Skip to content

154: Meet the Celebrity Chef Who Pioneered Plant-Based Cuisine – with Matthew Kenney

subscribe to the awesome health course on itunes

He’s probably the best-known chef in the world when it comes to vegan dining. 

Matthew Kenney didn’t start as someone you would expect to become a leader in the plant-based cooking field. That’s because Matthew grew up in Maine, where fishing and hunting were a big part of his family’s way of life. 

But many years ago, before most futurists and business speculators could see it – Matthew caught a vision of where the food industry was going and how plant-based cuisine would one day explode into the billion-dollar business it is today.

His career is jaw-dropping for anyone who understands the food business’s ins and outs, yet Matthew is still growing. He’s planning more exciting things as plant-based cuisine and vegan products continue to grow in popularity. 

When Matthew first switched from including animal protein in his repertoire to exclusively plant-based cuisine, many of his colleagues thought he was crazy. At the same time, the food media stopped covering his work. 

Feeling alone and isolated, Matthew struggled through some highly lean years. Thankfully, he persevered, and his work contributed to the paradigm shift that we see today. Now, pretty much every restaurant offers at least a few vegan options. Meanwhile, vegan restaurants continue to multiply. 

Matthew takes us through his incredible journey during his conversation with host Wade T. Lightheart – who asks his usual probing questions to draw out Matthew’s story and what makes him stand out enough to become famous as a plant-based chef.

Not only is Matthew the world’s leading chef of plant-based cuisines, but he is also the author of twelve books and a best-selling memoir. He is a culinary educator highly respected throughout the halls of all primary cooking schools. 

As a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Matthew went on to work in upscale New York kitchens, opening up several of his restaurants along the east coast. 

His awards include being named one of America’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine Magazine. Matthew was also twice nominated as a Rising Star in America by the James Beard Foundation.  

Matthew regularly appears on various media channels, including all the well known talk shows, and presented two TEDx talks that are still highly viewed (link below.)  

In this podcast, we cover:

  • The ups and downs Matthew saw while shifting into gourmet vegetarian cuisine
  • What motivated Matthew to push ahead as a pioneer when everyone thought he was making a mistake
  • The traits that make someone a talented plant-based chef
  • How the Matthew Kenney Cuisine brand grew to world dominance
  • How an experienced chef uses art, fashion, and architecture for culinary inspiration
  • The dessert Matthew makes that Wade can’t get out of his head
  • A new plant-based fast-food drive-thru Matthew recently opened
  • How Matthew keeps his restaurants on the cutting-edge of vegetarian cuisine
  • Where Matthew sees his company going in the next ten to twenty years

When your career aligns with your passions and principles – magic happens.

No matter what industry it is, when a person finds a vision that aligns with their personal beliefs, this is often the secret formula that enables them to leapfrog over their career to the highest levels of success. 

This is what happened with Matthew. His love for food and wine intersected with his passion for health and environmentalism. Matthew didn’t like how many of his tastiest dishes made him and others feel like crap the next day in his early days as a chef. As someone who wanted to achieve optimal wellness and nourish the environment, Matthew found a path that aligned good food, health, and environmental integrity. 

Matthew tells Wade at one point, “The chef’s role is not only to feed and entertain but to nourish people and the environment. This is the most aligned path I have ever experienced. I have always been motivated by the fact that if I don’t keep going, I’m not going to be able to share this with people and not show what can be done, to teach others how to do it…I’m lucky that I was able to stick it out.”

Everything is creative.

Matthew is a true polymath with many additional interests outside of food, including fashion, art, architecture, music, and writing. His brand has become multifaceted over the years, as his new clothing line is about to launch. 

The pandemic pushed his business into other creative areas. For example, Matthew’s business creates a ton of content and recently produced a series of educational cooking videos for people to learn cooking skills online. The course was projected to receive a few hundred students. However, because of the lockdowns, more than 500 people signed up for the video course the first month.

Matthew says, “We’re always shifting our business model. Right now, 85% of our company’s revenue is from restaurants. This will eventually flip upside down, and most of our revenue will be products and institutional food service, serving huge campuses with our patented know-how. Our system will be seeing significant demand in every sector – hospitals, schools, universities, corporate campuses, and so forth. We will see huge growth online with 60 different types of businesses like meal plans, frozen food, etc.”  

Wade is super excited to have Matthew visit his BioHome, as Wade has followed Matthew’s career for years and loves to eat at one of Matthew’s restaurants located just a couple of blocks from his house. You will enjoy this episode if you are a fan of Matthew or love plant-based cuisine. Investors and entrepreneurs should tune in also to hear about the glowing opportunities ahead of us in the plant-based food industry. 

Check out this episode – plant-based cuisine never tasted so good! 

