The city of Providence, Rhode Island has a relatively small food scene compared to some of its more populated neighbors, like New York and Boston. But that's not to say that there's any lack of excellent food in the city.
To kick off a series of posts about where to find great eats in Providence, I chatted with chef Matt Jennings of Farmstead cheese shop and La Laiterie bistro. (We are big fans of their sandwiches!) Chef Jennings trained in some excellent restaurants, and now brings his taste for artisan cheese and great composed plates to Rhode Island. We asked him about eating in Providence, his involvement with Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, and his upcoming book.
How is cooking and working in Providence a different experience than in larger food cities? Providence is a unique city. I remember growing up in Boston, it was where we came to sneak into bars underage, get tattoos, and maybe head to a strip club. A lot has changed. There's a verdant and flush community of artists, writers, musicians, academics, small business owners—and yes, chefs—who are all working very hard to continue changing the face and reputation. There's an incredible solidarity here as a chef. We all work together, share information and vendors, and collaborate. That's just how it should be in a town this small.
Like any city, there's a lot of bad food here. But those few who are providing top-notch cuisine and service are more than suited to compete on a national level, hands down. I've been all over the country. I've eaten a lot of food. There's some very modern technique- and ingredient-driven cuisine coming out of little Rhode Island. People should be paying attention.
What excites you about the Providence food scene? Any unique Rhode Island foods you can't get enough of? I'm constantly impressed and excited with the people behind the food movement here. For example, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a foundation that's built on growing the local food system, is now a burgeoning distributor for over 95 wholesale accounts. It's pretty dope. I haven't seen anything like it, anywhere else. We've met cattle farmers, apiarists,cheesemakers, maple syrup producers... have you ever tried Rhode Island maple syrup? It's amazing!
So, Rhode Island foods I can't get enough of—I'll stop by Jeanette's Pastry on Branch Avenue and pick up some calzones. The best I've ever had. Also, Allie's Doughnuts in North Kingstown blows my mind every time. These doughnuts are so fresh, they're still practically too hot to handle when you eat them. But really, give me some littlenecks on the half shell on my back deck with some Narragansett tallboys, my wife, the dog and baby wrestling in the yard, my grill smoking away and some Neil Young blaring from the speakers, and I'm a happy dude.
What has your experience been with Let's Move? What was it like visiting the White House in the company of so many other chefs? Let's Move is an amazing campaign. Kate and I are honored to be involved. We've jut selected our partner school and have visited it during lunchtime multiple times to eat with the kids—all I can say is wow. It's pretty awful. Right now we are still in the assessment phase. We didn't want it to seem like these fancy chefs were going to storm in and tell everyone what they're doing wrong.
Visiting the White House was amazing. Seeing 500 white chef coats parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the middle of the day was insane. I've actually kept in touch with some of the chefs I met at the White House that day. We check in on each other's progress with the program, and talk about what we are seeing and possible solutions.
What are the most popular items on your menu(s)? Our grassfed burger is a huge hit. We buy 100% pastured beef from a small farm that has been in the family for over 100 years. We grind it ourselves, serve it with housemade pickles, incredible cheeses from our shop, our own bacon and molten, crispy polenta fries. Hard not to like. Our tasting menus are amazing—my guys put so much work and craft into the food they make—but some of our customer base really loves simple food.
You and your wife/pastry chef have a book coming out soon. How's it coming? The book is moving along. I'm not into creating some precious, glossy coffee table book. I want my cookbook to get spilled on, tattered and handed down through generations. There will be recipes, stories, reflections. It really will encapsulate everything about us, and Farmstead & La Laiterie. I'm very excited, and nervous as hell. We'll keep you posted.