“I am a New Englander.”
Those are Matt Jennings’ opening words in his first cookbook, “Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots” (Artisan, $35), and they’re a sentiment that permeates every inch of this illuminating, gotta-have resource.
A four-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: Northeast, Jennings spent a decade in Providence, R.I., running his influential Farmstead. Two years ago, he returned to his hometown of Boston and opened Townsman, another high-profile showcase for New England ingredients and traditions.
A gifted storyteller, Jennings uses his Northeastern heritage as a prism, sharing the beauty and bounty of this historic, tradition-laden region through 100 practical, easy-to-follow recipes that resonate far beyond the borders of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
In a recent phone conversation, Jennings discussed his passions for cheese, foraging and cookbooks that get a workout.
Q: What was the impetus for writing this cookbook?
A: It’s important for me to get America cooking. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to create a book that gets spilled on, that gets dusted with flour, that gets passed along to the next generation. I’m a total cookbook addict myself, so I can say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sexy, coffee table-style cookbook. But I wanted to speak to the root of why we cook, and how food is expressed through relationships, and through places. That’s what draws me to cooking.
Q: You grew up in Boston and have lived all over the country, but you keep returning to New England. Why?
A: It’s hard for me to explain. It’s one of those things that’s in my bloodstream. All that I’ve been doing since I was 14 is cooking, and New England’s hyper-seasonality and hyper-regionality has worked its way into my food. That’s probably what’s drawing me here. I can’t predict the future, but I may be home for good.
Q: Aside from the similar seasonal rhythms, do you see any parallels between New England and the Midwest?
A: The most obvious to me is that there’s a real kind of earnestness and self-effacing work ethic, a down-and-dirty grime beneath our fingernails that exists in New England that I also see in the Midwest.
Q: Boston is a no-brainer destination for Minnesotans, which is why I want you to tell me about Providence. Why should we travel there?
A: It’s such a great town. For us, it was the right place at the right time. It’s uniquely situated in that it’s in the swath of the Farm Coast. It doesn’t get talked about a lot — I’m not sure why — but it’s a very fertile growing region that runs from Cape Cod through Connecticut. It’s full of farmers, and ranchers, and vineyards, and breweries, and cheese producers. The list goes on and on. That makes Providence an exciting place to be a cook, because you have access to all of these amazing ingredients. It’s a real up-and-coming town.
Q: There are a lot of desserts sprinkled throughout the book. Is that a reflection of a massive sweet tooth on your part?
A: So often, desserts are an afterthought in cookbooks, and I didn’t want them to be underserved, I wanted to celebrate them. I’m also married to a pastry chef. In the book I approach desserts from a sense of nostalgia, calling out the regional classics within New England: the whoopie pies, the apple fritters that are done in the style of apple doughnuts, my mom’s chocolate silk pie.
Q: You obviously have a passion for cheese. Where did that come from?
A: I’ve always loved cheese, starting as a kid, whether the tray on my highchair had a sharp New England Cheddar or Kraft slices. I was fortunate to get a job at Formaggio in Boston, where the owner, Ihsan Gurdal, took me under his wing and sent me all over the world to find products for his shop. I visited cheesemakers in the U.K., France and Italy, and that gave me firsthand experience into the passion and hard work that goes into these artisanal food products. I find cheese fascinating and a great expression of place. It’s like beer or wine. It tells a strong, compelling story through flavor, which is something that I seek to do through my dishes. America is in the middle of a cheese renaissance. It’s amazing to see the sheer numbers of incredible artisanal cheeses that keep popping up.
Q: What are the roots of your work as a forager?
A: I always saw various wild foods in the restaurants where I was working. One day, a friend took me into the woods and started showing me around, introducing me to mushrooms, and greens, and tubers, and I just got totally hooked. I love how wild foods can add another layer to a restaurant’s offerings, how it adds to the restaurant’s story. At our best, chefs are storytellers. The food is only as good as the ingredients that you’re using, and your story is only as good as the ingredients you are using. Once I learned that, it was game on.
Q: There are two chowder — sorry, chowdah — recipes in the book. Why?
A: At Townsman, the chowder was squid-based. Squid is a great byproduct of the New England fishing industry, and I wanted to take advantage of that. Fishermen would text me at 4:30 in the morning and say, “We don’t have bluefish, or black bass, but we have squid.” I’ll always take the squid because there’s always something you can do with it, and it’s important for a chef to develop alternative sources and uses.
While I was making it, Mom was looking over my shoulder, and she said, “We don’t put all that crap in our chowder; it’s just potatoes, and clams, and that’s it.” I asked her if I could put her recipe in the book, and she said, “Why not?” That’s what cooking should do. It should be a jumping-off point, a way to develop ideas and inspire conversations. That’s what this book is about.