Episode Resources: 
Check out more about Matthew Kenney
Matthew Kenney Cuisine on Instagram
Matthew Kenney’s Wikipedia Page
Matthew Kenney’s Amazon Author Page
Matthew Kenney’s TEDx Talk: Crafting the Future of Food
Matthew Kenney on Facebook
Matthew Kenney on Twitter
Matthew Kenney Cuisine on LinkedIn

Read The Episode Transcript:

Wade Lightheart: Good morning. Good afternoon. And good evening. It's Wade T Lightheart from BiOptimizers with another edition of the Awesome Health Podcast. And I'm so Excited today because we have Matthew Kenney joining us. And I've got a great history. I'm going to tell you all about it, but let me give you the read off. This is I always find this sense that we got like four tiny paragraphs of an incredible lifestyle, but Matthew, you are one of the world's first leading chefs at the forefront of plant-based cuisine and author of 12 cookbooks and a bestselling memoir, a culinary educator and CEO of Matthew Kenney cuisine, a multifaceted lifestyle company, specializing in plant based cuisine throughout several unique markets. After Kenny graduated from the French culinary Institute. And after working in upscale, New York city kitchens opened a number of his own highly regarded restaurants in New York. And along the east coast, he's earned several awards, including being named one of America's best new chefs by food and wine magazine, and was twice nominated as a rising star chef in America by the James Beard foundation.

 Wade Lightheart: Matthew has appeared on numerous food and talk shows and irregular lectures on the subject of food and health, including to highly watch TEDx talks. Matthew, welcome to the podcast. Well, I was just talking before you got here and you got your beautiful restaurant, just literally a couple blocks away. Me and my lady loved going there. It's so much fun. And you really taking originally I got exposed to, I think it was in 2004, we had raw food real-world and you had your restaurant out in New York city plant, pure food and wine. Correct. And what was astounding about it is you took something that was people kind of think of raw food at the time was, you know, people with like broccoli hanging out of their face in a poncho on and wearing only him clothing and, you know, with crystal balls and you really made kind of like this culinary experience that was super unique. I don't think anybody had really done it that time. I'm curious of how your journey from starting out and getting interested in food and going through the formalized training got to that point.

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah, it, it was you know, it was really a long slow process and then it all came at once I grew up on the coast of Maine hunting. I wasn't my hunter I'm from new Brunswick, just just across the border. So yeah, so it was hunting and fishing and I don't even think I heard the word vegan growing up in Maine would have known what one was or something. But you know, I, I went to college and moved to New York city after college planning to go to law school and I'd always been into health and wellness. So I'd run, you know, get up in the morning and go for a run before high go to the gym. I was one of the only people in my high school that went to the gym. Cause in those days, weight lifting was supposed to be bad for, for, for

 Wade Lightheart: Sport. Correct. I was in the same situation.

 Matthew Kenney: You know, so the basketball coach was, you know, always pushing back against that, you know, ridiculing me for, for working out. And but I also got into healthy eating. The, the guy who owns the gym in my town, he had been a bodybuilder professional bodybuilder. And you know, I go in his kitchen and it's all like raw almonds and whole wheat, whole grain, pastas, and so forth. He wasn't vegan, but I just took note of that because he was one of the healthiest people I knew and started preparing my own meals in high school, nothing gourmet wasn't fancy, and it also wasn't vegan, but I really had an attachment to feeling my, my best health and wellness was really important to me, even with the limited education that I had. So I moved to New York, ended up falling in love with the energy around restaurants because New York city's cultural diversity. And I mean the, the pulse of the city is in restaurants and being slightly introverted. Restaurants felt like a way that I could be communicating with, you know, our audience, but still, you know, I could go stay in the kitchen if I wanted to. So I went to a French culinary school instead of law school.

 Wade Lightheart: That's a big difference. Right.

 Matthew Kenney: And became a chef and I fell in love with that. And it was natural for me. And spent about 10 years building a small company of restaurants and a catering business, wrote a couple of books and developed a couple of product lines. But you know, there was a, there was kind of like a dichotomy between my personal life and cooking this food with, you know, excess salt and animal products. And so we can go out and have a great meal and then not feel great the next day. And I really believe that it's possible to indulge every day and still have optimal health. So it was a long story. It took, somebody took me to a vegan restaurant and it was kind of strange. The food was a little strange and I left thinking, wow, this can be done in ELA in an elevated manner. It can really change the way we think about food and changed the way we think about vegetables. So that's when it started. And the first project after that was playing on pure food and wine.

 Wade Lightheart: Wow. And, you know, funny, you should say that you had that thought because that was the exact experience that I had in many of my friends when we got exposed to gourmet vegetarian cuisine, which you were really the godfather of that whole industry, which is pretty amazing. What was it like getting started in the industry was something that was, you know, I mean, it's a pretty intense tradition inside of like French culinary cuisine and you're going to break away and kind of do your own thing. What was the response like from a career path side of what did the other chefs think you were crazy? Was it well received? Did they like the idea investors? Why like, oh, well how did that work out for you? 

 Matthew Kenney: You know, there were some that were more progressive like chefs, for example, like Alonda cos came into our restaurant, you know, he, he came back again, I think a couple of days later. And you know, there were a lot of curious people, but then others would come in this restaurant, her Joe boss diamonds came in and he said, yeah, that's good. I don't get it. You know, in the food's critic from the New York times said everything tastes like a salad. Which is very, you know, in my mind, very narrow-minded. So the, you know, the media that had been following me and supporting me for years stopped, you know, they, they, well, you know, I don't know if it's like a sense of being threatened or that's what it seems to be these days. It's totally opposite. Like broad-based gets as much media as attention as anything, but yeah, the, the food and wines and gourmets of the world, you know, we stopped getting invited pretty much to events. We stopped getting written about the mainstream food critics. Didn't really acknowledge it. Consumers weren't ready to spend money on plants. So you had to sell things at a pretty low price and lose money. And landlords were, you know, rarely interested in having a vegan restaurant in their building. It's the opposite now. And the, the financial markets weren't supporting it. So pretty much every every odd that you can have against you was present in those days.

