SHARON — Matt Jennings wants the tomatoes. He wants all of them. The weather has been wonky — when is the weather ever not wonky in these parts? — and Jim Ward, of Ward’s Berry Farm, has an unexpected harvest of late-season heirlooms. Fifty pounds, to be exact.
“Let’s get them while we can,” says Jennings, tattooed, newly lean, ballcap on his head. At his Boston restaurant, Townsman, he will slice them into heirloom tomato salads, dry them, turn them into jam that a few months from now will taste like an unimaginable ray of sunshine.
The tomatoes go in the back of his truck, along with squash, turnips, braising greens, apples. Bunches of zinnias; a giant, warty stunner of a pumpkin, variety Knucklehead. Crates get arranged like a next-level game of Tetris.
“This time of year is my favorite for cooking,” Jennings says. “Shoulder season. You’ve got squash and potatoes, but also 50 pounds of heirloom tomatoes.”
Jennings, 41, opened Townsman in 2015. Before that, he and wife Kate, a pastry chef, ran Farmstead, a cheese shop-turned-restaurant in Providence. (The two met working at Formaggio Kitchen, a not-uncommon occurrence; owner Ihsan Gurdal says there are currently three couples on staff.) Their macaroni and cheese won a cult following; the menu’s ingredients were pulled fresh from Rhode Island’s fields and waters.
“Farm to table” was the food-world phrase of the moment. In the South, chefs like Sean Brock at Husk in Charleston, S.C., were redefining their region’s cuisine around obsessively researched local ingredients.
And here was Jennings, serving Rhode Island beef-heart tartare, heirloom squash tastings, and pheasant with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. He was nominated multiple times for a Best Chef: Northeast James Beard award; food magazines hailed him as a culinary ambassador for New England.
This week, his debut cookbook comes out. Called “Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots,” it would seem to cement that reputation. A loving exploration of the dishes, landscapes, and ingredients of the region, it is filled with recipes that are personal while pushing the envelope of local cuisine: his mother’s classic chowder beside a version served with squid and squid-ink crackers; pork with baked beans, but also maple Peking duck; strawberry-rhubarb crisp with pork-fat crumble and baked-in-a-can Boston brown bread made with the Korean bean paste doenjang.
Only thing is, Jennings isn’t having it. “I have been likened to being the Sean Brock of the North,” he says (the two are friends). “I think that’s a mistake. Trying to create something, tell a story, when there’s actually a different story there is not doing our region justice.”
What is New England cuisine today? “It’s hard to define, like every other food,” says Jasper White, another chef who has been crowned the bearer of regional cooking. Well known for restaurants Jasper’s and Summer Shack, he also writes cookbooks with names like “50 Chowders” and “Jasper White’s Cooking From New England.” (If history repeats, in 20 years you’ll find a copy of “Homegrown” in the kitchen of every Cape rental.) “Look at the makeup of Boston. Eating banh mi is no different than eating a cheeseburger. It’s part of what we eat. Food always evolves.”
And folds in on itself. White brought regional flavor to fine dining at a time when restaurants were focused on France. “It was pretty groundbreaking at the time, and it was happening everywhere — in Louisiana there was Paul Prudhomme, Jeremiah Tower in California. It was a whole thing. We were doing farm-to-table 30 years ago,” he says. If Jennings represents the furtherance of that ethos, so do many others working locally: Jason Bond at Bondir, Mary Dumont at Cultivar, Will Gilson at Puritan & Company, Marc Sheehan at Loyal Nine, to name just a few.
The story of New England food that Jennings wants to tell is almost comically Puritan in its essence. It’s about hard work, the people who do it, making the most of what’s available, wasting nothing. It’s about relationships: What could be more local than that?
Take that squid-spiked chowder from the cookbook, a dish served at Townsman. Jennings doesn’t add the squid out of artistic impulse alone. (Although he is a visual artist, and he once sang and played sax in a band called Artistic License. “Does it get any worse and more ’90s than that?”) “I add squid because I want to be able to utilize bycatch,” he says. “Squid is ubiquitous to the region and underappreciated. The guys we buy from call me and say they don’t have what I’d wanted, but they have this. It becomes our story to tell at the table.”
