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Chef Matthew Jennings made his mark on the Boston culinary scene by way of the hearty, whole-animal, farm-to-table fare offered at Townsman, his award-winning restaurant on the skirts of Chinatown.
His recently released debut cookbook, “Homegrown: Cooking from My New England Roots,” celebrates the local soul food that continues to inspire the native New Englander, who has earned four nominations for the James Beard Award Best Chef: Northeast honor, as well as a nod on Food & Wine magazine’s 40 Big Food Thinkers 40 and Under list.
But by the chef’s own admission, his recent wellness journey — which involved gastric bypass surgery in 2016 and a considerable lifestyle shift — has been just as significant as his professional one.
“For me, this has been the greatest challenge,” he said. “But it’s also the greatest reward.”
Jennings lives in Arlington with his wife and two boys. We talked to him about eating mindfully while still eating well, how he squeezes exercise in, and what health means to him as he raises his family.
Jennings said he spent years watching his wife, Kate, get up early to head to the gym before he followed suit. “Now I understand what it means to get [exercise] in early,” he said. “Once your day begins, it’s over, especially in a restaurant.” Jennings’ fitness routine is based around cycling; he mixes up a regular commute to Townsman with long-distance bike rides west through Carlisle and Groton, as well as climbs up Wachusett Mountain. He’s also a member at downtown boxing gym Everybody Fights. “I have a trainer there who kicks my a**, and we do cardio and weight training, too,” he said. And though said he’s still a beginner, Jennings said he has plans to spend more time on a yoga mat in 2018.
Eat locally and colorfully
In the warmer months, Jennings walks from Townsman to the Boston Public Market for fresh, healthy ingredients to cook with his family. “Eating has changed for us at home,” he said. “We’re focusing on lean proteins and more veggies. We’re big into anything with a ton of pigment — beets, kale, collards, carrots, and squashes. Also, lots of whole grains.” Jennings particularly loves to visit the Siena Farms stand. “They always have really great produce, and now that they’re root cellaring their vegetables, we can get even more from them through the year. Sparrow Arc Farm, which we use at the restaurant, started doing the same thing, which is great.”
Jennings also has a soft spot for an alma mater; he and his wife are alums of Formaggio Kitchen, the award-winning specialty foods shop with locations in Cambridge and the South End, and Kate works a few shifts at Hallie’s Flower Garden, a small florist in the Formaggio space in Cambridge. “She always brings awesome stuff home from work,” he said. “It’s not just cheese — they have such great access to awesome ingredients, from produce to yogurts, nuts, kefirs… always something exciting.”
Have dinner as a family, even if it’s not at home (and don’t forget date night)
“Sometimes, the only way we can get a meal in together … is if Kate and the kids come and sit at the crudo bar at Townsman,” Jennings said. As much as he loves cooking for his family, Jennings acknowledges that it can be tough to get everyone around the table together. For healthy meals in a pinch, he and his family love Chef Jody Adams’ Saloniki Greek.”It’s fun and loud, and it seems fast food-y, so the boys dig it,” he said, “but we love it because it’s more fresh and healthy than other things out there.” For a more romantic night out, Jennings and his wife head to True Bistro, a vegan restaurant in Somerville, where Jennings loves the unpretentious food and atmosphere.
Keep it spicy
Jennings is a strong believer in the power of spice blends as tools for transforming otherwise everyday meals into special somethings. “It’s such an easy, quick fix for expanding your repertoire,” he said. “You can change food thematically in ways that are super easy and really develop your palate.” Jennings sources some of Townsman’s spices from Christina’s Spice & Specialty Foods in Cambridge, but he also suggests home cooks learn how to blend their own, like he does at the restaurant.
Don’t get discouraged
Despite his family’s lifestyle changes, “I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t hit Five Guys every now and then,” Jennings said. “That’s the thing about all of this: You have to allow yourself to have bad days. It isn’t about the diet, it’s about consistency. Consistency and not giving up.”
Above all else, be mindful
“I used to just eat and not pay attention, honestly,” Jennings said. “I feel like I was going through life unconsciously, just consuming. As a chef, I was so focused on what was on the plate and what was going into my guest’s mouths, but not mine.” The chef recalls pre-service meals of fried chicken eaten standing up, hovering over the kitchen trash can. “I wasn’t thinking at all,” he said. “But what you put in the tank, and how much, and when, it really matters.”
Jennings encourages anyone who might be intimidated by a significant lifestyle change to “just start.”
“This is maybe getting too sappy,” he said, “but time has become the greatest luxury. Having kids changed things for me, and I’ve realized time is the greatest gift. I want to protect that. It took me 41 years to figure it out, but I’m glad I did.”