 Wade Lightheart: What do you think for you in that situation where you're, you know, you're building a career for yourself essentially, and you're passionate about doing things in a different way, and you're, you know, some, probably the people that you looked up to you are kind of frowning down on it, or it seems like, you know, maybe your friends in the chef world are saying, Hey, Matthew in Ohio, this vegan thing is kind of cool, but you know, I don't know where that's going. Great. What gave you the fortitude to kind of keep forging forward? Because really that's what a pioneer does. You know, the pioneer goes where other people aren't willing to go or take the, you know, the arrows or being a futurist. What, what, what drove you during that time?

 Matthew Kenney: You know, just a few times in my life, I felt like I had a vision for something that, that was aligned with you know, our best path and I love food and wine, and it always struggled with how bad it can make you feel when it's good. And I always, you know, wanted to attain optimal wellness and just, it was really just so clear to me that, you know, chef's role is to really not only feed and entertain, but to nourish and nourish the environment. And it's just, it's just the most alignment. I better, I had ever experienced this, this path. So yeah, I just always was motivated by the fact that if I don't keep going, then I'm not going to be able to share this with people and not going to be able to show what can be done, teach others how to do it. Looking back. I sometimes wonder, cause the first 10 years were really tough. You know, there were some very, very hard weeks and months, but yeah, it was just, it was just a very clear, you know, vision I had. So I'm lucky that I, you know, was able to stick it out.

 Wade Lightheart: Where did the, did you feel that things were maybe the lowest point and then what was the turning point, if you will, that, that kind of set your career to where it is to like, you know, set, set the direction where you start saying, you know, what things are starting to change from those early years?

 Matthew Kenney: There were a lot of low points, you know, when, when you pour your energy and creativity into a project and it doesn't become commercially successful, you know, guests, aren't appreciating it, having a restaurant that you feel is like the best one in the world next to something that you think might be mediocre and they're packed and you're empty, then, you know, those days are, are hard. There were a lot of financial, you know, near death experiences were just had no capital to operate at all. So you know, there, I don't know which point, but there were quite a few of them. And and then, you know, it started coming around about the time we opened plant for the wine, which was six years ago, I guess.

 Wade Lightheart: Wow. So it's a really long journey that, you know, that you went on that kind of, you know, wavy sign, wave kind of line. And then now things have kind of totally changed the, in another direction. You've got a culinary school, you've got this expansive. I mean, every time I go to your website, I see there's more restaurants around the world that are opening up. So what changed? What, what do you think happened?

 Matthew Kenney: Well, all those things that I spoke about before came around the plant based investing for example, is one of the hottest, you know, financial sector sectors. Now the media is well acquainted with plant-based and it's included in every restaurant lists, Michelin guides and so forth. Daniel whom from 11 Madison Park, which is one of the best restaurants in the world. It actually was number one in the world a couple of years ago. Just stated that he was going to reopen post pandemic as a plant-based restaurant with the exception of honey or something. So that's unheard of. So you know, the media's got their eyes on everything and it's a hot career. People are interested in sustainability. So we're able to draw like some of the best talent into plant-based like all of our innovation team in the test kitchen are, you know, Michelin level, background chefs, super talented.

 Matthew Kenney: None of them came from the vegan world, but you know, they see this as a new creative outlet. So all the things that, that were preventing it from working before slowly, you know, fell into place. And the demand of course from the consumer is a big part of it. And I think the product has just gotten much better. We, I look back at what I was doing at pure food and wine. I appreciate you saying what you said, but looking back, I'm like, well, I didn't, I didn't know anything I knew to make it look good and tastes good, but our repertoire was very limited, so I could build a menu, but now we could build a hundred menus because of the know-how and the technique that we've developed over the years.

 Wade Lightheart: So what I think this is really, I know there's a number of chefs and budding chefs and people who love to make beautiful food and healthy food. And plant-based food who follow your work, but might not know how you do this in the test kitchens. And like, what does it really take to, or like, I go down to your vegetable Udon soup. I have down here all the time. Right? Like, it's amazing. It's just all almond milk. And it's got these really subtle spices in it. And the news, like, what does it take to actually produce a dish like that? Like how many tests does it take? How do you put these things together? What are like, to me, it's just like, it's amazing. I have no idea how this works. How does it work for an ignorant person like myself who is not who appreciates the food, but doesn't know how, what it takes to craft it? Well, we

 Matthew Kenney: Have a few more layers than most restaurant groups of, of innovative, you know, investment in innovation. You know, everybody's process is different. A good chefs can go in the kitchen and grab you know, things and make something that's good, but it may not be a dish like that one, which has stood the test of time. That particular dish was actually created by someone I worked with for 15 years. He worked with me at plant food and wine, pure food and wine in New York years ago. But we typical restaurant, the chef is running the business and overseeing the menu development. And I always felt like running a restaurant and creating restaurant are two totally different things. So even before I could afford it, I started to make an investment in having a test kitchen. Now our test kitchen has I guess, seven chefs that are developing content for the restaurants, working with the chefs of the restaurants who have to be great managers to train them and brainstorm ideas. Of course, they're involved in the creation too, but we really document it, standardize it. Photograph it, prepare a video if it's for education. So we just invest a lot of time and energy. Like we opened today a few hours ago, we opened a drive-thru in Costa Mesa called vege it's between a McDonald's and a a to Pola and across the street from taco bell. So where's

