Matthew Kenney, Plant-Based Chef + Business Guru
Sakara has worked with Michelin-starred chefs for years to co-create dishes that are as delicious as they are good for you. So if Sakara is the Queen of the Plant-Based Kingdom (#QueenSakara), then that makes Matthew Kenney the King. With 2 James Beard nominations, 5 plant-based restaurants under his belt, and another half a dozen opening up this year, Matthew Kenney knows a thing or two about tapping into the power of plants to create innovative, gourmet, and downright delicious meals. So, how did Matthew become the go-to culinary genius in this Plant-Based Kingdom? How did Matthew and Sakara meet? And, what does this mean for the future of Sakaralites' bodies and taste buds? Let's get started.
THE JOURNEY TO MATTHEW KENNEY CUISINE
"I grew up in Maine, which was very natural and seasonal, so I was always really into health and wellness. I moved to New York planning to go to law school, but when I discovered the New York restaurant scene, I changed my entire life path and decided I wanted to own a restaurant in New York because that way, I could see my friends while working — it was very social. I just loved the creativity behind it — it’s like producing a film, because you’re choosing design and everything from food, to sound, to wine.
I went to the French Culinary Institute in SoHo and took a job in a Sicilian restaurant, and then, I started working at a three-star French restaurant. I was never planning to be a chef. I would cook this really healthy food for myself at home and go run a 10K, but it all came so seamlessly for me that I ended up being a head chef and an executive chef within two years. Within three years of graduating from school, I had partners who funded my first restaurant on the Upper East Side — it was called Matthew’s. They agreed to do it if I put my name on it, and it was really successful. We got two stars in the Times and never had a bad review in eight years. But after two years, I had an opportunity to buy out my partners and start expanding to open a number of other businesses, mostly in New York.
After about 15 years as a traditional chef, I realized that my own life path was going plant-based. Every day, mostly through yoga, I began to think more and more about how what I’m eating impacts myself and the environment. It got to the point where plants were all I really cared about tasting. Nothing else felt much like food anymore, so I decided to align my personal passion for health and wellness with my culinary passion and experience. I started producing more raw, plant-based food.
That was 13 years ago. And since then, it’s evolved a lot, but I’ve kept the same vision and learned a lot more about how to produce the food. In the process, I realized that it’s not just about the restaurants and serving people, but about educating people and helping them change the world through eating in a healthier way. And at the same time, I wanted to make a business out of it, because I love creating and entertaining and traveling."
"Our first school started in Oklahoma in 2009. In those days, there wasn’t a lot of financial support for innovative, plant-based businesses. I had somebody offer me a deal in Oklahoma City — it was an attorney who happened to be a vegan, and she really wanted to do something for her city, which was at the top of the list for obesity and heart disease year after year. It would be the first state-accredited plant-based culinary school in the world. We opened with six students. We thought they’d come from California and New York, but that was a little optimistic, because New Yorkers don’t really go to Oklahoma for school, unless you’re counting football. Same thing for California — they’re like, ‘Why would I go to Oklahoma for health food?’
We struggled the first year — we’d have some months of no students, some months of just two students. And then in the second year, we started to see students from Tokyo and Paris and Rome, and by year three, our classes were full and 90% international. I think that throughout the entire four years that we were there, we had one student from Oklahoma, maybe two. Not too many from New York and California, but we built an international audience. And then at a certain point, we decided to move to California. It was a long road to get to where I was trying to go."
"I think of the schooling as entertainment for students, in a way. I want them to be so attracted to it, that they’ll be passionate about sharing everything when they leave. When I went to culinary school, we started with 15 students and only eight actually graduated. It was all about technique. Now in our Culinary Academy, we’ve only had maybe five students quit out of 4,000, and it’s not just about technique, because everything starts with great organic ingredients — the best ingredients that we can find. It’s the opposite of what I experienced in school. Our recipes have to be cutting edge and innovative, and the curriculum is of course innovative as well. We want to infuse that passion into their curriculum so that they leave confident enough to go out and open their own businesses, and share what they learned with someone else. I feel that if we can give our students a great education and a great experience, then the rest will take care of itself."
THE ART OF CREATING THE MENU
"We really think about the plant and how to bring it to life. We think, ‘What’s the biggest and best thing we can do to really celebrate the essence of the plant?’ That's evolved a lot — it's not something that first came natural, because we’ve been trained to do the opposite. That’s only come about through experience, and just experimenting.
We don’t use any of those fake meats — no seitan, no tofu. Our concept at Arata in Maine has tempeh, but we make it in-house and use it in one dish. That’s it. It’s crazy how you can go to a vegetarian restaurant today and not even experience one vegetable.
I’m mostly inspired by where we’re located, too. The restaurants serve as a foundation for the ideas we create, and then those ideas flow into our education. We’re always opening new restaurants, so it gives us a lot of new material. For example, even though our restaurant in Miami is a lot like Plant Food and Wine in LA, we do Brazilian-inspired dishes, and a tamale and a great hearts of palm ceviche with avocado and amarillo chiles inspired by Peru. We looked to South America, Central America and Latin America for inspiration. I’m really loving the chilies, and in the summer, I just love anything with tomatoes and avocados — the classics. It’s always all about the ingredients, because things are changing seasonally."
"We have plenty going on right now — we’re a lifestyle company with five segments that are all integrated. We’re in hospitality, which at the moment consists of five restaurants, and we have another half a dozen opening this year in Hong Kong, Bahrain, Beverly Hills, and another in LA and in New York. We may do something else in Miami. We’re expanding in the markets that we’re already in, and driving into new markets at the same time. In hospitality, we have a new wellness business called Inner Sanctuary, which is a wellness experience through a yoga retreat involving plant-based meals — it’s in Hua Hin, Thailand.
That’s all the hospitality aspect, but education is also really big for us in our five physical locations — LA, New York, Miami, Thailand, and the coast of Maine. We’re calling it Food Future Class. And then we have an online school, which is pretty big as well. We’re doing a documentary with James Cameron about the impact that eating animals has on the environment."
TO RAW OR NOT TO RAW?
"Raw food is still my passion. I love it, but of course, there have to be transitional foods, because sometimes it’s just too cold to eat all raw. We now have our pizza place in New York, 00+Co. Our restaurant in Miami is raw, but we don’t market it as such. I think that we went from one extreme in being all raw, to using a lot of cooked foods, to now just integrating the best of the two. At the end of the day, it’s really about whatever the concept of that restaurant is, and what the best menu is for that demographic."
MK CUISINE X SAKARA LIFE
"I think that anytime we’re involved with food or creating food, we really try to do the best work that we can within that segment or market, and Sakara food is super colorful and the entire brand is very alive. We had to keep that spirit in mind in this new way, because the food is being transported, which makes it more challenging. Our role is to use whatever techniques and ideas that we’ve had in our experience to fulfill your brand exactly. We didn’t come into it with the idea of change, but to just enhance and give fresh ideas.
It’s been great for us, because we never knew that we could create something that could still be so beautiful even after being shipped, and that’s important, because not everyone has access to the Union Square Farmer’s market, or Plant Food and Wine.
Just like with educating people, you’re able to get food to people who don't have the ability — or the time — to make it. That is so important. It fits right in with our goal to change the way that everybody eats — however that has to happen."