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Townsman Turns One and Finds Its Neighborhood Groove

"I just want this restaurant to party. I really do."

When chef Matt Jennings announced that he was going to close Farmstead, his beloved Providence, R.I restaurant, to open a concept in Boston, diners and chefs rejoiced — at least those in Boston. It has been a year since the New England native and his wife Kate brought their brand of seasonal, farmhouse cooking and hospitality to Boston in one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in recent memory. Below, Jennings talks about the hype and pressure of his opening, how he’s changed, and whether he considers himself a Boston chef.

Matt JenningsDo you remember Townsman’s first night?

I sure do. It was a challenging opening. There was a lot of hype, a lot of buzz. I have a pretty strong social media presence, so there were a lot of people who were interested. It was just an intense environment. There were expectations, not just from the outside in, but also my expectations of our team. You could hear a pin drop. It has been amazing to watch the evolution of Townsman. It’s been an organic growth. The team has settled in, and we’ve hit this point where people start to understand what their jobs are. They understand what the expectations are, what the quality of the product has to be, what the quality of the service has to be. It becomes more about fine-tuning the little dials than trying to turn the big dials.

Speaking of hype, when you moved from Rhode Island to Boston, there was a lot of speculation about why you did that and if the new restaurant would be like Farmstead. Did you feel that?

"There’s so much bullshit in this industry, and I was just done."

Yeah, there was a lot of ‘Why would you close your restaurant at the height of your career and move to Boston and do something so different?’ To be perfectly honest, there’s so much bullshit in this industry, and I was just done. I was just over it. Moving to Boston was a personal move. This wasn’t about career — well, of course it was about my career because I’m still cooking and I’m still doing this and I love this — but it was mostly about me and my family. I just wanted to move home. Everyone made it into this thing, like, ‘He wants to step onto a bigger stage, and he wants to show off,’ and really it’s not about that. It’s about moving home to the city that I love and cooking for the people that I love and having my kids grow up here.

Do you think any of that criticism was warranted? Do you understand why people would think those things?

Oh, yeah. I understand the buzz about it. I still think that people are excited for me to be back home. That’s still true, and that’s been true since we said that we were going to open. We were always very welcomed by this town and by a great community of restaurant friends. I’ve always seen Boston as my home, and I’ve always treated it that way, and I think that the town reciprocated that feeling when we moved back. It’s great, and we’re reminded of it every day. At the end of the day, my job is to this restaurant, this team, these guests — and not everyone else.

Townsman bar

Do you consider yourself to be a Boston chef now?

I think I’ve always considered myself to be a Boston chef. Well, I don’t consider myself to be a chef of a ‘place,’ necessarily. I don’t think of it that way. I look at myself as an American chef, first and foremost, and maybe that’s too broad, but that’s how I feel. My goal is to somehow move the needle forward on American food in one way or another. I think within that, there’s the context of being from Boston and from the Northeast, and that obviously influences my food, but those are more personal relationships.

How has Townsman’s food evolved over the first year?

Opening restaurants is very interesting, because you put something down on paper and you sketch and make blueprints around what you think you you’re going to create, and it ends up being partly part of that original idea, and then it also becomes something of its own. That’s how it should be. A restaurant should take on a life of its own and become a living, breathing thing. I think the direction of the menu hasn’t changed; we’ve always been grounded in wanting to create dishes that are product-driven and seasonal, and most importantly, delicious. Some of the intricacies that we started off with have subsided, and we’ve been able to really focus ourselves on the integrity of dishes, and I think that’s really important.

"It becomes more of a dance than you thought it was going to be."

In the beginning, I think you get caught up with a lot of presentation, and you have a very set way of doing things because you haven’t gone through the motions of a full night’s service. Then you kind of realize that it’s more organic than that, and it ebbs and flows. Maybe we’re using this plate instead of that plate or we don’t have this product so we’re substituting this product. It becomes more of a dance than you thought it was going to be.

Townsman interiorHow would you say you’ve changed as a chef since opening Townsman?

It’s been a great change for me because Farmstead was 45 seats and Townsman is 145 seats. The learning curve for me has been huge, and that was my biggest concern when making this move — trying to figure how we were going to translate what we did at Farmstead to Townsman in some way. I’ve learned a lot about volume and sourcing and what it means to continue to drive that type of menu in a restaurant that does these types of numbers. It’s a new game for me, and I’m still learning about it every day.

I feel like I’ve gotten more focused. My job now is a little different than it ever was before because at Farmstead, I was on a station each and every night on the line. I was working saute every single night and expediting simultaneously. Here, I get to expedite, but I also get to have the opportunity to float in the kitchen and work with cooks on different projects, be on the floor and touching tables and be behind the bar and talking to guests.