 Wade Lightheart: That location exactly. Give us the

 Matthew Kenney: Well Costa Mesa it's on Bristol. I forget the exact address. This is about 40 minutes from here. So fast food. Is it actually more complicated than, you know, high-end dining because we can make adjustments in the kitchen at plant food and wine, but when you're doing it for a drive through, you have to prepare it in three and a half minutes. It has to be the same every time because people will remember that and the burger or the yeah. The burger that we do there, and we're not relying on beyond meat or impossible. It's all plant-based ingredients. I think that the chef who oversaw that particular project probably tested it 40, 50 times. Right. So by the time the restaurant opens, he doesn't want

 Wade Lightheart: To eat it anymore. And typically to do, to develop a dish, like if you're, how many tests would you have to do? I mean, obviously you've got someone who kind of knows, okay, here's what the outcome is that I want, but I've got to create these combinations to put it against. So they kind of know this goes with this, that doesn't go with that. Like, how do you, how, like, I, I'm curious about how you actually conceive and then drive that and then make the adjustments. Is there a standardized process or is it mostly just creative capabilities of the experience of the chef?

 Matthew Kenney: You know, our, our chefs are experienced enough and we've had the same team for a long time and they just keep getting better. So, and I know that, you know, first and foremost, the best ingredients sourcing the best ingredients is always most important because no amount of culinary skill or tools will compensate for that. But in our, in our test kitchen, we, I think we always basically take the approach of how does this menu feel when you read it, you know, write it. And we already have an 80% understanding of what it's going to look like and tastes like, just because of the common dialogue and certain style things. We do things we don't do perfecting. It can take, you know, it might work the first time, but you may need to do it 30, 40 times. And it might just be one little component.

 Matthew Kenney: It might be the cheese, like finding a cheese that melts or, you know, a different type of fermentation that, you know, has a different, you know, totally different chemical reaction. Sometimes we never finished projects like our cheese aged cheeses. Ryan did Jesus, that's been going on for a couple of years. And you know, I still don't think we have it down. So, but it depends on the product and the restaurant. We have a chocolate business in New York and our chocolate tier is really talented. I mean, same thing I could say, well, let's, let's do assaulted, you know, Marcona, almonds caramel nougat chocolate, and I pretty much know what he's gonna make. And wow. Yeah.

 Wade Lightheart: Oh, what do you think are the elements that make a great chef? Like what, what are the, you know, like if I was to talk about football or athletics or something, there's kind of like certain determining factors that would allow a person to be successful in those fields. What do you think it is for being a chef in particular plant base? Yeah,

 Matthew Kenney: I mean, there are five or six factors. I think that you know, the ability to identify a personalized style, which is much more fun, if you can really, you know, create a new path, I felt like liberated once I was able to never look at a cookbook again. Cause I used to get so much inspiration from cookbooks, reading on their menus. It took a lot of travel, a lot of experimentation and just a lot of maturity in the industry. But now, you know, I don't look at that for inspiration. I might look at art or fashion or music for inspiration in a, in an abstract way. So I think, you know, identity getting comfortable enough and experienced enough to develop a personalized style, even if it's always changing, which will and then, you know, management. But I don't even like the word management.

 Matthew Kenney: That's why it's, to me, it's always team, you know, we're, we're a team like a basketball team or being able to assemble a really good team. And you know, sometimes that means giving somebody more freedom and, and letting go of ego and control, which is another word I don't like. Other times it's, you know, finding somebody who you might think as a, a little bit of a punk, you know, but like realizing that they have like these like Dennis Rodman of the NBA, great rebounder. So we just had to make sure he gets back from Vegas.

 Matthew Kenney: And but no, but I remember reading Phil Jackson's book biography, but yeah, management and you know, a lot of it's instinct somebody he's a local here in Venice and he's a good one of my good friends. And he told me one time, one of the best lessons. Cause I think as a chef, we go into thinking, okay, if we have great food and the business runs properly, the service is good. The kitchen's running efficiently, then it's going to be great. But my friend said, look, you can build a great restaurant. You can fill the seats, but every business is the same. It's operations, finance, and marketing. And you have to be let me say that over.

 Speaker 4: Oh yeah, go ahead. Okay.

 Matthew Kenney: And he said, every business is the same, it's operations, finance, and marketing. And you know, it didn't listen right away, but I realized over time, like everything we do is marketing. We have to tell our story. It's not just about selling and getting pressed marketing is really like helping people understand why we're passionate, what is our narrative? And it can feel repetitive, but you know, it takes a while to, to get through. And so yeah, those are, but you know, but the great chef, I mean, it depends on the size of the business. If it's chef as a multiunit operator, things like that also important.