The same motivations are in effect as he walks the fields with Ward. Jennings tastes tender sweet-potato shoots and thinks out loud: He could use them at Townsman. He could ferment them like kimchi, incorporate them in crudo. Everyone goes crazy for Brussels sprouts, but he wants to use to use the Brussels tops, too — maybe braise them for stuffing fish and folding into pasta. Ward shows him some fall fava beans; would he want their tips? “I’ll take those all day long,” Jennings says. These plants aren’t grown for their greens. This is the farm equivalent of utilizing the bycatch.
“For me, it’s always been about a connection to people, just by virtue of all the great things that weave their way into the fabric of New England food, whether it’s the coastal influence or the farming influence or the immigrant influence,” Jennings says. “It’s all for me a part of this place.”
He’s part of it, too. As a child, he lived in Milton until his parents divorced, then he divided his time between Jamaica Plain and Wellesley. He grew up in a cooking family. He and his father would have pizza nights, firing pies in a coal-burning oven in the kitchen of the old Victorian where his dad lived, cooking vegetables out of the garden. His stepfather’s family had a little fishing shack in ’Sconset in Nantucket, and they spent time fishing, crabbing, catching squid off the docks. In “Homegrown,” Jennings tells a story of going digging for quahogs with his stepfather for the first time. A few minutes after walking into the water, he cut his foot on a shell, putting an end to the expedition. “I remember watching my blood create crimson clouds in the brackish shallows,” he writes. “Maybe this is how I was infected with a love for the ocean. Perhaps it was at this moment that the Atlantic entered my bloodstream.” It’s as good an origin story as any.
Jennings got his first jobs cooking in kitchens on the Cape and Islands. He attended Hampshire College for a time, but it didn’t take; he later enrolled at New England Culinary Institute. After he graduated, he came to Boston to work for Amanda Lydon at Truc, then Stan Frankenthaler at Salamander. Then came Formaggio, and Kate, who is baking these days at Townsman, and without whom, he says, nothing about his life would be possible. They have two sons: Sawyer, 8, and Coleman, 4.
Gurdal remembers Jennings as a quick learner with a fierce work ethic and a jovial personality. “I don’t ever remember Matt failing at anything. He was like, ‘I’ll get it done, boss,’ and I knew it was a done deal,” Gurdal says. “You can see the respect of his staff [at Townsman], you can see the loyalty. They love him. He’s a really lovable guy.”
But never failing at anything is an impossibility, and aiming for it takes a toll. Jennings found himself in a hard place, struggling with food addiction, feeling out of control. “I had lived a crazy kind of chef’s life, and I had given attention to every guest that walked in the door the last 15 years more than myself,” he says. “They were more important to me always. I lost touch with how to take care of myself.” He hit bottom on a trip to New York; he remembers riding the train back to Boston and crying. “ ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ ” he thought. “It was time to change.”
Last year he had a sleeve gastrectomy, removing 85 percent of his stomach and restricting the amount he is able to eat in a sitting. He’s lost 160 pounds. He’s found the religion of cycling. To anybody considering the surgery, he says he would recommend it with hesitations. “The story that always leads this conversation is that I had a sleeve gastrectomy, which obviously is true, but I think that takes away from the real story of hard work,” he says. “I put in a lot of work to get to where I am. The surgery is just a tool. You have to really work at changing your lifestyle.”
The real story for Jennings is always hard work. And so here he is, in the fields at Ward’s Berry Farm, talking about milling flint corn for heirloom polenta, tasting Concord grapes warm from the sun. He smiles and spits seeds. “Nature [expletive] rocks,” he says.
He’s heading back to Townsman soon, where he’ll work through the night. It’s not for the glory.
“A lot of the time, we are looked at as a region that has never gotten its notoriety, its due, in the culinary community, outside of a handful of local chefs who have made a national name for themselves,” he says. “There really aren’t a lot. As hard as it is for me to say, that’s OK with me.” People still come from all over the world to eat here, he points out.
“What better way for us to be in love with where we live — where the farmers work their asses off to put food on the table and the fishermen text me at 4 in the morning to tell me what they caught – than to do that on our own terms?”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.