For Townsman chef and owner Matt Jennings, there’s a great romance in food. There’s a great ability to connect. And sometimes, playing A Tribe Called Quest while a guest slurps down six northeast oysters can help facilitate the perfect sensory marriage.
“For me, food has always been about connection,” Jennings says during a recent hip-hop brunch service at the downtown Boston brasserie, which now operates on a monthly schedule and sets up the turntables again this Saturday (February 25). “Connection to people, connection to place, and relationships. That’s what this space is built on.”
There’s been a lot written about Jennings and his celebration of local cuisine and ingredients. His resume bullet points are unimpeachable: He’s a four-time-nominated James Beard chef, the highest culinary honor one can receive. In 2010, at the age of 34, Jennings was named one of the country’s 40 Big Food Thinkers Under 40. Last year, Townsman made Food & Wine’s list of Top 10 Restaurants and upon its opening in 2015 was heralded as a best new restaurant by Esquire. This October, Jennings will publish a cookbook featuring recipes highlighting New England ingredients and his locally-sourced food philosophy.
“I look at the different people we buy from: The farmers, the ranchers, the growers, and I think bringing them into the conversation through the menu and to the table has always been at the core of what I do,” says Jennings. “The food that hits the table can only be as good as the ingredients we start with. It’s important to me to tell a story through our food without getting preachy. We don’t want to get academic about it.”
The intersection of community and food has always been personal rather than clinical to Jennings. It’s a known story that the bluefish tattoo Jennings wears on his arm is in tribute to a childhood spent fishing off the Massachusetts coastline. But as integral to Jennings core and lesser known? That, to Jennings, music has always been just as important as food.
“I’m a musician at heart,” Jennings says, “and played music a lot growing up.”
That may not be a complete surprise.
Before opening Townsman, Jennings and his wife Kate owned and operated Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island, for 11 years. (The two first met while working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge.) As a restaurant, Farmstead was lauded not only for its place in the farm-to-table renaissance, but for its monthly, live DJ’d brunches, Biggie & Brunch. It’s a tradition Jennings has carried over to Townsman, although he’s ditched the namesake allegiance to Notorious B.I.G. and ’90s rap anthems. Today, Townsman offers a monthly brunch on the last Saturday of each month where resident DJs The Music Please spin both classic and current hip hop — with a few surprise ingredients mixed in.
At its monthly hip-hop brunch, Townsman’s mix ranges from El Michels Affair to Janet Jackson to Cappadonna to Ghostface Killah
“Music and food have always been intertwined to me,” Jennings says. “So I think finding a way to bring the two together made a lot of sense to me. When we started Biggie & Brunch, we just wanted to do something fun. The best way I can describe it is, at Farmstead, we tried to be very serious about our food and what we do, but we didn’t want to be serious about ourselves. We tried to bring that same mentality to Townsman. We wanted to show that food can be fun and it can be entertaining. It’s multidisciplinary. Food should be able to entertain as well as nourish. That’s how it all started.”
During January’s brunch, DJ Bryant Moscote of The Music Please plays a mix ranging from El Michels Affair to Janet Jackson to Cappadonna to Ghostface Killah. He sets his gear up alongside a Make-Your-Own Bloody Mary station and across from the restaurant’s crudo bar, offering a view into the kitchen. The music bridges the gap between the darker orange and mocha seats of the restaurant’s lounge and the main dining area, well lit by natural light streaming through the space’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Small golden Ts emblazon each plate. No detail goes unnoticed, least of all the food on the plate itself.
This month’s menu features mole waffles with masa-battered fried chicken and smoked maple, grilled heritage pork steak, roast porchetta with green harisa, lobster benedict, and buckwheat pancakes with sausage gravy. A #pastryboard of three “seasonal treats” can be purchased for $15. The menu changes all the time. So, accordingly, does the music.
Moscote first met Jennings in 2012 when he attended a “rogue” cheese tasting offered at Farmstead in Providence. Cheese samples were given and wine was poured, although the space didn’t yet have a liquor license. From there, the two’s relationship evolved and Jennings asked Moscote to DJ subsequent wine and cheese parties.