 Wade Lightheart: So over the last few years there's been an explosion I would say in your brand. I mean, it's like I see all of these different restaurants with your name on it and stuff. Can you explain people what's happened there? How did this all transpire from the guy that was struggling to get his restaurant open and following essentially forging a new path in the industry and to now, you know, it's just seems like home after home run hooked or home run, like what, what is it what's, what's happened in your industry, in your business now that's, that's causing that other than we've kind of assessed those economic drivers. And there's certainly a business component that you can actually produce a successful business, which is above and beyond just the food and just the sourcing and all that stuff. Right. What is that magic combination that's allowed so much people to experience your wares? I guess that's what I would say. Well, you

 Matthew Kenney: Know, we didn't talk, I don't mean me. It just means the society didn't talk about brand that much, right. Until what, 10 years ago, something like that 15, it wasn't really about brand and brand to me means something different than, you know, being branded and having your story a brand to me, to be really ready to scale has to be experienced enough to build a team depending on what kind of company it is. But in, in I, in my case, I had, I knew exactly where I wanted to go from the beginning, as soon as I left pure food and wine, which was after the first year or two, because I had opened that with a former partner. And we, we went our own way and, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do because I saw so much runway in the plant-based space, but I also wanted to create a company that I like to create.

 Matthew Kenney: And I, I like to do a lot of different things, but it didn't want to have competing interests. So I thought, how can I build a brand that will in-house everything that I could possibly ever want to do? Cause I love fashion. So where, you know, now developing a line of like really cool athleisure wear hoodies and, and, you know, organic, sustainable with a fashion designer, friend of mine. I love interior design and music and, and restaurants, of course, in architecture. You know, gardening, farming, I mean, it's, I like writing. So I basically created this, this framework for where the company would grow to. And you know, I knew that we would have six categories, hospitality, education, media licenses, services, and products and everything I could ever dream of wanting to do fits into one of those segments. So I knew we couldn't do it all at once.

 Matthew Kenney: The most important thing is to really get your footing and your identity and and systems in place. Like for example, when we sign a restaurant lease, which happens weekly these days, we signed one yesterday, we have our critical path, it's 167 things that we do between now and when we open and we can update that for that restaurant, but it took years in the industry to figure out what, you know, what's in that critical path. So the goal is to be as systemic and, and standardized as you can, which allows you to be creative because you're not bogged down. Like, oh, how do I do this? W you know, and what am I forgetting? And you know, you have to build a team over time that has the common language. So yeah, I mean, we were ready for expansion and we're very scalable model, the faster we grow, you know, we add regional leaders and we add to our innovation team and each department basically, which you know, is operations, creative front of house operations back of house finance suite, each part of the team is scalable as long as you have strong leadership and strong systems.

 Matthew Kenney: So yeah, we are going fast. We're opening about 20 restaurants in the next 12 months. I think

 Speaker 5: That's, that's a, that's a crazy speed.

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah. My team thinks that too. But 12 restaurants, we have a frozen pizza line coming out. We're expanding our frozen food line. We just launched chocolate and then we're doing a, a global subscription model, which be kind of an app with con content app. We're involved, like I said, in the indoor farming. And we have projects all over the world, a lot of licensing, like in the middle east. We're opening something I think, and in the Maldives and, and another one I gotta remember to call them. And [inaudible] so yeah,

 Wade Lightheart: So when you're licensing, how would that differ from your restaurant? Is that so someone says, Hey, I'd like to hire you to kind of design the menu or the restaurant options that we have at our facility or hotel or whatever we want to do that. Or is that different than like your business proper, like, like how does, how does that, how do those different things? Cause it's, it seems so funny that people think, oh, you know, we, we know him as a chef, but here you have this multifaceted brand that has all these components and these business components and licensing and it's and people might think, well, wow, there's so much more to you than meets the eye.

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah. Licensing. We treat everything like our own, except each partner is different. So we would do a lot of work with the four seasons hotels where in four or five or their properties and their amazing operators speaking about culture and operations, like their training program is phenomenal. I've never seen, you know, someone working at a four seasons hotel who wasn't friendly. And so w it's pretty easy for us, you know, we can do the initial training and it's going to run as well as we would run it ourselves. Sometimes, probably even better. There are other hotels where we're involved from the ground up kitchen design, restaurant design going four times a year to help support. So each one is different, but we treat them with the same. I think the big difference is the economic model. It's just royalty based and, and royalty based and the components that we don't get involved in. So we're usually not involved in day to day operations, finance, legal all of that. So it's, it's kind of nice because it's a good creative outlet.

 Wade Lightheart: You talk about a couple of areas that we chatted before that you're interested in diversity. And also I think was sourcing. What do those things mean to you and how do you, I guess, curate to make sure that you get the best products to support your restaurants cause I'm in the supplement industry. And I know it's a, you know, it's, it's a deep dive to really get the premium product from wherever. And you got to kind of go deep on that. And then of course, I think eventually you get to a point where you start making your farming, your own products so that you can guarantee what you get. What's that like for you?

 Matthew Kenney: Well, the beauty with the plant-based industry is that the number of categories that we, you know, if you walk into whole foods, for example, you know, most people walk through the entire store, right? I know exactly where, you know, we, I need to go it's there and there are others that don't need to go to the dairy section or the fish section or the butcher. And it's the same thing with our business. We, you know, it's mostly plants. So we usually find somebody who's got the best supply of, you know, local, organic, whenever possible sustainable ingredients. And to the extent we have any growing space, like we have a little bit of plant for the wine. We'll also supplement that with what we can grow, but it's really important. I'm not as involved in the, in the sourcing of ingredients now. But for example, a few years ago, when we opened in Sydney, Australia got off the plane, dropped my suitcase, went foraging, and then the next morning got up at 4:00 AM and went to the, you know, the huge produce market. So really connecting with where the food's coming from and doing that in any market we go to and then, you know, building on those relationships.

