Interview: Star Chef Matthew Kenney Defies Pandemic, Continues Spreading Plant-Based Gospel
If you’re in the sit-down restaurant business, there’s no way this has been anything but a very difficult year for you. A pandemic-enforced, months-long shut down was followed by cautious re-openings, then closings again…and now talk of a second major wave of infections. Oh, and winter is on the way, making outdoor dining an even more complicated proposition.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think, then, that star chef Matthew Kenney would be hanging his head in despair. Before the lockdowns, his skyrocketing hospitality company had managed to raise enough dosh to continue adding restaurants to his already growing empire, which now stretches from Bahrain to Bogota, LA to Los Cabos, and also includes NYC, Dubai, and even Sydney, Australia. When the crisis hit, the energetic culinary virtuoso simply sprung into action, reworking menus, creating al fresco dining spaces, and moving up the launch of a new education project.
He also went ahead with two of his most high-profile openings, launching a new casual-cool pasta/winebar called SESTINA (it’s a type of poetry that dates back to 13th Century Provence) in New York’s East Village in August (already a hit), with another to debut in the coming weeks in Culver City. As for the menu, think cavatelli with market vegetables, summer bean and pistachio pesto, and gnocchi with walnut cream sauce, sage and pumpkin seed parmesan.
But he’s more than just another celebrity chef with global ambitions. Since around 2002, he has been the veritable guru of the plant-based lifestyle, preaching the message that healthy food does not have to sacrifice taste. He runs the Food Future Institute, teaching a growing mass of disciples the culinary magic behind plant-based cooking. And he’s also developed products that slot right into the very same lifestyle, including a line of Ntidote nutrition bars.
We somehow managed to sit him down for long enough to put it all in perspective.
Food Future Institute
How have you been doing during quarantine?
Better than I would have expected. This was pretty shocking in the beginning, but we’ve held up well, we’ve found a lot of strength in the brand—such as launching education, putting a greater emphasis on products, and, of course, opening up outdoor dining.
So you’ve been able to craft a new business plan, in a sense?
We’ve been pretty fortunate. We just shifted our priorities a bit. We accelerated the launch of education by several months. We had planned to start with maybe a hundred students the first month, and we had almost 400 enroll in the first 24 hours. Also, our openings for spring are now starting to roll out, and we changed a couple of concepts for these times, more comfortable food, lower price point.
Are you hopeful for the restaurant business?
I am. People are so passionate about dining out, especially in the kinds of cities we’re in. We have some places that are doing even better than last year, even without indoor dining. Most of our new restaurants are large, very open spaces, the kinds of places that feel comfortable and safe in these times. Also, people are focusing more on their health again now, where for several months it was just about being comfy and cozy at home.
So you’re confident in going ahead with your new openings?
As long as people feel safe, it’s going to be a very dynamic business. We even signed new leases during COVID. Also, not a lot of places are opening, so anything new gets a lot of attention right now.
You’ve always sort of defied expectations.
Yeah, people thought I was crazy when I switched to plant-based menus 18 years ago.
Tell us about SESTINA.
It’s built around handmade pasta, which is the one thing I cook the most at home. We opened in August in New York. Tourism is obviously down, so we developed a concept friendlier to the neighborhood, more suitable to takeout and meal kits. And we have a huge wraparound patio, with fifty or so seats. LA opens November 1.
People have been stuck inside for six months, wracked with anxiety, and that’s when they reach for the big plates of mac and cheese. Do you think everyone’s ready to get back to eating out and eating well?
Yeah, and that’s a lot of what we’re about. We don’t use processed ingredients, we believe in whole plants. At the same time, I recognized a long time ago that it has to be full flavored, and attractive; and we try to develop menus around cuisines that people are familiar with…then we just get innovative with what we do with it.
Have you found that the dining populace in general has really been taking to the concept of plant-based menus?
Yes, and that was my motivation from the very beginning. Plant-based food is overall more satisfying, and you can eat it every day.
Have there been real strides in terms of growth in the plant-based market?
There have been. I was in just a corner grocery store in DUMBO (NYC) last week, and they had like nine types of vegan mozzarella.
Aside from your preaching the word, what do you think have been some of the other big factors in that?
I think the convergence of a few factors have put in on people’s radar. With all the media coverage, there’s been so much attention on the benefits, not just health, but for the environment, sustainability. And a lot of capital is going into this market now, which helps to expand awareness. There’s a rising tide of consumers wanting plant based options; mainstream restaurants are doing plant-based tasting menus, all the hotels have options.
Even on the higher end of things?
Yes, some of the best restaurants in the world are completely comfortable doing plant-based menus now; and chefs are finally talking about how it is the future.
Is it just in America?
Actually, I was in Africa last year, and Dubai, and everywhere I go I’m finding plant-based businesses and products. Also, we did a project last year with Laduree, it’s a 130 year old French patisserie with locations all over the world, but they didn’t have a single vegan pastry on their menu. So we did Laduree by MK, a plant based variation on their brand, and their volume went up with the project.
Funny, I would have thought the meat-loving French would be resistant to such things. But aren’t there also mental health benefits to plant-based eating?
I personally believe very strongly that there are, though I don’t say too much about it…because I stay in my lane as a chef. But I’ve personally noticed, and so many others have said to me about the mental clarity, because the body is not using all that energy to digest something that is hard for us to process. More energy is going to our minds, and we’re sleeping better.
That makes perfect sense.
There’s also an emotional aspect to it, when you know that you’re eating something that’s good for you, and is good for the planet, there’s a sense of peace that comes with that.
Sure, when you feel like you’re doing the right thing, it’s good for your psyche.