“I went into it immediately expecting to have a playlist of jazz, maybe some R&B,” Moscote says, recalling the first event at Farmstead. “Chef said, ‘HIP-HOP.’ Today I see more and more fine dining and hip-hop is merging, in major markets. But Chef was ahead of the curve with that trend, especially in New England. I’ll walk into Townsman and they might be playing Eazy E.”
When conceptualizing the brunch at Townsman, Jennings didn’t initially feel the need to thematically match Farmstead’s soundtrack. “Music’s always been a part of me and around me so it made sense to me to continue to do a brunch that had a live aspect that people could really engage with,” Jennings adds. “Just keep it light, fun, and entertaining. It didn’t even necessarily have to be hip hop, to be honest. We thought about a bluegrass brunch. I listen to all types of music. Every single thing. With the exception of maybe, like, traditional polka. I have an appreciation for classical, country western, bluegrass, jazz. I love metal, punk rock; I went to a lot of punk shows as a kid because Boston had an awesome punk scene.”
He explains his eclectic roots even further: “I never had a relationship with hip-hop too early. For me it was Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, The Commodores, the old school shit. I listened to a lot of motown growing up, that was my dad’s side. My mom was a straight hippie and played a lot of ’60s music, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens, Van Morrison. I’ve forever been around music. My grandfather was a jazz singer in a band in the ’40s. I still have his drum set.”
Moscote laughs. “Sometimes I think Chef wants to be a DJ and I want to be a chef.”
Moscote then pauses to correct himself. Because actually, Jennings used to be a DJ, too.
Jennings became involved in music while growing up in Boston. “I was a cook and working in the South End and I had a couple of friends who I met out at Nantucket in the summer time,” he says, “who were spinning at The Muse. We ended up going back out there together in a house, in subsequent summers, play The Muse and in the fall, all move back to the city. They had a loft in Somerville. I stayed with my folks because my parents lived here. Then we’d still continue to get together and spin.”
He continues: “We actually started this little hip-hop group. We had a couple of Berklee students, a singer, an upright bass player. It was very much like The Roots’ Organix. Their first album that no one knows about, but it’s unbelievable. That was very much the vibe. It was very acoustical, jazzy hip hop. I spun records and sang a little. We had a great time. We would go to parties by this loft, over by the Schrafft Factory and these guys would just throw crazy parties. They’d do one night hip hop themed; another night trance. It was just wild. Wild. Then life got serious and cooking started taking precedent over that. Some of them went on to do music professionally. And I decided to get into cooking.”
Still, when Jennings talks about his relationship with music — like the high school friends he toured the pacific northwest with, playing acoustic rock and opening for bands like Vertical Horizon or the Berklee student who opened his eyes to jazz — it’s easy to see the parallels to his approach to food and his restaurants. Of his tastes, he said, “It’s interesting because when you go through life, you get exposed to different things via the people you meet.”
Townsman’s location offers a cross-section of life and personalities in Boston. During the average work week, Townsman finds itself populated by the working lunch crowd. (“Blood money,” Jennings jokes. “We get beat up every day. It’s a hard, fast service.”) In the evenings, Townsman has become a dining destination for out-of-towners who may have read about the restaurant in American Airlines magazine and travelers from the suburbs. A healthy mix, Jennings is pleased to see, are neighborhood residents from across Surface Avenue, in the Leather District.
Townsman always aspired to be a restaurant for the locals.
“Growing up, my mother told me never to come here,” Jennings admits. “You had the Combat Zone a couple of blocks away. But it’s changing now and we wanted to be a part of that conversation because we’ve been watching downtown turn into an actual community. People aren’t just coming in at 9 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. They’re staying and they’re dining and they’re eating and they’re drinking and they’re living here. And that’s awesome.”
HIP-HOP BRUNCH WITH DJs THE MUSIC PLEASE :: Saturday, February 25, and the last Saturday of every month, at the Townsman, 121 Kingston St. in Boston, MA :: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. :: Visit townsmanboston.com for reservations :: Featured photo of Matt Jennings and Bryant Moscote by Moses SG.