BY MATTHEW JENNINGS
PHOTO MICHAEL PIAZZA/STYLED CATRINE KELTY
A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup: It’s probably the first meal I think of as the season changes from fall to winter.
Everyone knows that here in New England we get the best tomatoes in the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October. As the warm days give way to cool nights and chilly mornings, the tomatoes come to an end—but not before a few final weeks of ripe, tender-fleshed fruit destined for canning, sauce making, pickling and “putting by,” a New England birthright. These perfect tomatoes are also ideal for soup.
I grew up with grilled cheese and tomato soup. It was one of my mother’s go-to meals for me after I moved on from brown bread, Vienna sausages from a can and frozen peas scattered on my high chair tray like pebbles cast from the shore. I remember simple toasted white bread, Kraft singles oozing out the sides, alongside a steaming mug of Campbell’s tomato soup.
But for some reason, when I was around 10, my mom decided that Campbell’s wasn’t good enough. Or maybe it was just fine, and she was bored. I remember it being one of the first years we gave away a good amount of our homegrown vegetables to the neighbors, so it could also be that we simply had too many tomatoes and she found a way to use them up. In any case, from then on my life would never be the same: I had tasted my first homemade soup.
As I lifted the spoon to my snarled, dubious lips with a foreboding glare, the soup hit my tongue with a wash of sweet, salty and creamy all at once. It wasn’t the canned variety—this was something wholly different. It was chunky and rich, but light and velvety. I dunked my melty cheese sandwich into the soup and finished my lunch. It was clear I’d experienced something special on that crisp, early fall afternoon at home.
For me, food memory is very strong. It is something I’m often more at ease with than, say, remembering someone’s name or face, or even a significant date or event. For whatever reason, I have always been affected and influenced by memories surrounding food. Many are still vibrant and colorful, like the first time I got covered in flour at home making pizza with my dad, or fishing for crabs with chicken legs under a creek bridge in Southern Maine, or catching and releasing small-mouth bass in the woods out west with my cousins. We kept one fish aside and sizzled it in a cast-iron pan over an open fire while camping under a speckled Colorado sky, and I’ll never forget it.
I like to think that these experiences have informed my life not just as an individual, but as a chef and restaurateur. At Townsman, we talk a lot as a team about creating food memories. This is a major part of what we perceive as success—the ability to leave a guest with a positive food memory and experience that entices them to come back and discover something new, again and again.
This year, I have thought a lot about food memory. In June, after struggling with my weight for my entire life, bouncing from one diet and trainer to another, I decided to take a dramatic step to improve my own health. For my own sake and that of my restaurant family and my family at home I scheduled an appointment with my doctor to have a Vertical Sleeve Gastrectomy, or VSG.
The amazing team of specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital would remove 85% of my stomach. I’d never get it back. This was an irreversible decision and one that would change my life forever. I was excited, nervous and terrified. But more than anything else, I was ready. It was time to take my health back and to prepare for the third and fourth quarters of my life and career. I have things to do—raising my two young boys, spending time with my incredible wife and growing my restaurant team and participating in their successes, are paramount to me. I need to be here for all of that. I need to live.
But how would it affect my life as a chef? Could I still taste? Would I still want to be around food? Would those food memories that have changed me as an individual and professional cook still entice and inspire me to be as great a chef and leader as I want to be? To say that all of this—no pun intended—weighed heavily on my mind, was the understatement of the century. It consumed me. I was restless. I remember a couple of nights before my surgery where I literally didn’t sleep. I paced my kitchen and living room, working here and there on my cookbook while mindlessly circling the house, listening to the seasonal hum of early dawn peeper frogs in my backyard.
Fast forward five months and I can say now, definitively, that I am better. Everything about my life is better, especially what matters the most: my health, my body image, my stamina, my energy, my relationships—even my relationship to food.
I love cooking and being in my kitchen more than ever, both at the restaurant and at home. I find my work to be more focused. I’m more engaged with my team at work and find more pleasure than ever before in the little tasks: breaking down fish, making pasta on the dough table, preparing vegetables for pickling and creating new recipes to showcase the seasonality of our region. Food still excites me, but I am no longer beholden to it. I am the one in charge now, not my addiction.
As of today—thanks to a highly restricted diet, a lot of protein and some pretty strenuous exercise—I have lost 90 pounds. Aside from feeling physically great, I feel mentally alive and emotionally virile. I feel prepared to wake up and conquer every day with passion and a desire to just keep getting better as a human, a chef and a businessman. My synapses were firing on overdrive in this year’s “shoulder season,” the best time of year to be a cook in New England. As we bade farewell to summer’s waning produce and simultaneously welcomed autumnal arrivals—winter squashes, roots, cold weather braising greens, orchard fruits and wild mushrooms from the forests—we cooked with an incredible array of ingredients spanning two seasons, reminding me yet again why I am so proud to be from, and cook in, New England. In early October, with 10 pounds of late-season tomatoes purchased from the Dewey Square Farmers Market—a two-block stroll from Townsman—I made my mom’s tomato soup for a lunch special at the restaurant. I stayed true to the recipe I grew up eating: garlic and onions sautéed in butter, a splash of milk, a splash of heavy cream, a little olive oil and some chopped fresh herbs.
The memories flooded back. Whenever I make these time-tested family recipes, it’s like I’m tasting them again for the first time. With my new lifestyle, I’m learning something about myself every day, and this month I learned that Mom’s tomato soup has never tasted better, even if my strict portion control means I can only eat a tiny cup, or if I swap milk (or even coconut milk) for the heavy cream and olive oil for the butter. I’m more eager than ever to create new food memories for my new body, to embrace our seasons and to charge forward with a reverence for good, local ingredients. I hope this soup treats you well. Just don’t forget the grilled cheese sandwich.
MATTHEW JENNINGS is the chef/owner of Townsman, located on The Greenway in downtown Boston. He is a devoted father, husband and native Bostonian as well as a celebrated chef, author and advocate of regional and seasonal cooking