General Education

A Celebrity Chef Shares His Story: From Culinary School to Top of the Food World

A Celebrity Chef Shares His Story: From Culinary School to Top of the Food World
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Ben Robinson August 30, 2019

"Keep grinding. It's the best reminder that persistence in the face of hardship account for most of the happiness we realize through our work."

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It’s hard to find a more profound, more exciting thinker in the food world—or perhaps any world—than Matthew Kenney. When you talk to the acclaimed chef and highly successful businessperson about his work, he speaks with a precise conviction and a clear understanding of so many of the forces that shape our lives. And also about yoga, and meditation, and architecture, and… well, you get the idea.

Today, he spends his days running Matthew Kenney Cuisine, a plant-based lifestyle company that educates and empowers people to pursue plant-based diets. So, how did he get here, after starting his college career taking pre-law classes? And then, enrolling in culinary school despite having no designs on becoming a chef?

Kenney’s journey is as fascinating as he is. See for yourself.

“I learned more in one six-month course than I learned in all my years of college. And I loved it. I had never considered that a vocational course would be so interesting to me, but it was an education I could put to use.”

Tell me about your company.

Matthew Kenney Cuisine, based in Los Angeles, is an integrated, plant-based lifestyle company operating in five segments: hospitality, media, products, services, and licensing. The company manages or holds an interest in more than forty entities, ranging from fast-casual to upscale food establishments, products, and media products, as well as several licensing and service ventures. The core of the company is its innovative content, focused on plant-based cuisine that is unprocessed, unique, and vibrant.

What do you mean by “innovative content?”

When I say “content,” I’m talking about the food or the work that we’re creating. When I got into the plant-based market, it wasn’t very refined. Vegan restaurants and plant-based foods are not categorized as gourmet cuisine, but more as food that didn’t contain animal products. We work hard to use different tools and techniques to create plant-based cuisine and products that are as elevated, appealing, and delicious.

Where did you go to school?

I graduated from the University of Maine. From there, I attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City, which is now called the International Culinary Center.

What was your favorite thing about those schools?

Maine will always be home. It inspires all of the work I do today. It’s natural abundance and seasonality were present when I was a college student, as was its sense of community.

After moving to New York and becoming passionate about international cuisine, the French Culinary Institute instantly attracted me. It provides chefs with the tools they need to be proficient in the kitchen while highlighting an in-depth education in European, specifically French, cuisine.

What did you study at the University of Maine?

I mostly took pre-law courses.

So, the idea was to be a lawyer?

Given the limited information I had about what it meant at the time, yeah.

When did your career aspirations change?

After college, I moved to New York and took a job at Christie’s auction house, thinking I’d take a year and then go to grad school.

Within a few weeks, I fell in love with the city’s social environment and all its energy—especially the energy that existed inside restaurants. It wasn’t just about food, but the movement, creativity, and excitement people have when they work in restaurants.

“Keep grinding. It’s the best reminder that persistence in the face of hardship account for most of the happiness we realize through our work.”

I learned about all the different elements of creativity and curation that operating a restaurant calls for, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in it. The macro-level—how you design it, how you frame it—or the micro-level, like how the music and food changes throughout a day. I was just really drawn to it.

I found myself exploring the idea of creating my own restaurant and decided to go to culinary school. I went only to learn about food. I didn’t intend to become a chef. I just wanted to understand what happens behind the scenes, in the heart of a restaurant. Many people get into restaurants without really understanding how that part works.

It almost seems like you were struck by the restaurant world.

During my first five years in New York, I couldn’t stop exploring. I walked every block. Every restaurant I walked by stood out. I would stop and look at their menus to try and understand what inspired them. I was a student of restaurants. I would use any extra funds I had to dine out and learn. I grabbed at everything I could. I read cookbooks and cooked at home at midnight after work. I wanted to dig deeper into that whole culinary world, which was captivating and mysterious to me.

What did you study during your culinary program?

I focused on classical French techniques: stocks, sauces, all the different cuts, equipment use, knife skills. We studied various forms of cooking and utilized classic French recipes to exemplify their techniques.

I learned more in one six-month course at the institute than I learned in all my years of college. And I loved it. I had never considered that a vocational course would be so interesting to me, but it was an education I could put to use.