 Wade Lightheart: Super cool. So, and you're into clothing. So you talk about diversity. What does diversity mean for you? Because you're about as diverse as it gets by the sounds of it, you know, with all these different offerings that you're out and how your business career has kind of emerged out of your chef career. And you know, now you've got all these different areas. How do, what does that mean to you and how do you, how do you, how do you navigate being an artist and a business person, something is looking to make the world a better place.

 Matthew Kenney: I think, you know, everything's creative. I mean, you know, structuring a business, building a brand it's really creative. I mean, there are, you need to work with people who, who can push, but diversity's so important if, if one thing we learned from the pandemic, how important that is, the first thing we did was pivot. And instead of laying, you know, instead of furloughing people at our company level, we actually hired and went into studio right away and started filming. And we launched our online education business because everybody was home and wanting to learn how to cook. Right. So instead of the projected hundred students that we thought we'd get the first month, we had 500, the first few hours. So yeah, I mean technology super important. And I like it, you know, I like things that, that can scale without brick and mortar things I don't even, you know, AI, you know, I, I would try to like understand where all this is going to agritech is a big thing and how that can be applied.

 Matthew Kenney: So we're like always going through our shift, not just now always, you know, our model is always changing and it will have a major shift right now. You know, we're probably 85% of our, of our company is revenue is restaurants, but that will flip upside down. Eventually that will probably be the majority of our revenue will be products and and sort of institutional food service, like serving huge campuses or, and not actually necessarily making the food, but at least creating the IP and the know-how to fill what we see is going to be a major, a major demand in every sector, hospitals, schools, universities, corporate campuses, and so forth. So that will be, that will become really big technology and online, you know, different sort of online businesses direct to consumer, but we're involved in like 60 different types of businesses, meal plans, frozen food. You know, we're involved in a huge project in the middle east. We'll announce it in a week or so that will go on for a few months. So yeah, there's, we want to, we want to do hotels at some point, although, you know, that's come off my radar a little, I still love restaurants because they're easy for us to do now, but I really am kind of interested in content and what can be done with it.

 Wade Lightheart: When you talk about content, is that about like training the next generation and expanding and teaching everything that you've kind of learned and your industry, and then creating the next industry of Matthew Kenney's in the world? Well,

 Matthew Kenney: It's a, it's a good question. So what the funny thing is we're, we're doing the same kind of work in all these different sectors. So you mentioned the Udon dish, right? So if we develop that OODA on dish in our, in our test kitchen to typical test kitchen, puts it on the restaurant menu and, and sells as much of it as they can. But when you see that food on dish, I see it in the restaurant, but I also see it in our cookbooks. I see it taught in our schools of course, with changes, but whatever unique techniques are in there like that, that has a cashew cashew, hoisin something in it. So

 Wade Lightheart: That's what I would say. It's a, it's a, it's a whole lot of amazing, so

 Matthew Kenney: That that can become, you know, a product that broth can become a packaged product. And you know, maybe there's some technology in there along the way as well. And it might become part of a meal plan. So like, I can think of eight or nine ways that we can distribute that content and or parts of it. And so that's how I look at pretty much everything that we do.

 Wade Lightheart: Well, I hope that you you licensed, I think it was the fudge fantasy ice cream thing or something like that. It was had in ice cream at the, at the New York place. Oh

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah. I forgot. It was so

 Wade Lightheart: Long ago. It was so long ago. But the last time, the fact that you remember it that's the last time I was actually at the restaurant in New York was I think in 2007 or something, like if I forget what it was and I went the last time I went, I just, I had a bunch of people. I was celebrating a book launch and you went to the restaurant for dinner, which tends to happen. Like my business partner, my friends, we went over to your place for dinner the other night. And I remember walking in saying, I'm not even bothering with the main courses. I'm just ordering desserts. That dessert is really stuck in my head for years. I mean, like, I can't go to your restaurant every couple of weeks going out and they got that down here. Again,

 Matthew Kenney: What people did that a lot of people did go there for dessert.

 Wade Lightheart: Yeah. So I think one of the things I think everyone loves to a lot. I think people love to connect around food. It's deep into the social culture of, you know, just building culture. And I think for an artist, and I do believe that anything done at its highest level is artistry. And I consider you a culinary artist among the other characteristics that you have. How do you feel about how you put your personality or your energy or not the ingredients or not the menu stuff, but that real essence of you in that comes out in the food. Because when I go to your restaurants, like went to your deli just down the street over here and I had the bacon, lettuce and tomato thing kind of blot or whatever. So I used to have those when I was a kid. Now I've been a plant-based guy for the last 20 years and haven't had that, but you know, we went down there and my lady went down there the other day and I said, oh, well, I never had one of these and I eat it.

 Wade Lightheart: And I know it's your dish. I know it comes from your brain and it tastes, and it reminds me of what I had when my mom was making it as a kid. But it's got a whole new flavor. Is there some kind of aspect that you're able to get to that point? Because everybody in the plant food world knows your brand. They know the products, they know your restaurant. They're like, that's the echelon. Is that part of you? Is that part of your personnel? Is that your commitment to excellence? What is that? That you shouldn't say quiet. Yes.

