LEXINGTON — The wallpaper shouldn’t work. It’s black and covered with big stars. Making matters worse, it’s clinging to the walls of a historic Lexington Inn. Down the corridor and around the corner, the situation isn’t much better. An entryway is papered with an equally questionable choice. This wallpaper is flocked. As in lime-green 1970s flocked. It’s practically an affront to the architecture it occupies.
But somehow (and seriously, I’m not sure how it’s possible) it works. Trisha Pérez Kennealy, the owner of the Inn at Hastings Park, explains that these choices were all quite deliberate, yes, even the flocked paper, which looks much cooler than it sounds. The main building of the inn was constructed in 1888 but there is nary a doily in sight. She and interior designer Robin Gannon made decor choices that belie the building, and the town. But the unlikely contrast between the historic property and the modern decor fits Kennealy’s life of dissimilitudes.
The Harvard alum and Harvard Business School MBA left a career in finance to attend Le Cordon Bleu, around the time that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed priorities for many. But as she describes it, the radical career shift was inevitable. Her joy was not riding out the dot-com boom and bust, it was in entertaining. She would throw large dinner parties in her tiny New York City apartment. When she went to the Hamptons with friends, she was the one who (happily) stayed behind to make dinner for 20 people while everyone else hit the beach.
“I think food, and bringing people together, has always been such an important part of my life and culture that it was inevitable it would also become my career,” she said.
Those skills have also earned the Inn at Hastings Park a spot in the coveted Relais & Châteaux hotel group. A collection of individually owned hotels, usually located in landmark buildings, that are chosen for their emphasis on “character, courtesy, calm, charm, and cuisine.” The inn is the only Boston-area property in the collection. Think of it as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for ultra posh hotels and restaurants.
Kennealy’s passion for cooking led her to open the inn’s restaurant, Town Meeting Bistro. While she’s not the executive chef (she’s already more than occupied running both the inn and the restaurant), she works closely on the menu, and many of the ingredients come either from her own garden or from local farmers.
She said her love of food and bringing people together comes from her upbringing, which is another study in contrasts. She refers to herself as a real-life “West Side Story.” Her Jewish mother met her Puerto Rican father when they were teenagers, and Kennealy grew up in Puerto Rico with the best of both cultures until she was 12. Back in the Bronx, family seders were packed tight with friends and relatives.
“It takes a while for people to warm up to other people [in New England],” she said. “And so I would say that my upbringing in Puerto Rico completely has influenced my style of hospitality. The same with my Jewish background. One of my friends said, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered, we beat the odds, and now we’re going to have a meal.’ Everything is meant to be celebrated with food.”
She and her husband, Mike Kennealy, Massachusetts’ Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, are raising their three children “in an Irish-Catholic-Jewish-Puerto Rican household,” she said with a broad smile.
When the Inn at Hastings Park was shuttered during the pandemic, Kennealy again turned to food to bring people together, this time virtually. She put her Le Cordon Bleu training to work and began offering online cooking classes. If she couldn’t use her Puerto Rican-Jewish hospitality and professional culinary training in person, she decided to reach out to quarantine-bound families who were looking to learn new recipes and cooking techniques. She even started work on a cookbook. A pandemic can’t keep a good hostess down.
The COVID cooking classes proved to be so popular that her students have made the jump to learning in Kennealy’s kitchen. Now that the inn and restaurant have reopened, guests can book immersive cooking weekends, which include a farm and history tour, a four-course tasting dinner with wine pairings, a picnic, and one dinner that they’ll cook for themselves. It’s 20 hours of instruction, plus an endless amount of food. Prices for the weekend, which includes all food and lodging, begin at $1,400.
“During the pandemic, I think we all gained a new appreciation for food, and the power it has to bring us together.” she said. “I think that’s a lesson that’s going to stay with us for a while. Culturally, for me, it’s always been there. I’m thrilled to have a chance to share it.”