Cochon555 - Chef Matt Jennings on strong opinions, the Rule of 5, and pigs from farm to fork

1jennings and jenningsChef Matt Jennings, one of the friendly chef- competitors for Cochon555, is the kind of guy that doesn’t pull any punches. I like that. In fact, when we met in San Francisco at Slow Food Nation, the first thing I noticed was that our heads were bobbing to the same points being made by heritage farmer Arie McFarlen and others on the panel we’d come to hear. Okay, that wasn't the very first thing I noticed. It was his size and his ink, THEN I noticed we were nodding to the same points. Clearly this is a man of strong passions. I introduced myself. Talking with him recently about the upcoming pig fest, Cochon555, was a pleasure. Allow me to share it with you.

Matt shares his life and his business with his wife and partner Kate (that's her in the Sox cap - yay!) One of the things Matt first fell for in Kate was that she had strong opinions about food, and wasn’t afraid to share them.

What is it like working together? “It’s intense no question about it," How do you handle it? "Knowing what our jobs are and not overlapping. That’s when it gets difficult for employees. On the other hand, it’s really great to have an amigo there, staff empowerment and such - that’s great.” Remember the first meal you ate together? “Wow absolutely...we were working together at Formaggio. I was the cheese buyer from like 99-01? Kate was catering director for Cambridge store. I walked in there and this cute 6’ tall blonde made me coffee...one thing led to another...

We went to the Blue Room; Steve Johnson was still there. We had a couple bottles of wine, great time. Steve was right there cooking for us, it was like one of those gastronomic events - just a good time, incredible food. Second date was at Central Kitchen, it’s still one of our regular rotations. Have to get the buttermilk polenta with pomegranate syrup  - mind blowing...”

“Cowgirl Creamery - she was at CIA, we were both out there (in California), yeah we built a relationship around food? It’s totally cool to meet someone who’s as opinionated as me about food. I mean really strong opinions about the same stuff I care about.” One could do worse.

Another thing Chef Jennings is passionate about is his cheese. You can find him in the inaugural edition of Culture: the Word on Cheese. Jennings has been an active educator and promoter of cheese and cheese knowledge from the start. (From the high chair, actually, if family legend is to be believed.)

Farmstead was opened in 2003 and La Laiterie in 2006. "Authentic, American, Artisan cheese and food". The recorded message on the phone says “Don’t forget to stop and smell the cheese”. Honest food, sold over a handshake and a smile, seasonal, handmade food. Reading over their website it's pretty impressive, they make everything they don't source locally, they host classes, and more. You make the food, Kate the pastry. Pickles, even ice cream are house-made - what don’t you do in house? "As much as we can, we do in-house. We use “from scratch” as a motto and it’s both house-made and handmade, where ever possible." Matt is a cheese guy so naturally I wanted his inside info on his favorite cheese blogs or experts. Cheese by Hand? "That’s one. Sasha and Michael are pretty awesome - throw it to the wind, getting their hands dirty with cheese makers." (It's one of my favorites, too.)

Anne Saxelby - "NYC greenmarket Essex St. Her blog has turned into a newsletter. Super smart and has a natural sensibility about intriguing, not killing them with the academia."

"And Max McCalman "-- the first restaurant-based Maître Fromager and a Garde et Jure as designated by France's exclusive Guilde des Fromagers. From Picholine to Artisanal, Max is a highly visible advocate for artisanal cheese production around the world.

And what is the secret to a good cheese plate? The Rule of Five. "Max and others know so much and share so much, sometimes it’s tough for someone new, intimidating. There’s tons to know, I like to let the customers wade in slowly and like Anne, let them go as deep as they want. Let them decide how much they are ready to know or want to know." "At La Laiterie and Farmstead - we suggest “rule of five”.  If someone’s putting together a cheese plate for a party I tell them to get just five, a little everything. We want them not to be overwhelmed." Five is in your grasp. "Plus odd numbers look beautiful on the plate. With five you can do one cow, , one sheep, one goat; one washed rind and a blue. Let it be significant and special. Get 5 kick-ass cheeses.”

Speaking of kicking ass - let’s get back to pig... Jennings is not above talking a little smack about the upcoming competition, but it’s clear that he’s just stoked to be cooking with other great chefs who share his love of heritage pigs.

When I met Jennings at Slow Food we talked about the speed bumps along the road from farm to fork. For one, finding the farmers who raise the pigs the right way. But Jennings has found them. Next, it’s the abattoir or slaughterhouse issues. RI is a small state of course. That can work in its favor and sometimes slow things down. There are the established ways of doing things. Then there are those with a passion for taking them in a different direction. Jennings sees part of his mission as continually invigorating and inspiring the latter to help move the whole sustainable food community along a path that he and others would like to see it go.

Chefs talk about “utilization” which is how much usable product you get from an animal. When utilization can double if you get the right pig, at the optimal weight (160-180 lbs.), slaughtered in the most efficient way - well that can be the difference between profit and loss. "There’s a small but growing community who get together to discuss and plan what to raise and how to raise it, all these issues. The balancing act is to keep things as local as possible, but also ensure that you’re doing the right things by your relationships and by your balance sheet. Sometimes it may mean driving out of state to get better yields."

Finally, since Jennings was a judge at the NYC Cochon event I asked his advice for my upcoming stint as a judge. “Tips for judging? Deep breaths! It’s a lot of pig. In NY, (Food & Wine Magazine’s) Christine Quinlan said to me, “Well I guess I’m off the organ donor list now!”

Can't say I haven't been warned.