 Matthew Kenney: We, we always you know, and the more time goes on the less it's me and the more, it's just the people I work with, you know, cause we've just been consistent with our style, even though our business strategy and our concepts are always changing and we've never tried to copy like the flavor of something. It's more about emulating the experience w the way you just described that is right. When, when we create a burger, I'm not trying to make it taste like meat, smell like me, but I want it to be, you know, have the experience of what people do like about eating a burger. You know, it's juicy, it's in two hands. It's like it's mouth feel. It's, it's emulating the experience. So without really worrying about the flavor, cause we want the flavor to be bringing out the best, you know, potential in the ingredients that's actually using, as opposed to using them, to make them taste like something else.

 Wade Lightheart: I just had one of your burgers at hungry Angelenos in orange county. And you're right there. So that's, that makes sense. There is, there is an experiential factor that I have when I eat at your restaurants. That is what you're looking for is, is that really what and excellent food experiences like a flu or like a meal is not really just, Hey, it's protein, carbs fats, whatever that we've kind of made this nutritional facts panel kind of world of macros and micros and this, but as a chef, is that what it is? You're, you're, you're looking at that experience in, in, in what would call my, is it the taste? Is it the texture? Is it the, it's the feeling?

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah, well it's all of them, you know, that's, the recipe has so many components that are texture really important, but sometimes texture just means smooth and creamy, like mesh, you know, like really good puree potatoes. And there really isn't any texture, but it is in a way, you know, it's its own thing. Yeah. I think it depends on the concept on the context of where the food is being served. You know, I, at home, like I sometimes I cook for friends like the other day made a huge pie, you know, and that's just something fun and communal. And so the experience of like eating that way and the aroma that comes from the saffron other times, you know, fine dining restaurant, you can put really push the boundaries and give people flavors and experiences they've never had before. Like with fast food or new deli, it's gotta be something craveable that, you know, that you want to have because you're, it's unlikely that most people would go plant for the wine is not the best example, but like, Vespertine, I dunno if you've been the best protector I haven't either, but you know, that's kind of a restaurant you'd probably go to if you like it once or twice a year, max, maybe just once in a lifetime.

 Matthew Kenney: And you know, that can be an other worldly experience, but like our drive-through, we want people to be, you know, it's almost habit forming. We want people to enjoy it, that breakfast sandwich and think about it if they haven't had it for a couple of days. Right? So the craveable aspect is, is really and that leads back. You know, usually the things we grew up with are things that are, that are considered comfort foods and so forth.

 Wade Lightheart: I think it was a Gary Vander check said if he could bottle [inaudible] and sell it, he said, he'd really do it. But I love the fact that you're capturing these assets as essence as an Inn it's I have those experiences and we were talking a little bit before and your intentions are getting translated into the world with a thriving business and kind of, you know, and as you get to that, I can feel the same aspect with BiOptimizers is now we have a great team and we have a culture and values, and you try to instill the best aspects of what it is that you want this business to do. And it carries forward through all the people that work with us on us. It's remarkable because many of them can do things that I can't do are far better than I could do or even hope to do. And yet they carry that culture. How do you curate that or develop that moving forward as your company continues to expand? Like, do you ever worry about maintaining it or losing it or do those things come into your mind or do you want it to kind of at some point go beyond yourself? Like, how do you think of that as, as an entrepreneur and as an, as an artist and a businessman?

 Matthew Kenney: Well, there, there was so much, you know, I have so many thoughts a day on things that I think are priority. Like, as you asked me that I started to get a little worried because we've opened so many restaurants in the last couple of years that are doing really well, but then six years from now, they're all going to be six year old restaurants, equipment needs to be. So we have to take the same approach with maintenance, for example, because most restaurants, you know, they'll do the minimum, they'll clean and, but you know, a six year old, seven year old restaurant, it's, you know, it's starting to get really kind of worn out and you always want to make it feel new. We completely redid the garden and plant food wine during the pandemic. I mean the ground from the ground up, it's a new, it's basically a new garden.

 Matthew Kenney: It's gorgeous. You know, it used to be wooden tables. Now it's all Carerra, it's much brighter changed the lighting and all of that. So it's you know, really have to devote time to some things that aren't always so glamorous maintenance programs you know, HR, all of that, but from a strategic perspective, we're really looking at the, the major components are scalable concepts, a couple of like really specific, like our high end restaurant we're opening in New York called Flores zone. It's fine dining French restaurant that we're building and international relationships. We really have a lot of work to do in Europe and Asia. And but yeah, I kind of know where it can go, but you know, things come up every week that we hadn't had an envision new ideas and new, new potential relationships or new opportunities. And we'll, you know, we'll pivot a little bit when

 Wade Lightheart: It comes to restaurants. Cause I'm always curious about this, cause you know, we'll go down and your menu will change periodically. How do you people coming to the restaurant and wanting that thing that they're so familiar with also staying on the cutting edge to keep your place new and oh, with this something new to try, let's go like, how do you manage the, I would say the rate of change and what stays and, and, and, and what evolves.