It’s more of a holistic approach than it ever has been for me, and I actually really like it because I didn’t ever really know all of the necessary moving parts at Farmstead. My job was to come in and cook everyday and execute everyday on the line, and my wife would run the rest of it. I don’t have her here, so I’m forced to do it all myself, which is actually great for us. I think the employees and the team really like it when I’m involved in all aspects and I can be as hands-on as I am now.

That’s interesting because it seems counterintuitive; you would think a smaller restaurant would allow you to be more in control, but it sounds like a bigger restaurant has given you more of a hand on things.

"I always wanted to be a neighborhood place.

Yeah, I think it’s also because I’ve been able to promote from within and really empower my back-of-the-house team. I couldn’t do it without chef Matt Leddy, who is really the driving force next to me in the kitchen right now, and Meghan Thompson in pastry too. Those two, with my help, really are driving the menu. It’s great to have them because I can say ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking,’ and they can take that ball and run with it, which allows me to build more of an intimate relationship with guests than I was ever able to before, and that’s cool. I think that’s also important for a neighborhood place. I always wanted to be a neighborhood place.

I was talking to a regular at the bar who lives in the Leather District, and he was like, "For so long I would walk this span, and there was just never anything here, and now it feels like there are neighborhoods that are being unified by this restaurant being here.’ That was the first time somebody said that to me, and I was like 'YES.' That’s what I wanted, and I feel like Townsman has been a great success in that respect.

Townsman interior

How has this neighborhood impacted the restaurant and how you do things?

It’s impacted us a lot. I think lunch is the best example. We didn’t do lunch at the beginning, and when we started, we dipped our toe in, and we got beat up because lunch downtown is not a joke. It’s 150 people in an hour, and you’ve got to be able to get them in and get them out and back to their desk. I have a new respect for that, and we’re doing things differently now to accommodate that.

"Neighborhoods collide right here."

The post-work cocktail hour was also a great eye-opener for me because we had guys and gals that work at State Street coming and knocking on our door and going, ‘When do you guys open for a drink?’ And I was thinking, ‘It’s only 4:30?!’ So, we started opening at 4:30, and now Wednesday and Thursday nights here are insane. It’s awesome. The bar is jamming, everyone’s having a great time, and it’s just a great kickoff to the weekend. It’s been cool to see. It’s been really cool for us because we’re able to get all of those different types of guests, and that’s why I love this location so much. I love the location more and more every day.

It’s funny, when I was looking at this space, people said to me, ‘Oh, it’s the middle of nowhere; it’s no man’s land over there,’ and in my mind it’s the middle of everywhere. Neighborhoods collide right here, so why not have something going on right in the middle of it?

Townsman interiorWhat does the future for hold Townsman and chef Jennings?

The boring answer, to be perfectly honest, is that every opportunity for me is right here. It’s about getting better every day and working with this team to create a restaurant that, God-willing, is here after I am. We want staying power, we want longevity, we want to do things right and not cut corners. I want to develop the patio to make it a whole new dining destination, and we’re going to be fully privatizing our private dining room which will give us the capability to do private events for up to 25 people.

I just want this restaurant to party. I really do. I want people to come in here and just have fun and eat and drink and have it be a little party every night. That’s the vibe that has been felt increasingly more and more here. Things were very tight in the beginning and very rigid when we opened, and I’ve been able to sit back in the last year and say, ok, I know what I want for quality of product and service, but there are a lot of different ways to get there.

I have an incredible team that I have to trust, and you kind of have to let things settle. Once you do that, the restaurant has an opportunity to breathe, and now it’s fun to be here; now people come in and they feel comfortable. The service is warm, and there’s just that overwhelming sense of hospitality. That’s a daily thing. That’s something that we have to be mindful of every day. It’s not easy, but that’s what makes it so fun. Down the road? Who knows.

So that’s the boring answer; what’s the fun answer?

The fun answer is that there are four to five different concepts in my mind at any given time that I want to execute. Nothing like Townsman, all very different. So, we’ll see what happens.

Townsman exterior

On Moday, March 21, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Townsman will host an anniversary party full of "stationed bites" with guest chefs each contributing two dishes — Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa), Will Gilson (Puritan & Co.), Louis DiBiccari (Tavern Road), and Colin Lynch (Bar Mezzana, coming soon) from Boston, as well as Jake Rojas (Tallulah's and Tallulah's Tacos), Matt Gennuso (Chez Pascal), Beau Vestal (New Rivers), and Derek Wagner (Nick's on Broadway) from Providence. There will also be oysters from Island Creek, and Island Creek's resident "oyster dude" CJ Husk will be shucking oysters and pouring his cider, Husk Cider. (There will be other beverage specials and guest bartenders, too.) Legacy Jazz Band and Townsman's house DJ Music Please will be providing entertainment. Tickets are $60, and the bar will be cash-only.

Photography by Korsha Wilson, except for the Townsman interiors without people, which were photographed by Hugh Galdones.


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