of red wine. It couldn’t have been simpler, but on those wintery nights people loved it. I’ll probably bring it back to Townsman this fall. (Photo: Farmigo)
We make these awesome plateaux at Townsman. They are towers with shellfish like Jonah crab from Rhode Island on the bottom rack, and a bluefish pâté that’s my mom’s recipe. In the middle there is charcuterie including cured coppa, salami, and housemade terrines. And the top tier has all our pickles, relishes, and condiments. It’s kind of a full-on exploration of all the stuff I love to eat. If I was out with people, this is something I’d order and crush with a bottle of rosé.