I went straight to work after school every day and get home at 11 pm or midnight, and after 16-hour days, I’d still want to cook. This schedule made me realize that I loved cooking, even if I hadn’t pursued school because of it. French food wasn’t to my taste—I don’t like heavy butter sauces and cream, and all the fats and everything. But it didn’t matter. At that point, my brain was already processing how I could apply French techniques to my style of cuisine.

What happened career-wise after you left the institute?

I had worked in a couple of restaurants while I was in school, one of which employed a general manager who believed in me. He left that restaurant and took a job at an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side to try and fix declining sales after it’s head chef left. The restaurant had opened strong but was falling apart, which happens a lot when a chef goes. He agreed to take the job if he could bring in a new chef and he offered me the job. I was maybe 25 and had never even been a restaurant manager. It was my first executive chef job.

I had to dive into full force: create the menu, hire and train a team, and run the back of house operation for what was a pretty big place. And it took off. We got some fantastic reviews, and all of a sudden I was sort of this young rising chef. Eventually, it parlayed into opening my own restaurant and later, several more—this was before I shifted to plant-based food. I had kind of a natural career break.

“While it may sound basic, someone told me very early on that every business is the same.”

I’ve always had a passion for health and wellness alongside my love for food, wine, and hospitality. The health and wellness aspect became more prominent for me as I got older. Fifteen years into my culinary career, I found myself doing a lot of yoga and meditation. I was connecting more with my essence was as a chef, which led me to a plant-based diet. In 2002, I decided to go 100 percent plant-based (both in my personal and professional life). It was the beginning of this journey I’m on now.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

My schedule and location change regularly, but the one constant is that I begin work before 8 am nearly seven days a week. I never wrap up before 10 pm and sometimes work as late as 2 am. I try to plan my mornings to be meeting-free, so I can focus on emails, organizing my priorities, and making phone calls. Meetings are in the afternoon, and I do most of my creative work—writing, ideation, and thinking—at night.

How did your education prepare you for your job?

My training was all about acquiring the tools to put my ideas to work. As a chef, the knowledge of “how” is paramount. Understanding the techniques of the trade and the history of food provided me with a much-needed foundation.

Looking back, are there any classes that wish you had taken in college? Any that you think would have been helpful with your career?

I probably would have taken time off to travel before starting school instead of going straight from high school to college. I think it would have helped me get to know myself better and find what made me feel excited. I probably would have spent time on a lot of other things too, like fashion, interior design, architecture, or writing. I would have learned things that I could apply to business later on, as opposed to historical and legal details that don’t serve me.

What were your all-time least favorite, least useful college courses?

Probably philosophy. And I love philosophy! The way my college courses framed the concentration wasn’t much help. It focused on historical data and facts, while I like to be able to apply lessons to my life and business. International law wasn’t very exciting either because it’s so data-based. I lacked the context to appreciate it as an undergraduate student. I didn’t have the reasoning to applying that course to anything in life.

How did you develop a talent for being a business owner and operator?

My dad was a general contractor who built homes and developed properties. He was very entrepreneurial, and I never thought much about working for someone else. I looked up to him a lot, and I believe that I have some of his innate understanding and desire.

I’m also a student of biographies and business people, whether it’s someone you haven’t heard of, Martha Stewart, or Elon Musk. I’ve always followed innovators and learned from how they built their brands. Having a narrative and working to fulfill that narrative has always been a driving force for me.

On top of that, mentors. You can absorb so much from somebody who’s been in business. While it may sound basic, someone told me very early on that every business is the same. You have operations, finance, and marketing. When you’re a young chef, you’re focused on operations. You’re thinking about the food you’re putting out and running your kitchen.

As a 25 or 26-year-old chef, you don’t think about your marketing platform or financial systems and controls. Those nuggets of information were precious to me.

What’s your advice for students who want a job like yours?

It is essential to do work that you’re passionate about and in an approach that you believe in. Read everything available about other practitioners in the field.

Think about your personal goals, not just your end goal, but about what inspires you day-to-day. This mindset will help you lead the kind of lifestyle where work is not something you have to do, but something you love to do. You shouldn’t define your career by milestones or goals, but rather, by doing what you love every day.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?

It sounds generic but “keep grinding.” It’s the best reminder that persistence in the face of hardship account for most of the happiness we realize through our work.

What inspires you?

The goal to always deliver the best possible product to our guests and give our team the tools and, ultimately, the rewards that come with doing this work.

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