 Matthew Kenney: Yeah. I, I used to feel like I constantly had to create, recreate the menus every season and I would push for change over and over again. But I learned over time, like I said about Vespertine like guests, even regulars that plant food and wine, they're not there every night. They usually want, you know, you might miss that UConn dish if we don't have it. And I think and it's one of the reasons I like our company doing as much as we're doing because we, you know, we don't have to be what's the word, you know, too overbearing with pushing for change. We can use our creativity to launch a new concept and use our energy at the existing concepts to just slightly refine them. If something on the menu could be better or it would be more acceptable to the general audience then we'll change that one or two dish, but like plant food and wine. Yeah. You won't see as much change there anymore. We, we learned the hard way, right? We took the kimchi Duncan dumplings off the menu and took the lasagna off the menu and it

 Wade Lightheart: Was outward. [inaudible]

 Matthew Kenney: Double zero we've. We don't really touch them in you. We just do specials once a week. So we haven't changed the menu there and a year and a half.

 Wade Lightheart: Great pizza too. I love a load up play. So I'm familiar with a lot of your, your, your brands and your products. Where do you see the next 10, 20 years happening for you, your company, your brand, where would you like this all to go? You are new, you've got a lot of different areas that are really expanding upon the restaurant experience. What do you see happening? Well, I always

 Matthew Kenney: Envisioned us. A lot of people have like a goal of selling their company or going public or, you know, but there's so much runway, there's so much growth ahead in the plant-based sector. It's really just starting. And I wanted to build a brand that goes, grows beyond me that, you know I would like to eventually give it a name that doesn't mind name and like to navigate, well, I just think it will be better when I'm not working there anymore. I think it will be more successful, but who knows, you know, I didn't envision, you know, doing that, but I'm thinking about that and really just having each of our departments be a little more self-sufficient, but getting support from the, from the core. And I think of us, you know, like, like you'll have companies that will go public and companies that will sell and then others are have a certain style and their holding company for all these ideas. And that's more about what we're about creating scalable scalable companies underneath the umbrella or exits for our investors. Like we sold new this week actually to a public company, and now we're going to work with them to open 15 new delis over the next year. So those kinds of things are what I set out to do from the beginning. And, you know, as those kinds of opportunities exist, it allows us to be business responsible and gives us, you know, more leeway to, to play around with new ideas, kind of like,

 Wade Lightheart: You know, each one's a child and you kind of cultivate it, grow it up, it becomes a teenager fights back the a little bit, you kind of resolve all that and it goes off in the world and does its own little thing.

 Speaker 5: What do you think,

 Wade Lightheart: Where do you, where do you, when you talk about runway and I want to be mindful of your time when you talk about runway, what do you see for the industry of plant food say 20 years, 30 years, 50 years

 Matthew Kenney: Down the road? I think it's going to be, you know, basically a complete global food paradigm shift. So when I grew up in, in the industry in New York, a restaurant menu would have 12 entrees, six from the sea six from the land, maybe once in a while, there would be in a, you know, some, some hummus or whatever. That's already shifting, there were a lot of plant-based options now. And I really think that restaurants that do serve animal products, you know, 20 years from now, it's going to be a very limited part of the menu. So it's, it's a much smaller piece of the pie. But yeah, I think a lot of the foods I don't like to be too what's the word I'm too much of a an activist. I'm not an activist, even though I might think like one sometimes, cause they care about the environment and animals like stay in my lane as a, as a creator and as a chef. But I think there will be a time when, you know, eating meat is, is kind of like how, you know, smoking cigarettes is today. When I, my parents smoked when I was young, you know, it was normal. Everybody did, everybody did. Now, you know, walk down and have a Kenny with a cigarette and see what

 Wade Lightheart: I'd probably be probably not much more of a dangerous action that you can find.

 Matthew Kenney: And that's not to say that I'm out there pushing for it or being an activist about it. I just really think that you know, that we're going to see a major shift because we have to, because of the environment, because of the, the growing rates of obesity and, and the, the growth of our population and the inability to to produce animal products, to, to feed such a large population.

 Wade Lightheart: Alright, Buckminster fuller once said, you don't try to condemn or eliminate the old system easy, make a new paradigm that is so far superior to the old ones, drops away and it would seem, and of course he was one of the greatest futurists of the world. And I do believe that you are one of the greatest futurists in the realm of food. Is there any final words that you'd like to with our listeners? I know we have a lot of fans of you that we're excited to have this interview and to hear what you have to, anything that you would like to say to them as kind of the avatar, if you will, or this person who's really earned where your success today and it's well earned and you fought through this, anything that you'd like to share with them, that's important as a message that you'd like to carry forward from what you're doing

 Matthew Kenney: Well, you know, longevity is, is become my biggest passion. And I think that's so fitting that I'm here with you. And no, I just think everybody needs to think broadly because plants and the plant world, whether it's plant-based supplements or plant-based food or plant-based clothing, it's really, you know, scaling there's room for everybody to to basically enjoy it, but also to be involved in it on some level, because there will be a lot of disruption and it's fun to watch. So, no, I appreciate being here.

 Wade Lightheart: Well this is a great interview. I was super excited about it because I've followed your work for literally since 2004. Now Concord it with my you know, I'm, I remember, you know, getting started in the plant food industry. And then I remember my first plant-based burger that I, you know, I've given that up for years and I had one, I was like, wow. And then I first got exposed to your books and then, you know, having friends make that food and then going to your restaurants and then seeing this flourish. And I always think that things that are really good and wholesome for the world tend to work out over time. So I wish you the best success In your career. Continue on. Thank you.
Posted in

Leave a Comment