A Discussion with Celebrity Chef and Nantucket Book Festival Luminary Matt Jennings.
Before he was a celebrity chef making frequent appearances on the Today Show and Iron Chef, Matt Jennings got his start as a lowly prep cook at the ‘Sconset Café at the age of fifteen. Twenty-five years later, he is one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, opening smash-hit restaurants, winning a slew of awards, appearing on countless cooking shows, and penning a successful cookbook, Homegrown. While Jennings’ rise to culinary stardom is indeed a feat, perhaps more surprising is his latest role as an advocate of healthy living. Over the last three years, Jennings dramatically transformed his life, dropping 160 pounds and embracing a healthy, active lifestyle that he shares with his tens of thousands of fans online. He has become an inspiration for many people struggling with addiction, depression and weight loss. This June, Matt Jennings is returning to the island as a featured author at the Nantucket Book Festival. N Magazine caught up with the chef before he made his return.
JENNINGS: No, I didn’t really know. My whole career has been day-by-day. I never really mapped anything out for myself—probably unfortunately so. For me it’s always been about learning. It’s been about loving what you do and about trying to make people feel good. Hospitality is about providing an experience and a memory for people. I tell my guys all the time if we can create memories for people that they remember years later then we’ve done our job.
N MAGAZINE: Has your love of cooking changed since those early days on Nantucket?
JENNINGS: My love of cooking is probably more intense than it has ever been. I have a greater respect for ingredients than ever before and a desire to have the food that I make be really thoughtful. There’s something about food to me that can speak to seasonality and regionality. It has a story behind it. I want something that has soul and is relatable for people. That’s my constant pursuit.
N MAGAZINE: You’ve dramatically transformed your life over the last few years. What prompted that change?
JENNINGS: I had my rock-bottom moment like any good addict. A lot of people don’t look at food as an addictive substance, but for me it was and continues to be. I hit a low point a few years ago. I was on my way to New York to do The Today Show. I got out of my restaurant, Townsman, at like two a.m. I had a six a.m. train, went home slept for like two hours. I woke up, packed my bag, went to New York, got to the hotel and realized that I had only packed t-shirts and underwear. I had no clothes to be on national TV in like two hours. I remember running around Manhattan crying, having a panic attack because I couldn’t find a Big and Tall store. I finally got it worked out, but I remember taking the train home, thinking, “I’m done. I’m not going to do this anymore.”
JENNINGS: Through my decisions and through the procedure I had in having a sleeve gastrectomy—using that as a tool to change my life—it’s been an amazing couple of years. The physical change has prompted a mental change, which has had an effect on the priority list, which has had an effect on the tenets by which I live my life. The whole thing has changed: the emotional, the spiritual, the whole package. It hasn’t just been about eating better and exercising—it’s been a total gamechanger in my life.
N MAGAZINE: How has it impacted the way that you cook?
JENNINGS: I think that it has affected the way I look at food. The food at my restaurant Townsman has not really changed; I don’t really want to bring my personal diet changes into the restaurant. My personal diet has totally been affected. The way we cook at home has been affected. My wife has always been a health nut since I’ve known her. She has always been that way and has just been waiting for me to come around. Now home cooking is on a whole different slant. The kids eat well and healthy. It’s kind of a goal for sure and so its been a really interesting adventure.
JENNINGS: What’s amazing is there is incredible power in social media. I spend about 20 to 30 minutes returning emails or direct messages to people who are going through similar situations and who need a little inspiration or who have been inspired by watching my journey.
That’s how I see my ability to participate, to get people to see that there is another option in how they’re living and to really tap into what’s inside of them and discover who they want to be. If you told me I was going to do this three years ago, I would have laughed in your face. Or that I was going to be able to run five miles or bike three hundred miles, I would have thought it was impossible. Once that fire got started, it can never get put out.
JENNINGS: There was a lot I wanted to get out regarding my views on food in New England. There’s this national viewpoint that New England cuisine is all about heavy, fatty foods, with all this cream. I wanted to show that there’s more going on than just that. There’s a lot more influences than just lobster shacks and clam shacks, not that there’s anything wrong with them. Then as the book kept going, I discovered that there was a lot of family recipes that I wanted to include. Some of my mom’s recipes are in there. There’s some great recipes from my wife who is a pastry chef. It really became an amalgamation of food that’s getting served in the restaurants, foods that I grew up on and inspirations from living in New England. Homegrown is just this weird patchwork quilt of what I hold dear about food.
Matt Jennings will be sharing recipes from his cookbook Homegrown at this year’s Nantucket Book Festival as well as conducting a cooking demonstration at the Nantucket Culinary Center on Saturday, June 16th at 3PM.